The Witches of Sapa

We got up a bit before six AM, packed everything quickly and went downstairs to have coffee. A small woman with narrow face that worked at the hotel’s dinning room made us sandwiches for the ride and packed them, and when the bus to the North arrived we began to make the way outside of Hanoi. I had the chance to say one last goodbye to the streets and houses as the driver gathered more passengers from the Hoan Kiem and then drove through the highway, crossed the big river and went outside to the outskirts of the city. Aside from us were mostly  groups of loud British women on the bus, that slept on the half empty seats most of the time.

We stopped at a gas station where several people were scattered around and sold strange foods. We got some steamed dumplings filled with pork and quail egg from a skinny wrinkled woman, and I tried some kind of meat rolled in banana leaves. I tried to ask her which meat it was but she didn’t know a word in English, so after I tried to mimic some animals and used the few words I knew in Vietnamese, she put her hands by her head like horns and made some low “mooo” sound, so I guess it was buffalo or something.

The wind that blew from the window got colder as the bus climbed up on steep mountains. There were big hills with terraces of levelled rice fields all around, with different hues of yellow and green. I saw this picture so many times in articles about Vietnam before the trip that I couldn’t realize it’s real, that I’m really there. After a few hours of ride between forests and clouds we arrived at Sapa. It’s a strange city, chill and rainy and once in a while it’s covered by a heavy cloud. There are many minorities in North Vietnam, many different tribes and villages, and Sapa is some kind of a center for them – since it’s full of tourists. While the men work in the fields the women walk around the city wrapped with colorful heavy clothes, full of silver jewelry, some of them carry babies on their back, and sell things for tourists. Most of them sell jewelry, scarves, skirts, small instruments that they make. A weird woman with a harelip approached us several time and whispered “Hash hash, opium opium”. Some of them offer lodging in their homes for a few Dollars, including meals with their families and instructed hikes. It gave me an odd feeling. How poor are these women, that they need to open their own homes for strangers? Among them walk around some very old women, like witches, with heavy scarves covering their heads and bony hands, peeking out of their tiny eyes and selling god knows what.

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The bus stopped at a big parking lot and right away about 20 women ran towards us, and I saw them focusing with their eyes on each of us as we descended the bus. Two women approached Roni and I as we got out and followed us while we looked for a hotel, and probably wanted to offer us lodging at their houses, until Roni told them we didn’t want to buy anything and they left.

After we checked-in at a kind of grungy hotel we went outside to explore the city. It took me a moment to realize that we are alone, don’t know anyone in the city and not depending on any schedule. Until then Belle from the hotel helped us plan ahead the days and the trips, and this was the first time since Bangkok that we were completely spontaneous. We looked for something to eat on the main street but most places were touristic and the food was just pricey and not interesting. Mostly Englishmen and Scots sat there and we saw a group of four Israelis, for the first time since we got to Vietnam. After eating we kept traveling around, going out of the main street to smaller ones. Since Sapa is built on mountains it is very steep and full of narrow staircases made of white rocks, and together with the fresh cool air and the forests all around it kind of reminded me of a strange quiet version of Jerusalem. We sat in a small place and had hot coffee, unlike warmer places in Vietnam where they drink the coffee cold. Aside from us sat there two Scots our age, and after they unsuccessfully tried to haggle on the price the man dived into a book and the woman wrote in her journal with her organized handwriting.

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We went uphill from there, passing by a cute lake next to a school where many teenagers with green coats hanged around and stared at us, some construction sites with builders that smiled at us and eventually we arrived at a market. On the outside they sold mostly fruits and vegetables that they put in boxes on the orange ground, and on an inside part that was covered with a roof they sold meat and by-product and it took a while to get used to the strong smell. In another part there were tubs full of water with seafood and fish, crabs and oysters, and some silk worms. We entered a big building and at the entrance a woman invited us to have soup at her place, but we weren’t hungry yet so we moved on. There were mostly clothes and housewares, big knives and sets of plants and dried lizards, but the place was closing so after a while we returned to the woman with the soup. We sat on a long bench in a hall where more women sold different foods, and had a hot and spicy meat soup while the locals were staring at us. I was glad to find a less touristic area, and began to get used to the fact that we were the strange ones.

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We made our way back to the hotel to take a shower and get some warmer clothes, since the evening came and it got chilly. The city was covered with a cloud and we could only see a few meters ahead, and the lake was covered in white and looked enchanted. The shower at the hotel was leaping and creaking and I didn’t feel clean afterwards and while Roni took a shower I noticed that the room was dirty and it kind of disgusted me, so we decided to walk around and look for another hotel. We checked the Lonely Planet and went outside, and booked a room for the next night at a place that seemed nice and humble ran by a tall man with yellow teeth. Afterward we went to a place that served fried meat and had pork and vegetables on skewers, chicken wings and sticky rice cooked inside a bamboo stick, and beer. It was an open and big place, under the sky, and a kid sat in front of a TV in the corner and watched cartoons. We sat next to a young couple and a middle-aged woman with black clothes that held a fried chicken leg, ate it and spat the bones on the floor, and they switched a channel to an Indian movie dubbed into Vietnamese and watched it fascinated. When the movie was over the child, that served us the beers, switched back to the cartoons and a loud woman with red clothes got mad and lightly slapped his scruff and turned the TV off. Later on he climbed on her lap and fell asleep.

We sat there for a while and came back to the hotel and fell asleep. There were two single beds, each one in a different side of the room, and it was weird to sleep like that, reminded me of sleepover parties when we were kids or school trips.

At the morning we packed and moved to the other hotel. It was difficult to climb the stairs to our room in the fourth floor, but the room was nice and clean with an okay shower and a porch with a wide view. We went to get some coffee in some kind of a yard – we had to climb some stairs to get there and there were small buildings here and there, and somebody got a tattoo in one of them. While we tried to plan ahead the trip a few lazy dogs walked around with a small puppy that ran around and played. I’ve felt a complete freedom, that we can stay or leave whenever we want, without committing to anything.

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