Friday, May 16, 2008

Vietnam: Part 4

From Hanoi, we went to the mountain town of Sapa, near the Chinese border. The only way to get to Sapa is by an 8-hour train ride. The train leaves at night, and you arrive the next morning. When we arrived at the train station, things were a bit sketchy, and we questioned if we were in the right place. We saw no other tourists (there should have been a lot going on the trains to the very popular tourist area of Sapa), and everyone in the station looked poor and as if they had been trapped there for days. They didn't look like they had the means to buy an $80/pp train ticket. As we tried to figure out where to go, a guy asked to look at our tickets and said we needed to follow him, so we did it. Once he led us out of the station, we knew something wasn't right and turned back. We will never know what type of scam he was working, but he was cleaver, because we saw him appear back in the station a few minutes later and noticed he was dressed in a similar way as the train station employees. Back in the station, we tried to ask where we should go, but no one spoke enough English, and they kept pointing us in opposing directions. We were able to conclude that we needed some kind of boarding pass that we didn't have. Finally, we saw another white guy and just got in line behind him. The woman didn't have our boarding passes, but said, "wait" and made a call on her cell. We waited anxiously not knowing if this was another scam. In a few minutes, a guy appeared, handed her our boarding passes, and we were shown to the train. The trains did not pull up directly to the station; you had to walk out into the rail yards. There were lots of trains going to Sapa, so we had to make sure we were on the right one. Once we calmed down, we were both thankful to have had two heads to navigate the situation. Our train cabin was very comfortable. Downtown Sapa is a sleepy mountain town.
We stayed at the nicest hotel hotel in town--elegant and comfortable.
In Sapa, there are many indigenous people who live very simply in traditional ways. The women dress in their tribal costumes. They make handicrafts and sell them to tourists with refined sales techniques. The women are very sweet and know how to charm and entice the tourist to purchase their wares.
Small children get in the game too. These girls are selling bracelets and little charms. Of course I had to buy from them. The items are very cheap, but I am sure that money goes a long way. It was raining and we were carrying the hotel umbrella, which didn't go unnoticed. After saying no to a small girl selling things she said, "You are very rich. You stay at the Victoria Hotel and it cost over $100 a night." I am sure spending that level of money on a hotel room was unfathomable.
The weather in Sapa was cool and rather rainy, but not so rainy that it spoiled our fun, however it wasn't ideal for photography. Sapa is known for its terraced mountains. Virtually, every inch of the mountains are carved into terraces and farmed. It is difficult to capture the scope in pictures. We hired a guide and took an all day hike down into the valley of these mountains to visit the villages. It was quite difficult and super muddy, but well worth it--so beautiful.
This is a quintessential Vietnam picture: the indigenous woman grazing her water buffalo, overlooking the river.

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