Our journey to Sapa started with an overnight train from Hanoi, and would end back at the same station a week later. Hanoi station is, to say the least, confusing. Corridors seem to end for no reason and some of the platforms seem to lack any access at all. It was one of these platforms that we needed to find a way to. Leaving our bags in a pile with Helen, Graham and I went in opposite directions to try and suss out the way. I could see the train, with crowds of people loading their bags and finding their carriage: the normal bustle that surrounds a train as it readies for departure, with the addition of chaos that seems to come free with anything in Vietnam. Looking at my watch in desperation, I followed a Vietnamese man rushing to the end the platform I was on, though there was nothing at the end. Which I knew as I’d looked twice already. I watched him as he checked for trains, hopped onto the tracks and across to the other side, arriving at the platform we needed. Hello, Vietnamese shining health and safety considerations, I thought as I rounded the others and we followed the man’s unconventional route.
As we approached the train we were greeted by a smiley man wearing a dirty shirt and jeans asking to see our tickets. We looked at one another nervously: he held out a hand out, flashed a toothy grin and asked again. So, we showed him. If you are trying to get on a train in Vietnam and someone asks to see your tickets, don’t show them. This is why: Still with huge smiles and chatting merrily, the man grabbed one of our bags and told us to follow him to the carriage. We instantly tried to take the bag from him, to no avail. Instead, we matched his pace and jumped on the carriage behind him. He put the bag into the overhead storage in our cabin and tried to take another bag. Having already spend two months in Vietnam, we knew he was going to ask for money,which we didn’t want to give. What followed was an awkward conversation through which there was a slight wrestle over a bag, a terribly British attempt to stay polite, and a Vietnamese man growing red with anger. When it became clear that we no longer wanted or needed the mans help, he held out his hand and demanded 20,000VND. It was getting closer and closer to departure time, and this now glowing red man was stood in the middle of our cabin, demanding money! The three of us laughed nervously, with a few polite “no, no, no’s”, but the man just stood, hand out, staring at us. The laughter soon faded away. No, we said, almost as a perfectly practised chorus choi. Again, he didn’t say anything or move at all. This is a situation I found myself in quite often in Vietnam, torn between being polite no matter what, and having to be rude if I was going to be listened to. Unfortunately for my British heritage, by this point in my travels through Vietnam, rudeness won. With a stern voice we made it clear we would not be giving him any money and to leave. Which he did. Every time this happens, I’m left feeling horrible and guilty, which I suppose is just a reality of travelling in Vietnam. Still, we would be in Sapa in the morning, and I could hardly wait.
As the train groaned into motion, we stuffed our bags into the storage space over the door and chose a bunk. We were in a soft sleeper berth, which consisted of 4 beds with thin mattresses and a small table under the window. The cabins are tiny, don’t expect any luxury from your night; luckily for the three of us, it seemed we wouldn’t be sharing with a fourth person. Shortly after setting off Graham, who had been nominated to take the top bunk, asked if anyone could smell smoke. Sure enough, we could. We all sprang up to find the source, checking in the corridor but there was nothing there. It seemed to be a mystery, until I looked up to see a small trail of smoke escaping from the shelf storing our bags. I think it took about five seconds flat to get everything off the shelf, working as a kind of assembly line passing the bags from the shelf to the floor. With everything down there was no evidence of any burning, there was no heat on any of the surfaces and the smoke had vanished as quickly as it had appeared. With just a nine hour journey to go, we wondered what other treats this journey would have for us.
The following morning we arrived in Lao Cai, which is the closest train station to Sapa. We each counted our lucky stars that there had not been any more excitement on the journey as we arrived safely on the platform. We had already booked a mini bus through our hotel, and were greeted by the driver as we left the station. Don’t panic if you haven’t booked your ride, though. As you leave the station, turn left (which is where all the crowds are heading), and you will be overwhelmed by the number of minibuses trying to fill their last seats. The journey the rest of the way is slow and, if you’re like me, your stomach will be in your mouth on every bend as you look at the sheer drop from the mountain side. The view, though. Oh the view! At times I was so mesmerised I almost forgot we could become a burning dot at the bottom at any moment (I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how much of a wimp I am?). I spent ages trying to find an alternative route, in the hope of saving my heart from an hour’s worth of stress, but there is no other option: if you want to go to Sapa, you have to take the bus along this road.
