Sa Pa and Beyond

After an amazing five days in Sapa hiking and living with the locals in the mountains, my eyes are tired and warn out from constantly flinging open in alert, as the sleeper bus angrily jolts around corners. Eloise adjacent to me also struggles to sleep, while Sasha squeezed in the corner of his seat, he tosses and turns to seek out some sort of comfort on the hard leather. Caio and Aiden from the beds above us complain about the lack of leg room and we all hope for the arrival of Hanoi’s busy streets. I take a deep breath, cuddle into my scarf and fall into a deep, uneasy sleep.

Suddenly I am awoken to the Vietnamese bus driver shouting loudly that it is our stop. Scrambling our possessions together we all hop off the bus one by one: Aiden, Caio, Eloise and I grab our bags, but hang on a minute, where’s Sasha?
We collect Sasha’s bag for him and wait on the road. As we organise ourselves and haul on our luggage, the bus drives off into the distance with Sasha still as a passenger. We all stand there struck by the fact he didn’t have enough time to jump off and we all assume he’ll have to get off at the next stop. Worried, Aiden takes all extra 15kg of Sasha’s belongings and we wearily trudge to the Vietnam Backpacker’s hostel with Eloise leading the way. It’s dark, we are all exhausted and we’ve managed to loose Sasha in the matter of five minutes.

As we arrive to the hostel we head straight up to the 5th floor lounge to try and sleep as there’s no point in checking in. We are all planning to head South the following evening (another sleeper bus to look forward too). Eloise momentarily gets a call from Sasha explaining that he had lost his passport briefly and discovered it hiding under his seat. With a sigh of relief we all can relax and wait for him to join us. I spot a sofa and run gleefully into it’s open arms and grab my blanket, slowly allowing the night to seep into my eyes. Nearby chatting and snores filter out of my mind as I finally fall asleep..

Despite the journey being annoyingly tiring, I have had such a brilliant week. I was so glad to leave Hanoi for a while because the craziness of it’s streets were echoing in my head. The beeping, dodging of moving traffic and constant grabbing from business women was starting to get me. In realisation of this, I headed to Sa Pa for five days, and had one of the best experiences of my trip so far. Not only did I spend a whole day on a moped driving around the gorgeous mountains, through clouds, visiting rice fields and new towns, we also stayed with a local tribe’s woman for two days.

Her name was pronounced Su-Ling (I’m unsure of how to spell it) and she was such a beautiful lady. She picked us up from the hostel and we walked to her village. We ventured through dirt tracks, through small woods, across bridges and into the mountains. The views were breathtaking, it felt as if I was in a movie. We met a lot of villagers along the way of all ages, I noticed the large numbers of small children that were covered in mud, running around holding bamboo but always giggling away. They shouted ‘Hello!” at us and carried on playing in the trees: what a childhood.

Su-Ling answered our many questions about her culture and the surroundings as we passed through, we were located only 7km away from China’s very own boarder. We were all very pleased to find out that the villages had schools, a clinic and an excellent community. People and animals lived in harmony together with no fences or separate living areas. It was the first time in Asia that I had seen such profound creatures, moths bigger than my hands, colourful butterflies, tiny pigs, dogs that resembles wolves, small cats, cute chicks, big buffalo, playful puppies, and even a snake or two. Eloise also seemed to attract the hugest bumble bees and orange beetles with her bright yellow top which always caused a few laughs.

Once we arrived at the homestay we all settled in very quickly. The darkness crept upon us and before we knew it, it was already the evening. Su-Ling introduced her husband, her two small children and her neighbours from a near-by tribe. The house was simple, made of a mix of raw stone floors, bamboo walls and wooden doors. The family cooked vegetables on an open fire and we all helped make spring rolls while our bellies yearned for the tasty food to come.

Within half an hour, we were all sat around the outside table. Plates of chicken, pork, beef, rice, spring rolls, smoked garlic cabbage, boiled cabbage, tomato tofu, soup and more were squeezed onto the table and everyone’s eyes widened. Chopsticks at the ready, we all dug in to such a wonderful feast. I think they were the best spring rolls and tofu I had ever had, all traditionally executed by a joint family effort. I really enjoyed what Su-Ling had told me previously – she said how as the female she was the one that acted as the breadwinner and went out to work, while her husband stayed at home looking after the children. As a feminist this delighted me, to see that women can earn money for their family even in a tribe in the middle of the mountains that owns such a strong history of culture and tradition.

With full stomachs, the ‘happy water’ was brought out to play. Happy water is homemade alcohol named rice wine, fermented in a week or two process in rice water which has been boiled and cooled several times. Taken in shots, we all shout ‘cheers’ (pronounced Zh-yoe) in their tribal language. After twelve shots I think everyone did indeed start to feel happy.

The following day we woke up to another beautiful spread of pineapple, bananas, pancakes and local honey. Heads rather sore we slurped down our coffees and geared ourselves up for a beautiful day of hiking. Breathtaking views (by breathtaking I mean it, I struggled up those long uphill mountain tracks..) we ventured through such wonderful areas that made me appreciate nature even more. While we lagged, Su-Ling simply armed with an umbrella to shelter from the sun barely even took an extra breath; this was her life and her job. Despite standing at a mean 4”10 she was a very hardy lady who knew her footing well and I couldn’t help but ask her millions of questions. She even said I was rather tall – that’s something new to experience.

After a day of hiking it was time to be dropped back to the hostel. Brimming with hugs and thanks, we gave our appreciation to Su-Ling for letting us stay with her, she really was an amazing tour guide – I loved the fact that I didn’t feel like a tourist but like a friend. I’ve always wanted to experience something like this, and I am just so happy that I was fortunate enough to be with a group of awesome people and have such a trip under my nose. This will certainly stay with me forever: including the number of times I had to say “No thanks! Not today, Nope!” to cheeky women trying to sell me purses, fabrics and jewelry, all apart of the fun of Asia.

We are currently in Hanoi and have our bus all booked ready for another adventure. I managed to buy some paints for only 15,000 VND which is roughly 50p, so that’ll be good fun to add to my diary. I think it’s time for a spot of lunch now while Eloise heads off to the famous and weird, Vietnamese Water Puppet show. Who knows what to expect?

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