Train Trip to Lao Cai and Sapa
We were way out of touch for quite a few days and have been really busy since getting back to Hanoi. I gotta tell you right up front that this place has me totally overwhelmed. If it weren't for Mike, I would stay in a hotel room and watch Indonesian MTV. I can barely ask for a bathroom, am only one shade above holding out a handful of funny money and letting the vendors take what they want, and I don't have a clue about any of the Major Street names. Fortunately, Mike is giving the old man a royal tour and we have been having a ball.
Way back last Friday, we took off for Sapa in the far North frontier near China. Our plan was to take the motocycle by train and then tour and see the hill country and the 'minority tribes'.
First we had to move all of Mike's gear out of his hotel and store it with friends across town. That went fairly smoothly. His buddies are French who are here teaching people to speak French so that Hanoi can host the World Francophone Congress next fall. For a "Francophone" country, there aren't a lot of French speakers any more.
Went to have lunch with the Francophones at a restaurant that serves French food and Vietnamese food. One of the French guys made a comment about Mike and me eating Vietnamese food in a French restaurant. Mike made a comment back about eating French food in Vietnam. Get it? The Francophones didn't.
Went with Mike to his English classes. The first was at the French pharmaceutical company, Servier. Had a group of 8 or so doctors and pharmacists working on conversational English. I got to talk about Neugenesis and genetic engineering. They were sharp and asked lots of questions.
The evening classes were in business English and were taught at a local school. Met the other teachers beforehand. They were quite nice. Mike had me talk to his class and answer questions. They pumped me for my thoughts on cloning sheep and people. And lots of other stuff, too.
Mike is a great teacher--funny, challenging and very gentle.
Things got crazy when we tried to catch the night train to Lao Cai in the north. We wanted to bring Mike's Minsk 125 cc motorcycle and thought we had things wired. However, it turns out that on Fridays, and only Fridays, there are two trains to Lao Cai. One has sleepers and the other carries motorcycles. The mcycle train has only hard seats. After a lot of confusion, we at last got the tickets sorted out, the motorcycle on board and our butts on some *very hard* seats. Jam packed with all the chaos and destined to spend 12 hours that way.
Not the greatest situation, but we did make lemonade from lemons. Met three Vietnamese doctors sitting opposite from us. They were young, friendly, conversant, and seemed quite well trained. They worked for Pharmaceutical companies (B. Braun and Glaxo-Welcome). Had a very nice time talking with them. As the evening wore on, we all grew sleepy and started to slump. And the seats got harder! Train noise and confusion. Food being sold out of baskets, etc. Many stops, more noise. Seats getting even harder. Falling asleep somehow. Pretty soon everyone was lying on each other. Some areas looked like a pile of puppy dogs (more thit cho). From the formal start when we were sitting properly, we finally degenerated into a sprawling mass of humanity. It was pretty funny to look at.
By morning, we had stiff necks, extremely sore asses and were nearly at Lao Cai. The weather was quite cool, but after visiting the head (i.e., the hole in the floor that people aim at), I could only wince at the thought of how delightful it would be on a hot Vietnamese day! Sorry for the scatological references again, but somehow the topic keeps cropping up over and over again.
Got the moto off the train. We didn't have a map, but no need. We ate dog and are macho! The way out of town wasn't hard to find and the countryside became very pastoral. Traveling along a river for 6 km and then the road started to climb. It never stopped climbing for the next 24 km. We gave Natasha Minsk a real work out. The scenery was awesome. There were vertical drop offs into river valleys thousands of feet below. Narrow roads but very little traffic (thank heaven). The little moto couldn't make it in second gear. We had to go down to first gear most of the time. Not surprising since we were asking one small moto to carry 440 lbs of Vann's (including backpacks).
The hillsides were terraced and we began to see people in traditional garb. Some bridge repair going on but no serious problems. Natasha got pretty hot and lost power. I had to walk the last km into Sapa village. But we made it and it was worth it! Sapa was a French highland retreat in earlier years. The weather was cool and foggy and we were in the clouds.
We found a hotel, not the cheapest by far, but still only $7 per nite for two.
On the mainstreet, the Hmong and Dao ladies were out in force selling handicrafts.
Saturday is a big "go to market day" in Sapa.
Food was cheap, too. Dinner for two including a big beer for Mike was about $3.
We had wanted to get to Sapa on Sat. night because there is a traditional "love market" scene. Basically, what is supposed to happen is that the guys and gals from different villages meet by singing songs to each other and that is the start of their courtship. Their music is pleasant, but we never actually saw the real thing taking place. Too many tourists seem to have intimidated the locals. Our Viet doctor friends did say that the was a little action at about 1:00 am, but Mike and I ware long gone before then. Anyway, I can't figure out exactly what it was we were expecting to see!
As far as the number of tourists, it really wasn't overwhelming. There was a smattering of folks from all over. Mostly young. I don't think we saw more than half a dozen Americans which would constitute about 10%or less of the non-Vietnamese tourists. Vietnamese tourists about equaled non-Viet. It wasn't crowded, but you could tell that things were changing and crowding is imminent.