As we arrived in Sapa, the minibus began dropping people at their hotels. Every time the bus slowed or stopped it was swarmed by ladies in brightly coloured skirts and leg warmers. I was sat next to an Australian lady who was visiting her son, who now lived in Vietnam. She explained in a whisper, as if to keep a big secret from all the other passengers, that these ladies were from the Black H’Mong tribe. A minority group that traditionally lives in the mountains. As with so many minority groups in Vietnam, the Black H’Mong people were plagued by poverty and had come to reply on travellers to provide a much needed income. The last time I was here, she whispered, I had a group of three H’Mong women follow me for my entire stay, all because I said maybe later! As the bus pulled up close to our hotel, we were next to be bombarded by the ladies trying to sell us bracelets and purses. Anyone reading this that has already been to Sapa will surely be having flashbacks!
We escaped into our hotel, and disappeared to our rooms for showers before walking to the closest village. Everyone that goes to Sapa will visit CatCat village, it’s just one of the things you’re going to do. It’s an easy down hill walk out of town. As you leave town, the shops and hotels give way to the most beautiful view across the valley. We stopped here to admire it for a while… and almost instantly picked up two H’Mong ladies with bracelets for sale, offering to walk us to CatCat village. We’d done a lot of reading about this, so said no thanks and carried on. I’ve read loads of stories of travellers walking with ladies only to be forced into paying them at the end, so watch out. When you get to the village you’ll need to buy a ticket to get in. From here, take the stairs down the side of the valley. It’s a lovely walk, with chickens and dogs running around, but I didn’t see any cats. CatCat Village hints at what local village life is like for the people that live in the mountains. Such as a group of children moving some water buffalo up the hill, tapping at their behinds with a stick as they slipped and struggled in the mud. However, it’s pretty hard to get a real feel for what life is like what the path takes you past rows and rows of shops selling souvenirs.
By the time we made it back into town, we were all pretty tired from the walk and the sleepless night on the train had caught up with us. So we went for a nap. We ended up staying in two hotels during our stay. The first was a budget hotel, called Casablanca Hotel, offering nice rooms and an upgrade to a room with a view. However, after the first night we decided to move as the sheets were damp and cold. The second hotel, Thai Binh Sapa Hotel, was a little more flashy. We had a lovely balcony, though the view wasn’t great, and we had a free breakfast included. The sheets were still damp though. I’m not sure what caused the dampness, but it seems to be a common complaint in Sapa.
Walking around at night time in Sapa can be heart breaking; young children line the streets, sewing and weaving trinkets to sell to tourists. Many of the younger children napped on the curb as their siblings tried to sell enough to go home. For me, this summed up my time in Sapa. It’s hard to enjoy the incredible natural beauty (and it really is stunning) when there are people constantly trying to sell something to you. The poverty and desperate situations these people endure everyday is impossible to ignore. I was left feeling guilty for not buying something from everyone that approached me, though realistically that would have been impossible. The people of the villages surrounding Sapa have become dependent on trade from tourists and have learnt to constantly hassle people until they buy something. Unfortunately, some people become aggressive or bad tempered if you refuse to buy from them. One of the H’Mong tribe ladies I met, who walked with me chatting every day, spoke perfect English with hardly any accent at all. Yet her life was spent hounding tourists for tiny amounts of money to support her family. She was intelligent, funny and hard working. What she really needed was support in building a career, rather than selling bracelets for 20 pence.
For me, this was one of the main reasons I doubt I will go back to Sapa. The scenery was some of the most beautiful I could dream of. Sometimes, though not often, tourists and travellers could steal a glimpse at how the people here live, like the children playing in the waterfall. In all, though, I found it hard to really enjoy the beauty of the area whilst being bombarded by sales people. Unlike many cities and towns on the tourist trail through Vietnam, Sapa didn’t try to hide the poverty of its people; it laid it out, unapologetically, for visitors to see. Whilst this is humbling to see, it may also be its undoing, as fewer travellers stay as long as they planned. Instead of staying and perhaps buying from people or volunteering in a school, they retreat back to Hanoi where they can hide away and pretend that Vietnam isn’t suffering the poverty that Sapa refuses to hide. And so, after a few days, we left, too.