21.01.2012 - 23.01.2012 18 °C
After a transfer from our hotel to the train station, we got hurried onto a train in a big rush and we went to the wrong cabin and then rushed to the next. Once stumbling upon the correct cabin, we sat down for about 20 minutes before leaving - not sure what all the rushing was about. We were sharing a cabin with two American girls who were teaching English in Hanoi. Before the train left we noticed there were people trying to sell food and bottles of wine from outside the window. There were also people on board the train selling food and drinks and we bought some beer off them for AUD$1 each - same price as the orange juice. The American girls had come already prepared with two small bottles of straight vodka with them. The cabin was pretty cosy, the beds weren't too bad - they had a warm blanket and weren't too hard. The only problem was the train was very rocky. We ended up drinking and playing cards with the Americans for a few hours before bed.
I woke up at about 5:00 am and we arrived soon after that. We walked down to the station to try and find our guide. Once we tracked him down we ended up waiting around for another half an hour for the rest of the group. Then we had to wait another half an hour for our bus to arrive. It was cold but not as cold as I had anticipated. There was a loud bang while we were waiting which scared the crap out of me - apparently a bus backfiring. Finally our bus arrived and we left for the hour drive to Sapa. We were in a mini-van which was good and I slept most of the way.
We arrived at our hotel - Sapa Summit Hotel - at about 6:30 am and it was freezing cold outside. Since we couldn't check in yet we went down for a buffet breakfast (which was great) on the basement level which had lovely views but all we could see were clouds. We then waited in the lobby, freezing, until 9:00 am when we met our young guide Mai for the day. However, we then had to wait even longer as our group (of 7) was missing two people. So while every other group left we were still stuck freezing our butts off in the lobby with the doors wide open to outside. Eventually we got to leave and we made our way down to Cat Cat Village with a number of the kids from there. They were nice and friendly until they had to go home and they harassed us to buy things off them. The walk down was pretty good as it was all downhill and the views were amazing after the clouds had cleared. The sun eventually came out too making it a little warmer. We walked through a lot of little houses and huts and were shown how they make their clothes with the indigo tree and hemp.
We got to a waterfall and took a break there and got even more harassed by a bunch of 6 year old kids, half with babies strapped to their backs. They would come up to you and whinge "buy something from me" over and over again and follow you around. We then kept walking through the villages with just our guide. We walked passed a small shack of a building which was the village hospital. Mai told us that if someone gets a headache they would come here and they would heat up part of a buffalo horn and then place it on the forehead which left a big red burn circle forms for about a week. I'm glad we use paracetamol. We started the trek back which was up many stairs. We wandered past lots of pigs and chickens and we saw a bison along the way as well as plenty of dogs. One of the pigs we saw was slaughtered shortly after we passed it and I was glad I wasn't aware of that fact at the time. Apparently every family kills a large pig for the new year.
The trek back up was pretty difficult on me as it was all uphill and up stairs and it was getting hot. There were many men along the way trying to convince people to take a motorbike back but I didn't see the point in paying for it, even though my legs were struggling. We finally made it back to the hotel and had lunch. It took about 20 minutes just to decide what to have as we had a choice of 16 set menus as well as sandwiches, burgers, and noodles. I ended up getting fried chicken and vegetables with rice, pumpkin soup, french fries in garlic and butter, a lemon juice, and a plate of fruit. The fries weren't very nice as they were very oily but everything else was good. I especially liked the fruit which was like the nashi pears back home. I almost didn't have one as the American girls said they tried it in Hanoi and it tasted like bland potato pieces. After I had one and said how delicious it was they decided to try it again in case it was something different (it was the same but apparently the flavour was much better so I think the ones they had weren't ripe). After lunch we went to our room and decided to have a nap which turned into a 4 hour sleep. Our room is very nice with a double and single bed, excellent blankets and pillows and a very clean bathroom. We woke up at 6:30 pm, had a shower and went down to the basement again for dinner (with the same options as lunch). I decided to try the boiled vegetables, rice, tofu in tomato sauce and vegetable spring rolls. I didn't think much of the vegetables or tofu but everything else was good and I got more fruit. Afterwards we went into town with the American girls and into a bar which had Western music and a billiards table. There were a lot of people from our tour groups there as well. We shared 4 Tiger beers (at AUD$1.50 each) and played cards with the Americans and Norwegians for a few hours. Here you don't pay for your drinks when you get them - instead the staff remember what you have and write the bill just before you leave, so I guess it's always good to also remember how many drinks you have just in case.
We woke up nice and early at 7:30 am because we had to have breakfast, checkout and then leave at 9:00 am. We left with the same group and tour guide as the previous day. We walked for 2.5 hours for the first leg, stopping quite a bit. The weather was warmer than the day before and the clouds had disappeared early. The scenery on the walk was excellent although not very green though. It would be much better during or just after the rainy season. We walked along the dirt tracks and down the steep hills and over the little rivers. Once we reached a particular village we sat down for lunch (rice, chicken, omelette, and vegetables). The only problem is we had a lot of waiting around. We then walked for another hour through two more villages until we got to a small store across a suspension bridge where we had to wait an hour for our bus to pick us up. This trek was very easy as it was all downhill and the mini van took you up the hills on the half hour drive back.
After an early dinner at 4:00 pm we got on the bus for the hour drive to the train station. 20 minutes in I was busting to go to the toilet so the last 40 minutes were absolute hell and I was very ready to run into the train station toilet with some money but we ended up parking elsewhere, not at the station. When I got off I asked where the toilet was and the driver pointed up some stairs but the doors were locked. So I asked the shop next door and they just pointed me down the street to nowhere. I went into what I hoped was also a restaurant and not just someone's house and asked for the toilet but they didn't speak any English so the guy ran off to grab a dictionary and I frantically flipped through to find the word 'toilet'. Finally he showed me to a toilet and I hurried so my group wouldn't leave without me. When I got back no-one had moved and the buses had gone and apparently we had to wait half an hour in the cold for the driver to organise our tickets. After that we had another 2 hour wait until our train left so we went into a cafe across the road and played cards. When we boarded the train we were with an older Asian couple and so everyone in our cabin pretty much went straight to sleep and, surprisingly, I actually got a really good sleep.
We arrived in Hanoi at about 5:00 am and had to find our own way back to our hotel. We ran into the Israeli girls while waiting for a taxi and apparently they had had a terrible night: in Sapa they gave their train ticket vouchers to someone who said they would organise it, then when they got on the train someone told them the tickets were fake, so they asked at the train station and ended up buying two more tickets there which also turned out to be fake! A lot of people were getting ripped off in Vietnam we had found. At the taxi area at the station it was nearly impossible to get a taxi even though there were 7 of them just waiting around. We ended up getting one and paying extra because we didn't have any change and he didn't speak English. Once we got to our hotel it was closed and we couldn't see a doorbell. At about 6:10 am the lovely lady next door walked up to us and rang the doorbell for us since we couldn't find it...oops! We then had to wait inside for another 3 hours for our Halong Bay tour (which was running late). Luckily the staff were super friendly and they allowed us to have breakfast and chill out in the lobby while we waited. They even offered us a cheap room to sleep for a few hours.