Sapa

I wake up briefly in the middle of the night. Did our driver just stall the bus? Yes. He most certainly did. Now it sounds like he’s having trouble getting it started again. It’s 3am and we’re in what seems like the middle of no where…please don’t break down.
I fall back to an in-and-out state of sleep while our driver struggles with the bus. Hopefully we make it, but I don’t have the energy to stay awake and find out what happens.

Apparently he fixes whatever problem the bus had, because the next time I wake up we’ve made it to Sapa. It’s 7am. Everyone groggily exits the bus and we all collect our bags. It’s raining, we have no place to stay, and I realize I don’t even know what direction the town is in. A young local on a motorbike pulls up and starts trying to sell us on his guesthouse. He quotes us $10 per night. I try to bargain him down to $8, but he won’t have it. We consider trying to go out on our own and find something cheaper, but he assures us we “won’t find anything better” and it’s raining. $5/each a night is totally acceptable. I go first, awkwardly getting on the motorbike with all my luggage. He holds an umbrella over my head the whole time. While he’s gone back to get Tamara, I do a quick run around to a couple other hostels in the area but find that they’re all asking the same price. We stick with the first one.

By 8am the rain has stopped and we are settled into our hostel, so we go for breakfast and discuss our plan for the day. In Vietnam, Pho is eaten as a breakfast dish (and lunch. And dinner.) and while the idea of hot noodle soup for breakfast is a slightly foreign one, we order it for breakfast anyway. It’s unlike any other bowl of pho I’ve ever heard of or tried before. The bowl is filled with local mountain vegetables, rice noodles, and a ginger broth. It’s pretty unreal.

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We both want to go on a trek in Sapa despite all the rain, but are torn about whether to book a tour or not. Our hostel staff have been pushing it on us a bit, but I really really like to try and find my own way. A tour is easy, you know what you’re getting into, it might even be cheaper. We don’t know.

On our way back to the hostel, we are approached by some local villagers who strike up a conversation, asking us where we’re from. This is common in Sapa, because many of the hill tribe women come to the village in order to sell handmade goods to tourists. Since Sapa has become such a tourism hotspot, the pressure to buy is always intense. They usually cut right to the chase – “you buy from me now”, as they hold up various items, from small hand sewn change purses to bulky silver necklaces. I’ve found that the only effective way to avoid this is to simply ignore them. A “no thank you” doesn’t cut it. It feels awful, but I’d be living on the streets if I bought something from every woman or child who’s asked me to!
These two women in particular though, we stop to chat with. I’ve read online that it’s possible to book a home-stay trekking trip right from the tribal women themselves. I’m curious about the price. Many of them have picked up English from tourists over the years.
We make small talk with them for a few minutes and then, a little guarded, I start asking some questions. I ask Song, the young woman, if they do guided trekking trips to their village. They do. I ask if they offer home-stay accommodation. They do. Terrified that I’ve just opened up a can of worms that I’ll have to awkwardly run away from, I ask how much it costs.
I get the worst response known to any bargainer; “how much do you think it’s worth?”
Thus far I’ve done no research. This WAS supposed to be my research. It’s a fine line between over paying, and bidding insultingly low. I have no idea. To my good fortune, a very loud truck drives down the street at this very moment, making any speech inaudible. This has bought me 5 more seconds to think.
Prices prices prices. What’s it worth? What am I paying for? Please don’t insult the tribal ladies.
The truck passes and I spit out “twenty dollars?”, still completely unsure if this is even in the ballpark of appropriate prices. She laughs and says each? I too, laugh, and throw out the idea that I meant total, for both of us. I still don’t even know. She raises my price to $30 for both of us. Trying my luck, I push for $25. She chats with her friend for a few minutes in their native language, and in turn I look at Tamara and explain in French that I have no idea what I’m doing. We discuss the numbers and agree that it seems quite good. Finally, Song turns back to us and agrees.
I clarify, “$25? for two people? Two days and one night? Food included? Lunch, then dinner, then breakfast?”
She nods, with a smile on her face.
“Uhh, alright. So tomorrow? When should we meet?”
She suggests 9am.
“Great. Where?”
She suggests we meet in the very place we are standing now.
“Okay. Great. Uh, see you tomorrow then!”
Smiling and waving, Tamara and I walk away, back to the hostel. God I hope I haven’t made a huge pricing mistake. Even if I have just agreed to largely over pay for something, $12.50 seems amazing for two days of activities and accommodation. How wrong can it really go? I actually have a really good feeling about it, I’m pretty excited. No hokey tours for us!

