Day #6 in Vietnam
My train lurched in Lao Cai Station at 6 AM. I woke up from my deep sleep at around 5:55 AM! Wham! Just in time to stick a toothbrush in my mouth, while cramming my silk liner hurriedly into my day pack.
Being a solo traveler separated from my trekking group, the last thing I wanted was to be the last one off the train and left! My Swiss roommates were further behind schedule than me, though. No one was prepared for a quick evacuation.
Sleep was good, despite the violent rocking and intermittent screeching of wheels against the tracks.
The #1 disadvantage of solo travel
I was alone.
Filing off the train in a backpacker’s fog, I searched the sea of backpackers for “familiar” faces.
No one held a sign with my name or the name of our group .
I stood at the entrance gate, panic entering my bloodstream as people started to leave. I was the only traveler in my group who was solo– who would remember to look for me?
A Korean family… 2 strapping young Australian lads … an older gangly Frenchman accompanied by a quiet elderly Vietnamese friend…
These were the last faces I looked at and remembered. My memory scanned the crowd of strangers for recognition. Maybe I didn’t remember those faces afterall.
In Korea, Caucasians are easy to spot. Here in Lao Cai, between a flood of Caucasian tourist backpackers and tan-skinned Vietnamese, I decided the Koreans would be the ones to look for! The Aussies were second in line as they were tall and the gangly Frenchman… pbbt.
This was my genius logic at its best…
Was I forgotten? Abandoned?! The crowd was thinning out and it was clear to me there were no trekking tour gatherings. This was some joke– within 10 minutes of arrival into the train station, my group had disappeared as if in a John Carpenter film!
An hour outside of Sapa, I was about to cash my hopes in to hire a cab to God-Knows-Where-Sapa (I didn’t even have a hotel address…), when out popped the Korean father of the family that was in my van back in Hanoi. He came back to look for me. Whew– God Bless Koreans! I boarded the mini-van bus and buckled in for the drive to Sapa.
It’s hard to imagine it’s the entry point for trekking and hill tribes.
The welcome mat of the town was a huge lake, surrounded by buildings reminiscent of a French-Swiss village.
Drive deeper into the heart of the town, the vibe changes to a hippie/hill tribe backpacker charm.
We arrived at the Emotion Hotel. It was the hub of most trekking outfits and groups and thus, kinda like trekking central.
My trek wouldn’t start until 9A or 10AM. My itinerary for today was to trek Cat Cat Village and return to Sapa for a free day of sightseeing.
Though we arrived as a group, each of our trekking packages were different. The receptionist told us we’d be mixing groups, throughout seeing as groups ordered different activities in their package.
Awesome! More travelers to meet.
The Korean family’s 13-year old boy invited me to have breakfast with his family. My first inclination was to decline, until I saw the breakfast they were preparing- Choco pies, a slice of apple and some water. Many Koreans have kind and generous hearts and will share what they have with others. I couldn’t refuse.
I pulled up a chair and attempted some bits of mangled Korean with them.The mother was a principal of an elementary school on Jeju Island and her husband was a Physical Education teacher at the same school! Their two sons were in elementary and spoke very good English for their age.
I love that I came all the way to Vietnam to meet Koreans! Love it.
Room for one
So the thing people say about being a solo traveler and having to deal with single supplement fees?..
I had to deal with it.
All of $3 more. Gotta love budget tours!
Wanna know the digs I got?
On D Phan Si/Fansipan Road, I was put in the Cat Cat Hotel.
My room had a shared outdoor deck and an awesome view, despite the fact another hotel partially blocked it. At night, it was especially gorgeous with the misty mountains outlined against the night skies and… stars!
My room was clean, I had hot water and after my hotel experience in HCMC, it was a definite luxury! Get this- I had three beds all to myself! It felt like four- star royalty.
(Above) My Hotel– The Cat Cat Hotel; (Below) Three beds for only one person– Me! I took the queen-sized bed;
(Bottom) View from my hotel. Sorry, I forgot to pan to the side with the actual view, but this view still rocks nonetheless.
Minority hilltribe groups
In Sapa, the Black Hmong women and children are everywhere, stalking tourist hotels to doggedly selling their wares.
“You Buy” and “Buy from me” are their cheer. If you buy from one child, beware… you’ll tempt followers who want you to patron their products as well.
Tip: Never answer a tribes person with a “Maybe“, unless you mean it. They’ll follow you until you purchase something.
I decided to explore the town and took a walk along D Phan Si Road.
I visited the Sapa Market and experienced culture shock with their food (click here for Fear Factor Vietnam).
I came across some craft shops run by the Black Hmong & Red Dzao tribes, where they sold apparel and bags of genuine quality and pride.
I actually love the style and outfits that the Hmong wear. Hmong clothes might be able to be pulled off, if carried with a bit of a funky Williamsburg-New York City vibe.
Anyways, I thought it looked cool. So I decided to buy a Hmong vest and belt
(Above) Black Hmong Elders; (Below) The elder woman in the middle shows me the hemp string they use to stitch their crafts with. Notice how her fingertips are stained blue?
Buying hilltribe crafts and being aware of Indigo dye
You might notice how many older Hmong women have blue-stained hands. It’s from the indigo dye they use in their craft work.
The Hmong make beautifully colorful crafts; unfortunately, the dye in them is not set.
Thus, in purchasing these items, you must:
1) keep them separate from your clothes and
2) set the dye before you wear/use any of them
Why? The moment it gets wet, the ink will stain whatever it touches. Take warning from my travel friend, David (below), a Parisian with a great sense of humor. He wore one of the Hmong belts as a bandana on our trek and proved that indigo dye theory correct.
What to do in Sapa
Sapa is a small hill station town, but it’s culturally rich and has breathtaking mountain-fresh views! Once there, you’ll easily understand what the hype is all about. Other than seeing Sapa by trek adventure, renting a motorbike is another viable option.
You can check out Sapa Square, Sapa Market, the Radio Tower (for a great view of the town) or you can simply chill out the cafes and restaurants.
Shops selling tobacco, trekking clothes and souvenir crafts from the hill tribes will help you burn your dong, but nothing beats a good massage! Foot and body massages can be gotten for $6 an hour and the Vietnamese at making your feet and body feel like it has wings! It’s easy to get addicted.
Lastly, I read that the food in Sapa bats eye-to-eye with Hanoi. So far, it’s the best food I’ve had my entire trip! The food was fresh, made with care and well-flavored.
Below is my lunch at a cafe. Fresh tomato soup made from scratch. Absolutely delicious!
Next up… Cat Cat Village & Sapa Market