For our last day in the Vietnamese mountains we arranged a trekking tour through the hills and villages outside of Sa Pa. There are maps of the area but as we found out in Bac Ha finding your way on the small roads and paths is not so easy. Unfortunately, we woke up to the same wall of fog that we went to bed with and feared the worst for our trek. At least we would get some exercise.
We meet our guide and take the Duong Muong Hoa road south out of town. Before long he turns on a narrow road and we head up over a mountain. In the fog we can’t see much and the trail is steep, muddy and slippery.
Then, quite quickly, the sky begins to lighten and we climb above the clouds to blue sky and sunshine. My spirits are immediately lifted. From this vantage point we watch the clouds flow back and forth in front of Vietnam’s highest peak, Fan Si Pan. Although we can’t see the spectacular views of the valley of terraced fields below we are thrilled to be walking in the sunshine.
Our good fortune, however, is not to last. As we start to descend again we plunge back into the clouds and visibility settles in at about 75 feet. You could tell yourself that it gives the setting a romantic mystical quality. It’s amazing how people live in this environment. Sometimes the clouds last for days or weeks. But life goes on – children playing in the street; farmers working the fields, hauling bamboo or cutting wood. The streets are also alive with live stock – chickens, pigs, dogs, and water buffalo wandering about.
We stop for lunch with a fabulous view of the valley below. That is if it weren’t foggy. Our guide pulls out six baguettes, some individually wrapped hot dogs and triangles of Laughing Cow cheese. He then carefully peels and slices cucumber, tomato, an Asian pear and an apple. A picnic on a grassy knoll in the beautiful Vietnamese countryside, if we could see it.
After lunch we continue on a long downhill leg and finally arrive beneath the clouds. Now we can finally see the valley and towns that we couldn’t see from above. The road is muddy even though this is dry season. We reach the river below in Giang Ta Chai.
We cross a suspension bridge with so much space between the planks that I fear if I step wrong my foot will go right through. When we reach the other side we discover that this bridge is for entertainment only as the way is blocked and we have to turn around and diligently make our way back. Yeah, great fun!
This is the end of our hike and we meet other tour groups ending here. As we wait for our ride back to town the Black H’mong aggressively try to sell their trinkets and the tourists eagerly snap their pictures. A battle of the obnoxious. Along with the others we take the van back to town. The clouds have lifted a bit and we can better see the valley below with its lacework pattern of terraced fields. Filled with water they sparkle from the afternoon sun.
Back in Sa Pa
Back in Sa Pa the fog has finally lifted and we can see the town. It has a definite backpacker vibe with myriad restaurants and hotels catering to travelers and the insistent Black Hmong pedaling their trinkets. Low in the charm department during our visit, on a clear day there are fabulous views of the surrounding mountains and terraced fields below. We were told it’s best to come in the late summer or fall when the fields are a brilliant green. We head to Sapa Rooms for some well deserved cake and coffee before catching the bus to Lao Cai train station.
Tourist Bus to Lao Cai and Train to Hanoi
We decided to take the “tourist” bus back. At only $2US per person for an hour ride we thought it would be worth checking out. As the first group piled on the bus with us at 5:00pm, it seemed like it wasn’t going to be so bad. Then we went to the next stop and the bus filled up. And then we went to the next stop and they pulled down the jumper seats that filled the isles. Five rows of four passengers each crammed into a small bus. Thankfully it’s just an hour to Lao Cai.
At the station we popped into the café related to the ET-Pumpkin Travel Agency for a quick bite (on the left side of the parking lot as you face the station). The service was slow and random, but the food tasty and filling. Tired from a day of hiking and bellies full, we were ready for a good night’s sleep on the train back to Hanoi.
Note: I’m posting about two and half weeks after the fact. Normally it wouldn’t matter much, but since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan I feel it is necessary to correct the timeline. We ended this trip in Tokyo, our first visit to Japan, which makes all the unreal footage streaming on the new that much more real. We were blown away by the Japanese efficiently and innovation that we saw, and now our hearts ache for our friend Yumi and all the people caught in this nightmare. If any nation has the capability and will to recover from this disaster quickly, it’s Japan.
For links to all the posts in this series see the Vietnam page.