Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: kiva, microfinance, sapa, vietnam, xanthi kouvatas
The alarm goes off this bright Sunday morning and instead of my usual automatic ‘hit snooze button and put on black velvet eye-mask to block out the light’ response, I enthusiastically jump out of bed, put the kettle on and with my dulcet tones at their best, hit the shower. Today three of my best friends ( Miss D, Miss M and Miss A ) fly into Hanoi to come visit me. Their flight arrives at 10.30am and I want to surprise them by meeting them at the airport. ( I was very crafty and gave them detailed instructions as to how to get to my apartment in order to throw them off the scent of my surprise ). I catch the local bus to the airport, which is a very scenic 70 minute bus ride from downtown Hanoi and costs all of 5,000 Vietnamese Dong ( approximately 30 cents ).
I arrive at the airport and excitedly head to the arrivals hall. My good intentions however were foiled by the Hanoi airport signage incorrectly stating that my friends would come through Gate B when really they came through Gate A. Luckily one of my friends sent a text message informing me of their arrival and imminent embarkation into a taxi. I broke into a run to the taxi stand whilst simultaneously texting furiously to halt their departure. A little while later we are excitedly hugging, greeting each other and chatting away, safely together in a cab back to my place. The first few hours are spent catching up and sharing their gifts – chai tea, various wines ( including a sticky for which I am notoriously partial ), Lindt chocolate and some of my mum’s homemade spanakopita. I truly have the best mother and friends in the world! The next day and a half I joyfully spend as tour guide showing off my new hometown – my favourite streets, shops, cafes, restaurants. My friends are avid shoppers and provide wonderful assistance to the Vietnamese economy – and I don’t do too badly either!
Tuesday night we are off to Sapa, a stunning mountain region in northern Vietnam full of picturesque rice paddies and ethnic minorities that still wear traditional dress and speak in dialects. The only way to get to Sapa is via train and we depart Hanoi on the 8 hour overnight train journey. We had booked a first class sleeper carriage with 4 bunk beds. Initially I was dazzled by images of the Orient Express and romantic train journeys. Alas the reality was starkly different! The carriage was tiny, the bathroom of the type that makes you cross your legs and will your bladder to stay closed and the pillows….We all got out wraps, t-shirts and the like to cover the pillows as none of us were brave enough to place our heads on them in their faded yellowish condition. After a few hours of playing “Favourites’ and ‘Deserted Island’ ( What’s your favourite concert/ holiday moment/sound etc. and What 5 CDs/movies/books etc would you take to a deserted island ) we sort of fall asleep. Have I mentioned the air-conditioning? It’s near arctic in the carriage and those of us in the top bunks add more layers as the thought of getting under the covers does not appeal! Finally we arrive in Lao Cai ( the train station near Sapa ) and board the bus for the 1 hour trip to Sapa itself. It is 7am and we all sit in the bus in a zombie trance. Mercifully the bus finally arrives at our final destination and it’s like we have entered paradise. A smiling man awaits us outside our gorgeous stone – Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel. An Aussie accent belonging to Pete Wilkes – owner of Sapa Rooms and the perfect host – welcomes us. Pete ushers us in with words which resemble manna from heaven ( “Let’s get you fed and then you can shower and sleep for a few hours as your rooms are ready” ). After a delicious breakfast of fresh local produce we do indeed sleep and after a few hours a new zeal returns. Life is wonderful again. In the afternoon we trek to a village called Cat Cat, only 3 kms from Sapa, but it’s pretty much straight up and down so it’s a good test of the butt and calves. We have wonderful local guide – May – who speaks fantastic English which she taught herself. She tells us about typical village life as well as her own life as we walk past stunning rice paddies, water buffaloes and the like. We reach a waterfall which is obviously a popular location and at this time is being frequented by some local students. May wistfully looks at them and says “I wish I could go to university” and at that moment my heart breaks for her. She obviously has initiative and curiosity and wants to learn and experience more of the world, but does not have the financial ability to be able to do so. Struggling to say the appropriate thing, we comment that maybe her future children will be able to go to university. She perks up at that idea and we continue our trek. We reluctantly bid May farewell at the end of the day – it feels like we have made a friend.
Back at Sapa Rooms we feel like we are at home. We enjoy cocktails and another delicious meal – it’s going to be hard finding better food than this in Sapa. Have I mentioned how funky the decor of Sapa Rooms is? Pete has eclectic taste and interesting sculpture and local textiles abound throughout the hotel. With the lack of sleep from the previous night, the shock of the day’s exercise and the anticipation of tomorrow’s 17km trek on our minds, we have an early first night in Sapa.
