Scotsabroad's Weblog

April 13, 2013

Highs and Lows

Filed under: Holidays — scotsabroad @ 12:23 pm

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One of the highlights of our latest visit to Vietnam was our stay in the mountain resort of Sapa. Despite some stress at both ends of the journey. We had booked and paid for sleeper train tickets online before leaving Jakarta and had been instructed to pick them up at the station in Hanoi an hour before departure. There are different sleeper trains with different coaches attached –  leaving for Lao Cai at different times and from two different stations. At first the company we had booked tickets from  refused to recognise the booking agent we had used and shown on our booking confirmation. Then they said we had been directed to the wrong station. It was not until Shona was able to access our information online that our tickets (in an envelope with our family name on it) miraculously appeared from below the counter. Seems some kind of attempted scam going on with the tickets. Then we followed someone across several wet and muddy tracks in the dark and climbed into our carriage – no platform. Not the Orient Express but bearable once you accepted it all –  apart from the disgusting shared toilet. Our friends ended up on a different train and in a lower class of carriage. The boys loved it, they commandeered the top bunks as we moved across the Long Bien Rail Bridge and through the city at night in a thunderstorm. Lucas romantically commented that all the moment needed was a candle. We arrived in Lao Cai at about five in the morning. We realised our friends were not on our train and waited for the next one. Thankfully they disembarked and we drove the remaining 38km uphill (and into the clouds) to Sapa. We breakfasted at our hotel called, Sunny Mountain View. Maybe the name was accurate, but for the next 24 hours we couldn’t see 10 meters in front of us. It was incredibly misty and there was a significant change in temperature.

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Throughout the day we were shadowed by tribal ladies up and down the streets. The town hosts several hill tribe people buying and selling. The H’mong tribe ladies are canny traders and encouraged us to buy their silverwork and embroidery -produced from their trademark baskets tied to their back. If not a basket, an infant. We visited the Saturday market and bought fake waterproofs and footwear in preparation for a guided walk the next day. Sergio and I went for a run – running down the mountain we talked as old friends do who have not seen each other for a while. Then we turned and headed back up the mountain – unable to talk. A shared bottle of Glenmorangie in front of an open fire helped the recovery process later that evening.

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Next day we used a local guide from the Sapa Sister’s Tour company and she took us for a walk.

We snaked down the valley, escorted by several H’mong ladies and tried to avoid creating bottle-necks as we met scores of other organised walks heading the same way. The weather cleared and finally we were able to see the beautiful mountains and valley, so close to the Chinese border. A hydro-electric dam is being built and soon much of the valley we were walking through would be under water. Rice terraces clung to the slopes on all sides. Franco and Lucas were in their element running ahead, play-fighting and digging with bamboo sticks, starting mudslides and splashing through water while avoiding the Buffalo dung. They can’t resist trying to touch baby birds being herded by an angry old man. Tourists are herded into a village canteen for lunch. We ate fried rice and then continued our walk – before being picked up and driven back up to Sapa. We showered at our hotel and prepared for the night train back to Hanoi. Not surprisingly, we had to collect our return tickets at the station an hour before departure and go through the role of helpless tourists all over again.

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Back in Hanoi, we said a sad farewell to the Descalzo family and drove to Halong Bay. Cairo got food poisoning at the hotel. Sick all that evening and weak the next day. He stayed in the hotel with his mum as Lucas and I tried to get on a boat out to the bay. The weather was very poor and heavy rain battered the ticket office. It seems you can’t just turn up and get on the next boat leaving. There is money to be made even at the official boat terminal. Their advice was to take a seat and wait for other tourists to arrive. There were two other people waiting. They suggested we buy a boat for a couple of million dong. Turns out most people book a tour in Hanoi and avoid this nonsense at the ticket office. Tour parties came and went as we sat waiting for other tourists to arrive – tour guides looking smugly at us. The weather got worse and we decided to call it a day. We decided we would book a tour for the following day through our hotel and accept paying the millions. Next day we set off in a boat of our own, including tour guide, for a four-hour trip around the bay. The weather remained foggy and wet. It did mean we had the bay and the caves pretty much to ourselves. Some gaudy lighting in the grottoes but still impressive. We sailed (painfully slowly) to the floating fisherman’s village (no sign of the bar shown in Cairo’s favourite TopGear  programme) and around the rocks. In the high season hundreds of boats float around Halong Bay each day. I’m glad we went but it didn’t set the heather on fire.

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  1. Another great blog – very interesting indeed.

    Comment by Linda — April 14, 2013 @ 4:26 am | Reply

  2. It is always good to see what you are all up to, great photos too. Forbes M

    Comment by Forbes M — April 16, 2013 @ 2:05 am | Reply

  3. Great holiday ! Wow you lot can really do it ! Tickets under the counter ! fair game for tourists…

    Comment by Gordon — June 12, 2013 @ 2:47 am | Reply

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