My first night train in Vietnam was uneventful. The bed could have been slightly bigger but other than that I rode in style arriving into Lao Cai station at six in the morning. There I was herded onto a minibus and taken a further hour up into the mountains to Sapa. On arrival I had to take the drivers word that we were indeed in Sapa as the clouds had long closed in and rain thundered down. It was a very English mountain range.
The first day was a write off. Despite the train being good, I wouldn’t go as far as to say I had a great night sleep. Jaded and with the weather so bad, I passed the day walking around the small town and sitting in cafes. On the second day the weather was not much better but feeling much fresher I strolled down to the village of Cat Cat. A six kilometer walk in all it’s hardly demanding but was nice enough. Occasionally gaps in the clouds appeared showing glimpses of the mountain range that they hid. Those sightings were by far the highlight as the village itself is very touristy with the Hmong people having turned everything into a shop. Fortunately I had little interest in coming to Sapa to visit the villages because if I did I think I would have been very disappointed. Rather I was here to walk in the mountains and I looked forward to the following day to go on a longer hike.
There is a feeling in Sapa that everything has to be done with a tour. All sorts of rumors spread in Hanoi before I departed. ‘They won’t sell tickets to tourists at the train station you must buy them at travel agencies’. No, you can, it’s a lot cheaper and was probably the most organized train station I have been to in Asia. ‘You can’t hike independently, you must have a guide and permits.’ Wrong again I’m afraid. I set off around nine o’clock and tailed a small group down the mountain. I met various Hmong women on the way one carrying her three month old child with her on her back. Considering it was tipping it down with rain at this point I felt a little for them as they walked around attempting to peddle their handcrafts. As the group stopped to take photos of the view over Sapa town I nipped past happy to be free of the conveyer belt.
I was immediately brought to a halt and beckoned over by a Hmong lady who pointed to a mud track heading away from the road. The guide from the group chipped in saying it was one way to go but was too muddy so they would be taking the road. I’ve discovered a trait where I don’t like being told what I can’t or shouldn’t do when it is perfectly possible, so I went for the mud track.
Considering the amount of rain that had and was falling it was not a surprise that the path was a mud slide. I had to walk very small zigzags to stop me slipping over. After a while we reached another t-junction. Another lady pointed at me to go down the steep slope and waved goodbye as she went the other road. I’ve mastered walking in snow, got on alright on ice, handled cliffs and rocks but a mud slope with water pouring down it was a new one. An older Hmong Lady appeared. She laughed at me looking at the slope and then proceeded to offer me her walking stick. Being the gentlemen I am I bought it off her for twenty pence and used it as a mud axe to lever me down. I couldn’t have done it without that stick. It was a case of pushing it into the ground then letting my body slide as far as it could become catching something then changing the stick positioning. It took me around half an hour to get down it. As for the lady, well she showed all the agility and skill you would expect of someone who walks the path everyday of their lives.
She didn’t speak any English but she could point and soon became my unofficial guide. I don’t know whether it was deliberate but she had a knack for taking me along tough paths, whether it was across flowing rivers or using poles to volt across overflowing paddy fields, she could find them. It was all worth it. When the rain finally ended the views were spectacular, with the clouds clinging to the peeks and sunlight attempting to break through. A few hours later and we made it to a local village where I gave the lady a small tip much to her delight. She had wanted me to buy some of the handicrafts she was carrying but it proved hard to communicate how purses and handbags were not high on my shopping list.
I walked back up to SAPA by the road. There I passed minibuses by the bucket loads heading down the mountain. It did annoy me how the tours went down the mountain but were not willing to come back up again. That’s not hiking!
The next day I caught the night train back. It was all a bit of a disaster as the air conditioning had stopped working. Now before I endure criticism of being pampered and losing touch with the riff raff spirit I will say that it was not so much of the air conditioning turning off, it was the fact that the windows would not open, nor the doors. It was a sauna. All around me Vietnamese people were attempting to break the windows, we were approaching a near riot. That was until on one of the stops a railway worker got on with a butchers knife. Everyone went back to their booths and miraculously the air conditioning came on, much to the carriages delight.