Once again grabbing the very last train ticket, and booking a spot on a bus for the way back, I headed to the other must-see spot in Northern Vietnam: Sapa. It's home to several hill tribes and has become a huge tourist mecca in the last few years, which is both good and bad. On the one hand you have hoards of people and tour buses crowding the small town and the colorfully outfitted locals are the most persistent and manipulative sales people I've encountered so far. But on the other hand, if you just sit and watch long enough, you'll find authenticity in the people's interactions and if you walk or ride out of town you'll encounter some of the most gorgeous views around. Unfortunately, this was around the time my cold came back with a vengeance, leaving me weak, dizzy and hoarse to the point of not being able to talk at all. I arrived at my pre-booked hotel just as another woman was arguing with the manager about her lost reservation in a thick Russian accent. I overheard the conversation and found out that she used the same booking site as I did, and so learned that I too arrived in this overbooked town without a place to sleep. As the woman kept arguing about how the lost reservation isn't her problem, I asked if there were any rooms in fact available and was told that there was one with two beds for almost three times the original cost. It was a holiday weekend after all. Just needing a place to finally lay down, but also not wanting to leave the other woman stranded, I introduced myself in Russian and offered her to share the last room for our short stay. She resisted at first and said that she'd walk around and see what else she could find, so I booked the room and settled in while it was getting ready. Half an hour later the woman came back and confirmed what I already suspected, all the hotels were full and a few resourceful locals with spare rooms were renting them out at crazy high prices, so she accepted my offer.
Once our room was ready I curled up in bed and tried to sleep as my roommate went back downstairs to continue arguing with the manager. She kept this up for the next two days, and at the very end as I was leaving town I saw her heading back to the already closed hotel with a local police officer. For the duration of our stay I mostly slept, ventured outside for hot chicken pho and fresh ginger tea with honey, and explored the town for a bit while my strength held out. It wasn't until the last day there that I really had the energy to truly sightsee, but every afternoon my roommate would come back and regale me with tales of her finds and negotiation prowess. I had never met anyone as frugal as this woman in my life and she went to extraordinary lengths to save a few pennies. She had with her a small pot and an electric immersion water heater, which she used to make coffee and tea, as well as noodles and hard boiled eggs. She bargained with every street vendor for every piece of produce and paid practically nothing for everything. In the evenings she regaled me with tales of her many boyfriends all over the world who she maintains friendships with so that she'd have free places to stay when she travels. And all in all this woman basically never stopped talking, and as I had almost no voice at all and said as little as possible, she thought I was actually from Russia the entire time we were together (something my parents would have been proud of as they say that my Russian gets worse and worse every year).
I did feel a bit better on the last day and after checking out, I left my bag with the company I'd booked the bus with for later in the day, rented a motorbike and toured the area in hyper speed to make up for lost time. I did not visit the villages as there is very little authenticity left here to actually observe, plus with all the tourists around it felt a bit like visiting a people zoo, so I meandered up and down the valleys taking in the gorgeous vistas, rice paddies and waving to the few local children playing by the roads. I grabbed more chicken soup and tea for lunch and walked around the town a bit before stopping at a restaurant for a coke and a rest. As I sat in the corner enjoying some quiet time a large table beside me started filling up with a group of local men. They set up a hot pot in the middle of the table and ordered several platters of things to toss inside and took turns cooking up the soup and stirring. Someone came with some plastic bottles of local whiskey and as soon as one of them saw me sitting alone, they invited me to join them. Only one of them could speak English, and not very well at that, but several shots and toasts went around and everyone took turns asking him to translate questions to ask me. No matter how benign my answers, all of my translated responses yielded raucous laughter from the table. I had to leave early to catch my bus and they offered up one last toast to my safe journey. I couldn't have asked for a better send off.
Getting off the train at dawn (my train is on the right, don't worry).
Local Hmong women walking the streets selling jewelry and handicrafts
The men either offer bike rides or work the rice fields, so it's mostly women or girls
who walk the streets and interact with tourists. Each one offers to take you to her
village for lunch and to see how they live and if you say "maybe later", she'll
make you pinky promise. Sales companies would do well to hire these women,
they deliver some of the most persistent sales pitches I'd ever heard.
A few restaurants in town offer whole roasted pigs for large parties and
the streets are filled with delicious smells of roasting pork.
Older women or women with children set up spots along the streets to sell their wares
It's hard to tell how old some of the women are, but it does look like they have
kids at a very young age and it's not unusual to see a young girl with a baby
"Can I see the picture you just took? Oh! It's me!
That means you have to buy something"
Well played lady, well played.
In some places pork and chickens are roasted together so the fat
off the pigs bastes the chickens. Yum!
As the sun goes down restaurants start setting out various things on skewers.
You pick out what you want and it gets freshly grilled for you. A side of cold
beer and you can feast like the locals.
One afternoon I was woken up from a nap by a funeral procession making it's way
through town. Musical instruments were played throughout and the overall mood
was festive and the coffin was heavily decorated. I had a great view from my balcony.
Except for one dinner out with my roommate for grilled skewers of mystery foods
this was basically all I ate for every meal during my stay in Sapa. Being sick is no fun.
I took many pictures of the cascading rice fields. It was dry season here, but
I could imagine how much more beautiful all this is when each terrace is
full of water reflecting the skies.
A picture of my trusty bike
My lunch companions with the last toast for the road
The most comfortable bus I'd been on so far for the road back to Hanoi
I spent the night in Hanoi and then headed back to Koh Lanta in Thailand to get over this cold. I was hoping to also sign up for a SCUBA course, but turns out that if you can't breathe on land, they don't let you try to breathe under water so I mostly worked on getting better and relaxing. It was off season in Thailand so half the restaurants and stores were closed, the days were even hotter than before and the third time I went into the ocean for a swim I got stung by a jellyfish. All in all, SE Asia was done with me and I was done with it, so I booked my tickets to Japan and got ready to jump from lands of the past into the land of the future.