Visit to Lao Chai village, Sapa

Surrounded by colourful women

This village was farther away.  We took a cab there. The moment we arrived and got out, we were surrounded by four colourfully dressed tribal ladies who wanted to sell their wares. Earlier in the car, in the hope we would be left alone, I told everyone to avoid eye contact and to not entertain them. But this was not to be. Truth be told, they did not badger us but quietly accompanied us down the concrete path, try to make conversation by asking questions, “Where you from?”, “Want to buy?”, “Handmade”. But somehow it mildly frustrated us as we could not carry out our conversations and take the photos we wanted.

Joined by Hmong escorts
Padi planted on terraces

22 Years with three kids

Curiosity got the better of my wife and she started conversing with one of the young women of about 22 years of age. She spoke English. She has three children and in the early morning her husband and herself would work on their rice field. In the afternoon, the husband would look after the children while she went out to try to sell handmade craft. “Where did you learn your English?” “At the Hmong tourism training center”. This was one of the good things the 75,000 Vietnamese dong fee (SGD$4.50) to get into the village goes to. And by going out to speak to English-speaking tourists, her conversational English must have improved more quickly than those who learned it in the classroom only.

Lao Chai village

A bargain struck

The four ladies followed us all the way into the Lao Chai village. We had stopped there after about forty minutes of walking, having relished the scenic green rice fields against the background of mist-shrouded mountains. In the restaurant, we ordered drinks, with the rice fields a metre away from where we sat. My wife bargained and bought their handmade stuff, She bought a few things she would never really use except possibly the pouch the size of a mobile phone. From then on, the ladies left us to look for new customers.

Bargaining and buying
Taking a rest in front of green padi fields

Lost and found

The grocery shop owner next door said it was about 2 km to the next village where we could get a cab, and if there was none, to get a bus. So we walked on as we thought it would be good exercise. However after about 40 minutes of leisurely walking we found ourselves in front of a family home at the end of a path. Lost. We got some advice and headed back and by the grace of God found a taxi that had just sent a customer to a homestay place we passed. He got us back to Sapa town for about the same amount as a Grab cab would charge, a mere 20,000 VND (SGD$1.20) more than Grab. I was praising God because my absence from the regular hiking group, has made my hiking fitness suspect. The only way back to Sapa town was uphill and we passed many hikers. My estimate is that it would have taken us a good three hours to do that climb back to Sapa.

Elaine did all the planning and booking. On top of that we took it day by day.

Sapa by night: the town square

We went out from the hotel at 8pm. We wanted to see what Sapa felt like at night. This was our first evening out. Like all the other nights, it drizzled.  At the town square we saw young people playing  chapteh, where instead of kicking a ball, a group in a circle would kick an object made of feather tied to a base of rubber discs. The idea is to keep the chapteh in the air.

Playing chapteh in the square
Dancing at the side of the town square

Dancing in the dark

While the youths were chatting and playing chapteh, we spotted a group of middle aged people dancing. We were captivated and saw these people dance about three different kinds of dances. Some of them were good, some looked like they were still learning. It was fun watching but when the drizzle got bad, we headed for a nearby restaurant for our dinner. It was easy to look for dining places that are recommended when you have online access to TripAdvisor. We found one a stone’s throw away from where we were. After dinner, even though we had to walk back in the drizzle, we enjoyed the night. Thank you Jesus!

Cat Cat Village

A misty and drizzly morning foiled our plans

I feel so thankful today for how the day turned out. We had planned to take the cable car to Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest mountain. However it was very misty and we decided to change plans and do a hike to the Cat Cat Village – a Hmong village about an hour’s hike down and two hours’ hike up on the return leg. As we walked down the street the drizzle steadily became more intense and we went into a cafe to wait the rain out. After an hour of waiting we decided it would be better to return to the hotel and rest while my daughter went for a shoulder and leg massage.

Scenic views of valleys and mountains as we hiked down to the village

At about 12 plus the rain all but stopped and we decided to resume our planned hike. The air was pleasantly cool and fresh and there were many lovely views of the valley and its rice terraces and the mountains with their summit clouded by mists. We took many photos and about halfway down a kind Vietnamese couple signed to us if we wanted a lift to the entrance of the Cat Cat Village. We went in happily and though they did not speak a word of English, they signed to us their intentions. Ten minutes later we were at the entrance and paid about SGD $6 to enter this Hmong village. We were praising God for this was not incidental but God’s provision.

Happily we entered the village
Rice terraces and corn fields
Elaine near a field of flowers
Numerous photo spots make it fun to look around
There were many stalls selling Hmong traditional crafts
Going down to the waterfalls
Mini falls in the background
The bigger waterfall carried brown muddy water
They used this for irrigation in the old days

It was a route of 2 to 3 kilometres that brought us past a school, village homes, stalls selling similar tribal products, and gardens, waterfalls, a theatre with free Hmong musical and dance performances. It was interesting, engaging, and with the mobile and photo taking opportunities, the minutes passed very quickly. By the time we covered the loop it was about 4 pm and it began to drizzle again. We took a cab for SGD$6 and it brought us back to our hotel. Along the way we passed many tourists who hiked up back to Sapa town. We estimated it would take us 2 hours to hike up, with the level of our fitness and a  4 out of 10.

This was a happy day, a happy Sunday, as we saw the Lord guiding and providing for us. However what disturbed me is to see little children as young as four or five selling sourvenirs with minders, sometimes the mother or grandmother several feet away to watch them. There is obvious poverty. I would have thought that the collection of fees and tourism would have made the lives of the villagers better. It probably does but I wished more education, affordable medical care, and marketable skills could be given to the Hmong people so that they don’t have to be tourist attractions the rest of their lives.

Sapa town

It was a four hours bus journey from Hanoi to Sapa a town in the highlands. The Sapa Express bus seats were spacious and comfortable and the journey more pleasant than I had anticipated.

Sapa with mud caked streets and messy wires

Sapa looked disorganized to my eyes. Huge buses bustling down the narrow streets with horns blaring. Cars moving at unsafe speed, turning and twisting to avoid quick motorbikes. The dirt on that covered the streets and made them brown and muddy. The fine dust stirred and hovered in the wake of every passing vehicle making mockery of  the clean mountain air I hoped to find.

The Eden Boutique Hotel is 5 minutes walk from the Sapa Expressbus office

The hotel staff were professional and very hospitable and the room we were assigned beautifully decorated. We were recommended some places for lunch but we decided to follow TripAdvisor and made a beeline to Vietnam Emotion a restaurant frequented by Caucasians. We loved the look on the outside and the look inside and the food. Lovely place to have a lovely meal. We loved the decor and this is not the first time their cafes struck us with their original creations of interesting themes and design and decor.

 

Organic eggplant with rice
Light and crispy outside but juicy inside – spring rolls
Delicious fried rice

There wasn’t much we could do because we arrived at around 12.30pm. So we decided to explore the streets of Sapa around the public square. We even entered to sit in silence in the pews of a Roman Catholic Church that was prominently located near the center. It is called the Holy Rosary Church or the Stone Church.

Exploring the Stone church

With a Google map and a data plan, there was no fear of getting lost. We walked around and found ourselves in streets away from the touristy streets, where most of the people were locals. Until we saw a hotel called Amazing Hotel with beautiful views of the Fansipan and other mountains. We decided to relax at the hotel cafe and enjoy the panoramic view of the distant mountains.

Enjoying juices while viewing Fansipan
View of lovely farms and mountains

Tomorrow we hope to ascend the Fansipan but not by hiking but by the cable car.