Mountains & Markets

We began to feel strange at Sapa after two days. I downloaded Trip Advisor and read some reviews about the hotel we stayed at, with creepy stories about the tall man with the yellow teeth in the reception. Additionally we shared a porch with the neighboring room, where some noisy locals stayed and got drunk and sang loudly right in the shared porch. The city itself had a heavy feeling, mostly because of the many tourists and the poor women who were desperate to sell things.

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We spent most of the afternoon in the market, had different soups and Roni bought some big knives, and by the evening we went to a busy BBQ restaurant. We had fried skewers and shared a table with an Italian guy who told us that he’s back from one of the nearby villages and spent the days at one of the women’s house, together with her husband and five children. He said that each morning she took him hiking, and at noon he joined the men at the rice fields. He gave us her name her number when he finished eating, and a couple of Australians took his place as he left and told us that they don’t really like Sapa since it’s too touristic. After dinner we went to have some beer, and I ordered a random cocktail without knowing what I’m going to get.

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It was still noisy in the room and there was no window apart from the door that opened to the porch where the drunk locals sat, so we’ve felt a bit suffocated. We talked about moving on the following day to the next destination but we sent our clothes for laundry at the hotel, and we had to wait for it to dry. We decided to stay another night.

The next morning we went to the market and had breakfast where we ate the first day, and after a black coffee we got back to the room to change to better shoes and went traveling outside the city. We went out to the fresh chill air, got to a small cemetery with high grass growing wild and strolled around in the dusty paths between the mountains and the small villages. We had coffee at a small place with the view of the terraces with the rice fields, and went back to the town. We had another soup at the market with some sticky rice leaves rolled in meat and salty sauce, and went to have some strong ginger tea and mango juice at that cafe in the yard with the lazy dogs. When the sun set we had a brief shower at the hotel and went to have dinner at the BBQ restaurant where we ate the previous day. It was a big place with many people and a big grill at the entrance with some skewers and a big pig cooking slowly. We ordered some skewers and a slice of the pig and sat next to two locals, who were busy with their phones throughout the whole meal. The food was warm, fatty and comforting. When we finished we tried to find some tap beer, and when we couldn’t find we went to a big area with many restaurants under the open night skies and ordered two bottles of beer. We played with the idea of coming back to Hanoi, that from there seemd like a simple and easy city, but instead we booked a hotel in Bắc Hà – a small town in the area that has a market each Sunday, and people from all the surrounding villages gather there every week. We paid the woman with a twisted arm who worked there and got back to the hotel, payed for everything and took back the dry laundry, and went to bed.

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The next morning we got up early and began walking with our heavy backpacks uphill towards a red bus that waited in front of a small church in the city center, and after about ten minutes we began the ride. I couldn’t sleep because there were many turns and jerkings, but the way wasn’t very long and after about an hour the driver dropped us at Lào Cai – another town on the way to Bắc Hà. We stood in the middle of a parking lot and had no idea where to go next so we just tried to find some coffee, since we didn’t have any in the morning, when a brown van stopped by and a young tattooed guy stood by the door and called “Bắc Hà! Bắc Hà!”. We joined them, since we had no better idea. He put our bags in the back and signaled the driver to go, and the van moved on while honking loudly. It stopped for a few moments at a garage to get something and I used to opportunity to go to the bathroom, where a little boy stood and held a huge dog on a leash. We went on. The young guy loaded the vehicle with more and more people, among them some very old women from the nearby villages with rice baskets on their backs, people who delivered different stuff, some coughing soldiers, a man with a drum that was used as another seat. The van was completely full and stopped once in a while at different places. It seemed endless to me as I was half sleeping, and felt awkward to wake up here and there into this van with all those weird people.

Eventually the young guy signaled us to get down at a station in the dozy Bắc Hà. A shrunken woman led us to the main street where the hotel was, and a nice plump man greeted us at the reception. After we settled in the small room we went for a walk in the town, and noticed immediately that it had a completely different vibe than Sapa – rural, calm, less touristic. We finally had our first coffee, and went on to find something to eat. After we passed by some restaurants where mostly tourists sat we moved on towards the market, but it opened only at the evening and we only saw a few booths of fruits and vegetables. Eventually we found a small place where mostly locals sat, so we joined them on the low benches and ordered small bowls of soup, rice, meat, tofu and other things that you mix together and eat. They also served tap beer in a plastic bottle, and everything was super tasty. The owner served us the food while holding a toddler with one hand and breastfeeded him with her exposed breasts. Some very old local women sat there, probably at least 400 years old, and spat rice out of their mouths as they ate and chattered loudly.

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We passed the afternoon lazily, strolled around the town and brooded at the hotel, and when we were hungry again we went downstairs to eat at the hotel’s restaurant that was pretty good. Afterward we looked for somewhere to have beer in the area of the night market. We walked in the empty streets and followed the few people towards the market, where there were lots of people and a big stage with shows. Some woman played such a strange up-bit music, that I told Roni that if he told me that this is a Gorillaz’s song – I would have believed him. I skinny middle-aged woman with black clothes invited us to have beer at her place, so we sat at the white plastic chairs as her young sons served us the beer and some snacks. She pointed enthusiasticly towards some girls who danced on the stage and shouted “Bangkok! Bangkok!”. One of her sons, who didn’t spoke English, wrote us with his phone through Google-Translate that they are celebrating the many minorities in Vietnam. She sat next to us and tried to have a small talk as she is pouring more and more beer, and we managed to understand from her that all the people around are her children or grandchildren. The shows on the stage changed every minutes and mostly children from different tribes and minorities starred in them. Eventually all the locals formed a circle and danced around a huge bonfire that rose out of no where. We’ve already been a bit drunk and the dance of the people who looked like dark silhouettes against the fire seem pagan and strange. After it was over the whole place shut down at once and emptied, and we finished the day and went to bed.

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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