[This article was first published at www.nickyurban.com]
NICOLA’S JOURNEY BACK TO ITALY
CHAPTER 1: VIETNAM
“It is my dream to visit Kyoto – Japan, India and Sapa, Vietnam,” Nicky said.
For some reasons, Nicky has to pack his bags and return to Italy. He doesn’t know when he can visit Asia again, for sure it won’t be any time soon. He wanted to make this trip home worthwhile.
As I am tight with work, we can only choose two. So, after discussing the impact and such, we decided to visit Hanoi, Vietnam, which includes Sa Pa and Halong Bay. The next stop is Delhi, India, which include Agra and Jaipur.
EPISODE 1A: SA PA, VIETNAM
The nine hours journey to Sa Pa was an adventure itself. Although we paid a premium price, we couldn’t see the scenic landscape of the countryside outside the window as it was dark, and we had a poor night of sleep. The mattress was hard and unbearable.
As we arrived in Lao Chai, we catch a shared van to Sa Pa which stopped near the Holy Rosary Church. I remembered dragging our bags to Sapa Dragon Hotel. It was located a little uphill but this hotel was the best hotel we’ve had in Vietnam. Not only that it was conveniently located to the Quang Truong Square, shops, restaurants, and the route to Cat Cat Village, the service was also impeccable. The staff spoke good English and was always friendly and helpful. So instead of one-night stay, we extended another night.
We were walking around for breakfast when we were approached by a lady of Black H’mong minority, Mamasa, who offered her trekking service. At first, I was a bit hesitant but Nicky agreed.
Our trail took us on wonderful cultural experiences. We ended up trekking through scenic rice terraces to the village of Ta Van of Giay minority, via Cat Cat village and Y Linh Ho, and Lao Chai village of Black H’mong minority.
Although it was minimally challenging trek from Sapa, both of us were so exhausted. Maybe because we didn’t sleep much on the train. I could see that Mamasa was also tired, she kept pausing to catch her breath, too weary to walk another step. It took us about four hours to complete the trek. I remembered paying Mamasa an equivalent to USD30 for the trek (for two persons). When travels, I always prefer to engage the locals for services instead of using a travel agent. Mamasa was so happy to receive the money and immediately bought a cap in the shop. “For my son to go to school,” she said.
On that Saturday evening, Quang Truong Square was alive with the sound of music. Locals and tourists performing, dancing, and singing together. Music is a powerful force that always able to break through social boundaries. It was an amazing experience, truly unique. And so much love…
At the roadsides, there were many ethnic people selling colourful traditional clothes, bracelets and souvenirs. Small children wearing traditional costumes sitting quietly, selling souvenirs and/or expecting tips in return of photographs. They were all so cute and looked tired but have been trained since young to help support the family. So, when some tourists started being friendly to the kids, took pictures with them, and then just walked away without any expression and buying/giving nothing, I was like…, “Fake. Heartless.” It doesn’t cost much to give at least 50 cents of your money. These kids have made an effort to dress up, sitting at the square almost the whole day, and smiling to your camera.
The next day, we thought of renting motorcycles to Bac Ha Sunday market but then when we heard about the cheap bus tour, we changed our mind. The cost of USD10 per person includes to and from 3 hours bus journey from Sapa to Bac Ha market, with a short stop at a traditional village, the border of China, and Lao Chai train station. This was indeed the most enjoyable trip, value for money.
Bac Ha Sunday market has its own feel, which is hard for me to describe. Basically, the market is huge and is filled with Flower Hmong stallholders. We experienced interesting scenes of people selling cows, dogs, pigs, souvenirs, a wide array of colorful textiles, exotic produce, local food, and much more.
I wish we had more time to spend in Bac Ha market, I didn’t expect to like it that much. We enjoyed interacting with the people in the market. The short trip to the traditional village and border of China was also interesting.
On our last day, we headed to the neighboring village of Cat Cat. Before reaching the entrance, it started raining heavily. We took shelter at the ‘Haven Sapa’ restaurant. That place was decorated with beautiful quotes and wordings at every section of the walls. The views of the mountains and rice terraces were breathtaking.
Cat Cat village is an easy and interesting route for trekking. We encountered the locals going about their daily lives. And we managed to take some beautiful pictures of the mountains, rice paddies, waterfall, water buffaloes grazing leisurely, and even fellow tourists with their beautiful traditional H’mong costumes. We did not complete our trek due to time constraints. We had our late lunch and took scooter taxi back to our hotel. After packing, we catch our hotel complimentary transport to Lao Chai train station.
On our way back to Hanoi, our train carriage had problems with the air conditioning. It was very stuffy. A Chinese lady screamed at the operator and demanded to change cabins. It took me awhile to realize that the different rail companies are all part of the same train going to Sapa/Hanoi. They were only separated by carriages that latch onto one public train service.
From her slang, I expected the lady to be a Singaporean or Malaysian (Gosh, I am so proud lol). She complained that she had asthma, feeling nauseous, could not breathe, and will die soon. Such a drama queen, we were laughing and enjoying the scene. All of us, strangers united in the cabin worked together opening the train windows to get some fresh air. After a short wait, the air conditioning was working again to everyone’s delight.
Sa Pa Budget per person:
- Train to Sa Pa/Hanoi by Orient Express (9 hours) – USD35 one way
- Shared Van to Sa Pa (1.5 hours) – USD8 one way
- Dragon Sapa Hotel – USD45 per night with breakfast
- Sa Pa to Ta Van trekking with local (4 hours) – USD15
- Bus Tour to Bac Ha Sunday Market (total 10 hours) – USD10
- Cat Cat Village entrance fee (self-tour) – 50,000 VND (USD2)