The rain is holding off, but the trails will still be wet from this mornings weather, so we decide to rent a motorbike and check out the Silver Falls, just a half hour’s drive outside town. I fell off a motorcycle, driving my very first time in Thailand. It was a similar situation, we were headed out to see something called the Emerald Cave in Koh Lanta. I got way too excited and confident about my driving skills, and managed to crash my motorbike within 10 minutes of turning it on. I still have the scars to prove it. I feel like Sapa is a good place to try again. It’s quiet here, and if I can just practice driving around in circles on a side road for a few minutes, I think I can get comfortable again. It’s only $4 to rent a motorcycle for the day, and our hostel has two readily available for us to borrow. I get on and do a couple practice runs just getting used to the gas and break. I’m not 100% but I feel alright. Tamara gets acquainted with her bike, and we set off. The tanks are empty so our first stop is to get petrol. I have to weave in and out of traffic, dodging humans, animals, and other cars/trucks before actually making it to the petrol station. I drive 20km/hr the whole way.
While waiting in line at the station I start to get worried. What if I fall off again? I’ll feel like such an idiot. Am I really comfortable enough on this bike to commit to a half hour drive? Are they steep mountain roads? I start to realize this is most likely a terrible idea. I tell Tamara my thoughts, and she supports my decision to turn this bike around and go back. We can take a motorbike taxi out to the falls. At least then if we crash it’s not my fault. I feel like a huge loser, but that’s what we do. By the time we get back to the hostel I feel really confident on the bike and in the traffic, but I still think it’s best to integrate myself back into motorbike driving very slowly.
For the same price as renting a bike for the day, we can hire a motor taxi to drive us up and back from the falls.

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They drive us up a beautiful winding mountain road which, when the clouds break, offers an incredible view of the rice terraces and landscape. Most of the drive up is clouded by mist, but that gives a pretty dramatic and picturesque effect to the lush green mountains around us.

Before we officially arrive at our destination, I see the waterfall as we round a corner. It’s absolutely massive, and water crashes down over multiple tiers of what seems like the tallest mountain peak in sight.
Our drivers wait for us on the road, and mine warns me to be careful and to follow the pathway. Is there an option that does not involve following the pathway? I want that one.
I start to climb some man-made stairs with a hand railing that climbs the side of the falls, until I see an opportunity to step out onto a huge rock in the stream below the waterfall. This must have been what he meant by “dangerous” when he warned me to stick to the pathway.
Maybe it’s because this is just in my nature, but I feel like I must take this route. It’s not insanely intense, it’s just hopping from boulder to boulder above a shallow stream. It’s not like I’ll die if I fall, and it’s so much more fun this way!
I go about as far as I can before I’ll have to start some amateur rock climbing to get up any closer, so I jump back over to the pathway with Tamara and we continue our climb. The stairs only lead us as far as a small bridge half way up the falls, where I see another opportunity to get a little closer. There’s a barrier, but it’s relatively short and no one is around, so I step over it and climb out onto another rock in front of the falls. It makes me feel so small to look up at something so big and powerful. Nature is really cool.

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Tamara counts 300 steps up to the bridge, we take some photos, and head back down to our motorbikes.
Her bike reaches the bottom of the mountain a few minutes before mine, which I can’t understand because I’ve literally got involuntary tears streaming out the sides of my eyes we’re moving so fast.

It’s only 1:30. I have no concept of time today after taking the sleeper bus here. It feels like 5pm. We’ve got so much time! We decide to hit another tourist attraction in Sapa called Cat Cat Village.
It’s just a three kilometre loop down to a river and small waterfall, where some villagers have set up shops along the way to sell more hand made jewellery, wood carvings, bags and other things.

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The whole walk takes us about one and a half hours, which seems really long for three measly kilometres, but we take our time. I think we choose a wonderful time to stroll through the village, because there are next to no other tourists. I think this is probably something people do in the morning, or maybe people have been deterred due to the thick fog. Really, the weather has worked out well for us today! I don’t mind that it’s a little cold.

On the way back we sit down for a Lao Cai (local beer) and papaya salad. Then it’s time for a nap. I have a glorious sleep, warm under the covers and not bumping around like I was on the bus. It’s wonderful.

We go to the Main Street for dinner and find a cheap restaurant called Michell Restaurant. They have an Italian theme but still serve Vietnamese food. What’s with all the Italian/French themed things in Asia?!
When we walk in, a table of about 10 people all turn their heads and welcome us in. It’s the family who owns the place, and they’ve all just sat down for dinner. It seems that we’re their only customers so far. They are overly accommodating; pulling out our chairs, bringing us free hot tea (in wine glasses) and saying things like “okay thank you for ordering, our kitchen will prepare this for you now”. Their dishes are so cheap, which is why we chose it, but it feels like we’re in a fine dining establishment. Well, sort of.

It’s only 7:30 when we’ve finished dinner so we walk down the road to a bar with a happy hour special. A cheesy old movie, similar to the one we saw in the bus station, is playing on a tv. All the bar staff are watching it intently and laughing hysterically. I see “Sheena” in the top right corner of the screen. I guess that’s what we’re watching, but I’ve never seen it before. It’s brutal, but I totally watch it out of the corner of my eye while we chat with some English and American people at the bar.

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