Morning. The local market situated next to the hotel ensures no-one sleeps in. It’s another picture postcard day. As we eat breakfast, we notice a crowd of local Red Dzai women in their intricate costumes outside the hotel peering at us through the window. In transpires that it is their village that we are trekking to today and as we are eventually to learn, each of them adopts one of us for the day and walks with us to Lao Chai, 11kms from Sapa. But more about that in a few sentences. The trek to Lao Chai is truly breathtaking and our digital cameras fill with photos of mountains, rice fields, creeks, locals in intricate costumes. It is just before the beginning of rice harvest season so we are fortunate to enjoy fields of gold and lime green – in a few weeks time they will be gone and stalks will remain in their place. Some villages have already started to harvest and we watch as they toil in their fields, manually harvesting. It certainly looks like hard work. And it’s equal opportunity work as both men and women work the fields. Although the women all wear their full and heavy costumes while working, whereas the men wear modern t-shirts and lightweight pants. Why don’t the men wear traditional costumes we ask? They find it too hot is the response. The poor dears! Through all of this our women remain by our sides, pointing out things in their limited English and holding our hands as we gingerly cross creeks via slippery rocks. They make hearts out of grass and flowers for us to wear in our hair and they compete with each other to make the biggest heart. It makes the day more delightful but we just know that somewhere along the way the hard sell will commence. And it does after lunch. “You buy from me. You buy from me” rings out as we finish our meal. It’s obviously a set routine and they only try to sell to their adopted tourist – no-one cuts in to take another person’s tourist. Although the handiwork is of a high quality, it’s just not to my taste so I politely decline. I do however discreetly press 50,000 Dong ( about $US3 ) into my woman’s hand and she is quite delighted. I know it doesn’t seem a lot, but the average rural Vietnamese family makes about 150,000 Dong a week ( just under $US10 ) so she has just earned nearly a third of her family’s weekly income. She hugs me numerous times and as we leave she rushes after me with a small gift – a small embroidered string which she proudly ties around my wrist.
Trekking over, we get motorbikes back to Sapa. The ride is a little hairy, especially the bit when we ride through a small waterfall while only half a metre away is a sharp drop! Nonetheless we all arrive safely back to our hotel, happy and glowing from the day’s adventure. Before dinner we treat ourselves to a divine foot reflexology massage. Sheer bliss! Then dinner accompanied by a few bottles of wine. At this point we feel very merry and comfortable and raid Pete’s music collection looking for music to dance to – I told you we felt like we were at home! After causing enough chaos we eventually head to bed. Sleep comes quickly until I awake to a sound I have never heard in my life! It sounds like somebody is being murdered in our room! What the hell is that I ask my room-mate Miss D?! Better not to think, she sagely responds. But now my brain is awake and I have worked it out – it’s a pig being slaughtered in some market in our periphery. I mentally note not to order bacon for breakfast. Then back to bed.
The next morning I was the only one keen to head out on a trek – the rest of the ladies decided to have massages and wander around. So I headed out on my personal trek with Su May – another fabulous local guide with a worldliness that belies her roots. She is 25 years old and tells me she is the black sheep of the family as she left the family home to live in Sapa and works as a guide. Her mother initially though her lazy, but now after 7 years they have accepted her less than traditional work. Su May is married with a gorgeous 2 year old daughter and I am quite impressed when she tells me that her husband is 5 years younger than her – you go girl! The village we are visiting ( Tapin ) is actually her village and I get to meet her 3 sisters – 2 older and 1 younger, her brother-in-law and her younger brother – she is 1 of 8 children. Today’s trek is the perfect complement to yesterday as instead of scenery we are deep in the village, visiting people’s homes and having cups of tea. At the end of my village visit I enjoy a hot bath of traditional local herbs whilst sitting in a large wine barrel. It is amazingly therapeutic and I stay in for quite a while. Su May starts to get worried but I assure her that all is okay. She tells me that the local women take these same herbs in baths and teas for 10 days after childbirth and then they are fine to go back to the fields to work.
Back to Sapa Rooms where it’s time to bid Pete a fond farewell and head back to Hanoi via the dreaded train. It feels so sad to leave Sapa Rooms – I have done a lot of travel and I can honestly rate it as one of my top 5 places I have ever stayed at. If you ever go to Sapa you MUST stay there. And no I am not getting a commission! Now I am not sure whether it was the herb bath, but the train ride back home is nowhere near as hideous and this time I sleep. Before you know it we are back in Hanoi. Although I need to add that before sleeping we played charades. Now the problem with playing charades with close friends is that you know each other too well and we were guessing everything after just one word or even no words. My favourite moment is when I chose book and after telling them that it had a 6 word title, Miss M immediately correctly guessed ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – a book I absolutely adore but which she hates!
Saturday night. It’s only a few hours until my birthday, which is the main reason my gorgeous friends are here – to help me celebrate in style. Didn’t I say I had the best friends in the world? Tonight we are off to ‘Restaurant Bobby Chin’, which is one of the THE fine dining establishments and cocktail bars in Hanoi. There is also another reason for choosing this restaurant – it is actually the place where I celebrated my 30th birthday at what seems like yesterday, but was in fact a while ago now! The decor these days is opulent red drapes and mood lighting, with a witty menu and attentive service. Good food, champagne and wine follow and we eventually move to the backstairs cocktail/shisha bar. Shishas surprisingly are quite big in Hanoi! For the uninitiated, they are Middle Eastern water pipes used for smoking. In our case we chose various herbal fruit concoctions – not tobacco. Many more cocktails later ( including one interestingly called ‘Sandra’s G-String’ ) and it is now officially my birthday. Much more merriment ensues and eventually a taxi home.
The next day is sad as both Miss D and Miss A must leave due to work commitments. And then there were 2. Miss M remains for another 2 weeks. Initially we were a bit down but then started to perk up as we thought about the adventures that still lay ahead.
Look out for the next instalment – Girls on Tour Part 2.
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