I don’t know if it was the deranged cat yowling, the buffalo splashing in the water next to the window, the dogs barking angrily at every passerby, the rooster giving his dutiful morning call, or all of the above, but needless to say, I woke up early.
It seems I wasn’t the only one that woke up early, and the Germans took it upon themselves to meow an angry yowl right back in the cat’s face to see how it enjoyed a taste of its own medicine. We perked up after instant coffee and plates of thin crepe-like pancakes with local honey.
The Germans and French took off with their guide, which left us with Zoo all to ourselves for the day to ask questions, take pictures, and get to know. With just the three of us, we covered ground much faster–down steep slopes, through leafy forests, across rickety bamboo bridges, up grassy hillsides, and into the mud baked rice paddies. Zoo explained that the village people have very little decision-making power and they are subjected to farm life for generations due to the lack of money to send kids to secondary and tertiary school, which is the only real way to escape village life. She didn’t say any of this in a bitter way, but more accepting of her lot in life.
“We are not smart here, so we don’t make the decisions. We stay on the farm and don’t have money to leave.”
She was so candid in all of her responses and it made me admire and respect her for working hard to learn English so she could make a decent living to care for her family.
After crossing another river, Zoo led us up a steep path to a restaurant for lunch. Again, we were swarmed by ladies from the village bombarding us with questions and demands to buy from them. I was prepared this time and didn’t give in to their sales pitches, unlike a poor French woman at the table next to ours, who simply could not say no. She looked like the type that couldn’t say no to sales ladies even back home, so she was an easy target.
After thanking Zoo for everything over the past two days, we hopped into a van back out of the villages and into Sapa.
Over the next two days, we took it easy since we wanted to fight off our persistent colds. The view from our new hotel room was even better (and less obstructed by the abundance of hotels creeping higher and higher and intruding into the natural skyline), and the outdoor balcony was the ideal spot to read books, catch up on blogging, and try very hard to savor this incredible place while we could.
Not only did this hotel, Mountain View, have a stellar location, but also a happy hour with tasty beers and nachos. Tex-mex is my favorite type of food, and as you can imagine, it’s quite hard to find in Vietnam. The tortilla chips were more like the fried chips you get in Chinese restaurants, but the interpretation was close enough and I was quite happy stuffing my face with nachos while playing chess with Byron in the lounge. We finished up the day with an episode of Better Call Saul (because the wifi was actually strong enough) and then headed for bed.
As if this hotel couldn’t get any better, they offered a hot breakfast buffet with a Vietnamese cook making omelettes at our request, accompanied by endless pancakes and fruit. Rest assured that I ate my money’s worth.
For the past few days I had my eye on the intricately sewn blankets that the H’mong women were selling in the street. They were handmade and could be found in any color you imagined. As far as souvenirs go, I have a weakness for blankets, which of course are the heaviest and bulkiest item to pack. Carrying a blanket in my backpack was simply not an option, so I researched the cost to ship a package all the way from Sapa, Vietnam to the United States. By boat, it would take three months and cost around $35, which I determined was a worthwhile endeavor.
I set out on the streets to find the perfect blanket, which every lady seemed to think they had. They pulled my hand towards their merchandise, and then as soon as I looked at one lady’s work, another would pull me away to her spot on the street. Finally I found the perfect one–shades of pink and orange, every single stitch done by hand, and by far the largest and most expensive one on the street. I tried to bargain with the petit weathered woman pointing to the blanket shouting, “Very good! No low price, this one better”. She was a tough one to negotiate with, but it was beautiful and I knew she would use the money to support herself and her family for weeks. I can’t even begin to imagine how many weeks it took her to sew every stitch, so we both walked away happy. Byron and I purchased a few more things and sent our package from the Sapa post office. We joked that we weren’t really sure what would arrive home first–us, or the package.
We packed our bags and walked up the sunny quaint streets one last time before boarding a bus to take us down a terrifying ride to the bottom of the mountain in Lao Cai. Some of the hair-raising twists and turns made a few passengers clutch their emergency vomit bags, conveniently found in the seat pocket of every chair.
Thankfully, we survived the nauseating ride, found the building we had to pick up our tickets from, and boarded our overnight train. We had the pleasure of sharing our sleeping cabin with an older couple, Nancy and Martin, who lived in Australia and had all kinds of travel tales. My favorite part about them was that they also detested the idea of joining the elderly tourist bus groups that we see every so often, with guides assisting your every move and taking much of the fun and adventure out of your experience. We said our goodnights and tried to sleep for a few short hours.