The 4 hour bus-boat tango back to Hanoi seemed less taxing on the way back from Cat Ba. All was going smoothly till we arrived at the bus station in Hanoi. In a moment of weakness we agreed to get in a slightly scruffy looking taxi. The fact that he had to roll it out its parking place should have sounded alarm bells. I distinctly remember Milla saying, “Great, he’s pushing his taxi…”
Anyway we had driven about 500 metres when I noticed the meter read 46,000 dong. The whole trip back to the hotel should cost about 20,000 at most. So we demanded he stop and the kids watched bemused as we bundled them all out onto the side of what is probably Vietnam’s only freeway. Milla was horrified when Julie berated the man loudly saying “you are a bad man, a bad man!!”.
“Mum, you can’t speak to other adults like that!!”, she wailed, more than a little confused by the whole spectacle.
It’s just another of those unexpected outcomes of travel with children. They get to see their parents carrying on in ways they are never likely to encounter in their everyday lives.
We pitched up to the train station in plenty of time for the 9.10 pm departure. Too much time as it turned out. No sooner had we climbed aboard and settled into our nice air-conditioned cabin than the power abruptly died and we were left sitting in what amounted to a dark oven.
Light and air were absent until the train finally left at about 9.45. But the damage had been done. Happy children and become hot and tired and the parents had followed the same path. Still once everyone was asleep it was comfortable enough.
Unless your name happened to be Julie and you were sharing with one squirmy four year old called Jude.
Arrived in Lao Cai at around 8 am and found a minibus up the mountain to Sapa. That final hour on the mini bus wiped out the kids who had been doing pretty well till then. When we finally reached the Sapa Summit hotel, everyone was ready for a rest. Not that anyone actually had one of course except for Julie.
Sapa is a beautiful place. Perched on the side of the mountain it has panoramic views over the terraced rice paddies in the valley below. We had been blessed with a very rare winter day. The sun was shining and the mountains were all cloud free. Apparently at this time of year it is quite common to see nothing in Sapa but mist, cloud and rain.
We had a quiet day exploring the town, which is filled with the colourful local hill tribe people, mainly the Hmong and Dzao. Boy they are ferocious salespeople and it doesn’t take them long to spot the new kids in town. You walk down the street gathering more and more Hmong women all waving beautiful embroidered goods at you. The scrum increases snowball style the further you go.
The wares for sale were beautiful and it was so tempting to utter the fatal words “how much?” But we knew that would be it. That tiny hint of interest would be sniffed by the canny women instantly and you would be committed to buy or die trying. So we kept quiet and just kept saying no thanks.
Unlike some of the worlds legendary sellers these women seem to retain a sense of humour about the whole game. In places like Egypt or Morocco, the bargaining can turn nasty quite quickly and you can feel quite intimidated.
These women were as persistent as they come and would wait for you outside you hotel room, remembering exactly who you were for days at a time. And yet they always had a twinkle in their eye and a wry smile which acknowledged that it was a game that either of us could walk away from if we wanted to.
And while they were keen to sell something, they also seemed genuinley friendly with a cheeky, light-hearted demeanour.
We organised a half day walk through the local villages with a local Hmong guide and so the next day we set off with Sho (apologies to the Hmong for the terrible spelling).
After a misty morning it was another beautiful day and within half and hour we were walking amongst rice fields, with Sho explaining about the lives of the locals. The kids had a lovely time running around outside, spotting piglets, ducks and buffalo. We crossed an Indiana Jones styled suspension bridge complete with missing planks and stopped for a simple lunch in an eatery by the river.
We visited the local school which I’m sure was an eye-opener for the kids.
Some of the Hmong and Dzao women we saw in Sapa magically materialised in the village, “remember me, you say maybe buy later” seemed to be the good-natured refrain.
We did buy a blanket from a lovely old lady in the village. Boy that would take some explaining when we met our regular vendors back in town…
And of course later in town we did decide the time was right to actually bite the bullet and buy some stuff. Plenty of “you buy from me too” to ride out, which Julie did with aplomb. One young girl who attached herself to me was commendably honest. Her opening line was “you buy from me, I stop following you…” It was so funny that both predator and prey got the giggles. And yes I did eventually by something from her just because she was so likeable.
At the end of the melee we ended up with pillowcases, pants for Julie, bags and various bits and pieces for the kids.
The scenery in Sapa is wonderful but for us, I think Sapa will always be the gorgeous people that make it such a special place.