Imagine you are at a theme park that features an old wooden rickety roller coaster, far past its prime. You know you hate this ride and you will ultimately end up suffering from a severe case of whiplash, but you just can’t pull yourself together and say no because of nostalgia or something. Well, that is what the overnight, 8-hour train ride from Hanoi to Sapa is like. A train that moves far too much in many directions causing you to lose your footing every time you stand up. And you can’t not stand up because, you know, nature calls. We both somehow managed to get about 3 hours of sleep each but our dreams were most definitely plagued with nightmares that can only be induced by hoping you don’t die in your sleep.
We survived, luckily. At 5 a.m. our train arrived in Sapa and we each took a deep sigh of relief. Thankfully, we’d only have to do that again 1 more time on our way back to Hanoi. Our hotel had informed us that someone would greet us at the train station to take us on a minibus into Sapa where we would begin our trek and homestay. We exited the platform and entered the station, looking for “Douglas Farrell” on any of the many placards being held in our faces. No luck. We exited the station and looked around some more. Still no luck. But, Doug did spot something that could just pass for his name so we approached the man holding a “Douglas Furllelte” sign with our fingers crossed. Some back and forth in Vietnamese between the man and someone on his cell phone with Doug interjecting every so often finally ended in us now being the Furllelte family we then had to be for the duration of our stay in Sapa. He wisked us away to a nearby minivan where 16 of us squished into the seats with all of our luggage on our laps. It was not comfortable in the slightest, but to make matters worse the ride we then went on consisted of an hour of switchbacks up a narrow road. Granted the views were beautiful as we began passing terraced rice paddies, but Lynn, and also Doug in this case, couldn’t help but narrowly escape car sickness. Had the ride been any longer, no promises would have been made. Luckily we were dropped off at our hotel an hour later, thankful that we would not need to be in a car for another 32 hours.
The hotel greeted us and we did confirm that we were, in fact, the intended Furllelte family. They offered us a buffet breakfast and a room to shower which we promptly accepted. The buffet was plentiful but screaming children convinced us that we didn’t need to be there too long. The shower and hotel, really, weren’t in that great of condition, but we gladly took advantage of it. We then waited for 30 minutes or so for all the other people who would ultimately join us on our 2 day trek of Sapa. When it was finally time to convene, our guide, Ming, counted that there were 13 of us (2 French, 4 Dutch, 1 Trinidadian, 1 Filipino, and 5 Americans) and we set off. Leaving the hotel we were promptly greeted with a number of tribeswomen, evident from their woven tunics, brightly covered belts, and what appeared to be legwarmers held up by a string of cloth. We all expected them to bombard us, asking us to purchase this or that, but instead they kept their distance. As we progressed down the hill, Ming informed us that these women were from the Black H’mong tribe who live in a village we’d be passing through that day. Proceeding down a paved path and onto the start of our 14 km trek, we were all taken with the beauty of the trellised paddies in the mist. But every so often one of the Black H’mong women would approach you and ask “What’s your name?” followed by “Where you from?” In a lot of cases, this was then followed up with “Girlfriend?” directed at Doug. We introduced ourselves to 3 or 4 of them who seemed to be making there way through the group, but Lynn was catching on. Prior to coming to Sapa she had read that these women will walk the entire way with you (in sandals, mind you) helping whenever they can with the knowledge that when you arrive at their village you will feel the need to buy a craft from them. The women ultimately settled on a single individual or set of individuals in the group to ensure that they were being taken care of. Determined to not be forced into their scheme, both of us made sure to keep our distance and supported ourselves as necessary. However, as we made our way into and out of the forest and the rain picked up, the trail got slicker and steeper and Lynn ultimately gave in to Che’s death grip and was ever so grateful for it.
4 km in we stopped at a riverside for a break where a cluster of four Black H’mong girls approached us one by one in a whiny voice saying “Buy from me. Buy from me.” as they extended their hands with fistfuls of woven bracelets. Doug and a number of others eventually conceded, but as soon as you bought from one the others would swarm and say “Buy from her, buy from me!” Doug’s favorite was when he would respond by saying “No, thank you” they would then counter with “Yes, thank you.” Even with all the pleading he only managed to walk away with one. We asked Ming if this was the first village and with a chuckle he said “No” so on we went knowing that after two villages we’d be having lunch because we were hungry.
“7” beautiful and majestic but trying kilometers later (I put this in quotes because this was according to Ming but our Fitbits told us we had been walking much longer) we arrived at the Black H’mong village. Lynn had survived with only one minor slip thanks to Che’s death grip. The group settled into the wooden hut for lunch and were immediately swarmed with the Black H’mong women who had helped us along the way demanding that we buy from them because they helped us. Lynn knew she wanted to thank Che for all her assistance so she offered up 100,000 dong and in exchange was given a change purse and 2 bracelets. But once that happened, as expected, the remaining women thn approached her stating “You buy from her. You buy from me!” A lot of “No, thank you,” “I already have one,” “No money,” then progressed into a firm “No” with a lot of head shaking, and finally just ignoring. The women eventually let the group be as we started to get food, but new ones and children approached the people at the ends of the table. Some people were better than others at saying no. Pat, one of the Americans, ended up with quite a number of purses and bracelets which led to the rest of the group then pointing Pat out to any of the tribeswomen or children that approached them. He wasn’t too happy about that. Eventually he resorted to bribing 4 young girls when they wouldn’t leave him alone.
After lunch we completed the remainder of our 14 km (which turned into 18 km in the end) through the village. We briefly stopped at a weaver to learn that they use hemp to weave their clothes and indigo to dye it the deep blue color. Making our way through more rice paddies we ultimately reached our homestay which Doug quickly equated to a barn. The building was 2 floors, the first being a shared space with kitchen and a few bedrooms for the family. The second floor was a number of beds with mosquito nets which is where the 13 of us would be staying. It wasn’t exactly what we expected but we were exhausted and figured we’d fall asleep pretty quickly.
The group shared some tea, then were told to relax before dinner. The two of us spent most of the time lounging by the nearby river, and then returned to the homestay to be greeted by the rest of the group 1 or 2 beers in. This was the beginning of quite the night. After joining them for 1 Tiger beer each we all sat down to dinner where our hosts and Ming proceeded to plaster us with homemade rice wine and cheers of “Một, hai, ba, yo!” This was the beginning of the end for some of the people in the group. Post dinner and more drinks, Ming decided to introduce us to a game which we all already knew as musical chairs. In the iPod went and off we would go with the losers needing to take more shots of rice wine. Eventually this just turned into an outright dance party with neighboring homestay guests approaching the house in the dark asking to join. At around 10 p.m. we decided we both needed some water from our bags on the second floor (hydrate or die). Truth be told our beds looked too comfy so after a sip of water, we laid down and passed out as the party continued downstairs.
Daily Walking Mileage: 12.4 miles
- A lot of the local tribeswomen tend to have blue hands. This is due to the indigo that they use to dye their clothes and is grown in the hills as well.
- The villages burn the paddies once they have harvested the rice in order to promote fertilization of the region for the next growing season. This is why you will see some smoke in a few of our pictures.
- The villages also grow corn but that is mainly used for their livestock and they tend not to eat it themselves.
- We did get to interact with some of the children in the villages. At one school we saw an instructor give choreographed dance lessons to 10 or so students, of which some were the young girls who were attempting to swindle Pat at lunch. It was here we stopped to watch for a bit which led to a younger boy attempt to spit on us from the second story then get promptly scolded for it. At the second school there was another, much larger choreographed dance taking place that a few of us promptly partook in