Since I'm currently working at a university in China, I get the Chinese New Year off! That's SIX WEEKS of holiday time. I'll take it :) Being already in the Eastern hemisphere, and with so much time to kill, my roommate and I decided to take a month and visit some sights in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Enjoy the ninth and final installment of that decision involving Sa Pa, Vietnam:
We had booked our Sa Pa tour right after our Ha Long one. And by right after, I mean we got back to Hanoi from Ha Long around 4:00 pm on Tuesday and got on a night bus to Sa Pa around 9:00 pm the same day. Not before we stopped at one of he many stores selling North Face products to get warmer coats. Ha Long was cold, and we had been assured Sa Pa would be even colder. Got a $300+ coat for less than $50. I love Asia.
The night bus, by the way, is the way to go. Any nighttime transportation is, really. It's like paying for accommodation and transport at the same day, and you don't waste a day in the monotony of getting from place to place.
We woke up to have quite a nice breakfast in a hotel. From there, we met our local guide and began our trekking experience. Pictures first are best for telling this story.
I was not quite prepared for all that this trek entailed. Lots of mud and mist and slippery bits next to steep cliff sides. Even with my personal guide holding my hand, I still lost my footing once and slid face fist through the mud down a couple terraces. Nothing but my pride was damaged, but I was very lucky that happened in the area it did. Some places we walked through, it would have been very problematic to my health (survival) had I done that.
When we stopped for lunch, all of our guides tried to sell us their handmade goods. Which were quite pretty but it was nearing the end of our month of travel and we were quickly running out of funds. I still bought a few bracelets, mostly so they'd leave me alone. This was a theme for the rest of the time. A group of women helps you stay on your feet, and then sells their goods. They do it with a smile, and aren't too aggressive so I didn't mind too much. Plus, if I had been looking to get any souvenirs it would have been absolutely perfect, because their things were quite pretty. Hand-stitched and brightly colored bags, shirts, scarves, headbands, bracelets, etc.
After lunch, we walked a bit through the village to our home stay. We spent the evening with this family, and slept in the loft area above their home. They cooked for us (different food than their family had, I think it was provided for them to be given to us), and made sure we were comfortable. It was very, very cold. They had a small fire, but could not keep it going much past dinnertime because they needed the firewood for their family's needs. We bought whiskey and hot chocolate from a guy (who apparently worked for a hotel nearby). BEST THING EVER. I have never enjoyed a drink more. The air was cold, but the company was some of the best we've had yet, the food was good, and the fire was warm while we had it.
I am very curious to know the specifics of how payment works for this situation. I suspect the tour company we booked through receives most of the profits, and the locals we stayed with very little. I think a more ethical way to engage in this experience (I wish we had had time to really consider this) is to get to Sa Pa, then hire a local guide directly there. There are plenty around.
After breakfast at our home stay, we walked a couple more hours to lunch. From there, a bus took us back to the original hotel we had been first dropped off at. We had the afternoon free, which would have been a great time to explore Sa Pa town a bit. If we hadn't been frozen through and the mist wasn't so thick we couldn't see two buildings ahead of us. So we found a restaurant with a fireplace and stayed there drinking teas and hot chocolates until it was time to have dinner at the hotel and board the night bus again.
Despite the cold, this will always be a highlight of the trip for me. It was challenging, and thus rewarding. We met great people, saw beautiful countryside, and never have I ever been more appreciative of hot chocolate.
And for now, it's nice to be back in some sort of routine in Dalian. Knowing me, I'll likely be back to Southeast Asia several more times in the future (God willing). There's so much we didn't see in our short month of travel, I don't think I'll be able to stay away! You're welcome to join me ;)
'Till next time.