Such a Sapa


Waking up at 6:00am is bad enough on its own. I always feel a little disoriented. But waking up at 6am on the Vietnam-China border in a city completely enveloped in fog is ten times worse.

Especially when you came there for the view!

Sapa is known for its beautiful mountains, which are covered with terraced rice fields. The fields are tended by the local Hmong population. They look slightly different from ethnic Vietnamese, and wear traditional costumes (which I absolutely love—they mix multiple colorful patterns, like plaids and flowers, and the overall effect is gorgeous).

I knew that the drive to Sapa from the station in Lao Cai would not be that pleasant when the driver started handing out the vomit bags. I never get car sick, but it was not much fun listening to the man behind me fill up his bag (and probably several others) throughout the long, winding drive up into the mountains. Especially since all I could do to distract myself was stare out the window at the pea soup.

After a considerable drive (an hour?), we arrived in Sapa. Because it’s so touristy, and on a mountain, it reminded me a bit of small town Austria or Switzerland—lots of tall, narrow hotels and restaurants. Many shops sold North Face jackets and pants, which they seem obsessed with in Vietnam.

When we arrived at our hotel the power was out. I told everyone that they should watch out—a hotel with no power at a remote mountain resort is a by-the-numbers Agatha Christie.

Our group was mostly made up of young Australians, as well as a Vietnamese couple (the woman, Ang, works in tourism in Hanoi and wanted to see the tour she keeps sending people to take) and a Korean guy my age, Peter, who is switching careers and as such is doing a legal internship in Hanoi.

Our guide met us in the hotel lobby, and urged everyone who wasn’t wearing shoes with treads to rent some boots from the business next door, which was offering rubber boots for $1 a day. They didn’t look terribly comfortable to me, but the Hmong all wear them, so they must be. He then told us that we should not take photos of Hmong people without their permission (which would probably involve giving them $1), and said we should not ask the price of anything they were selling unless we were serious about buying it. He further explained that the men worked in the morning, freeing up the women to help with tourism, then the women worked in the afternoon while the men rested. He didn’t say when the women got to rest.

We made our way to a square at the center of the town, where we were joined by a large group of Hmong women wearing their beautiful embroidered skirts, plaid head scarves, and rubber boots. (I would have taken photos, but $1 a photo seemed pretty steep!) Our guide explained that they would be joining us for the hike. We looked at each other nervously—we had a feeling they would be expecting us to spend a lot of money.

Our first stop was at a scenic overlook. At least I think it was, because we still couldn’t see anything but gray. It seemed to be a private home where the family made money by charging trekkers for using the bathroom. It was worth the price of admission, since two of the tiles were printed with X-rated images of naked women. (Ok, one of them may only have been rated R since she was holding some fruit in strategic places.) One of the Penthouse tiles was directly in front of the toilet; the other beside the mirror—presumably so you never had to entertain yourself!

At the (very) scenic overlook

At the (very) scenic overlook

As we wound our way down the mountain, the Hmong women chatted with us a bit. I told everyone my age and they told me theirs. (Unlike most Vietnamese, they looked much older than they were.) One was carrying a baby on her back, and I tried my darnedest to get the baby to smile without much success.

Eventually we spotted some green through the fog, and I crouched down to take a picture of the sliver of rice paddies that I could see. I needn’t have bothered; soon we were below the fog, and had sweeping vistas of breathtaking mountain fields, complete with water buffalo (how on earth do they get up there?!)

The mountain roads we were walking down were very narrow. The Hmong women had no problem at all walking briskly on the side of a cliff, but the rest of us preferred to stay away from the edge. But large trucks frequently surprised us, sending most of to hug the mountainside. I frequently walked in a foot-wide drainage ditch to save myself from having to pay attention.

Eventually we left the road and started walking down a muddy path in the trees. The Hmong woman nearest me took it upon herself to hold my hand the whole way so I wouldn’t fall. It was slightly embarrassing when I didn’t the help—but when I did I was very grateful! (Her hands were very rough and stained blue—I’m not sure why.)

Then we had to walk across a very tall bridge over a deep gorge—a bridge with no railings. I would not describe myself as afraid of heights—not compared to other people I know—but I did gulp slightly when I saw it. Fortunately, it proved to be wide enough (approximately eight feet if memory serves) that I didn’t feel in danger at all, and since it was concrete, I felt much safer on it than on my lower bamboo bridges I’ve crossed on this trip.

After that we arrived at the outskirts of the Hmong women’s village. I hope it doesn’t sound disrespectful if I say it was adorable. It was the closest thing I have ever seen to the Shire. We crossed a wobbly bamboo bridge over a river (later I saw water buffalo casually crossing the same bridge, apparently of their own accord). The bottoms of several of the terraces were level with us, and we saw ducks swimming in the flooded parts. The village was full of baby animals—chicks, piglets, puppies. Cute Overload should establish their headquarters there. Yes, the ground was a bit muddy and nobody seemed rich, but the vibe was a very happy one.

We ate lunch, and were indeed bombarded by requests to buy anything and everything. I knew that I was going to the Sunday market the next day, though, so I decided to wait.

Most of the Australians were staying in the village for home stays (which, once again, I hadn’t known were an option), so only Peter, Ang, her husband, and I were driven back to the hotel.

After long naps Peter and I met up again for dinner, which was included in the price of our trip—and therefore completely forgettable. Afterwards we decided to brave the fog to see a bit more of the town.

The town turned out to be much larger than either of us had expected—I might even call it a city. We went back to the central square, where our guide had told us a “love market” happened on Saturday nights (teenagers from the villages came to meet that special someone). Alas, we saw no love or even any market. (We did, however, go into a number of stores in search of Lunar New Year gifts for Peter’s parents. It’s the gift-giving holiday in Korea, and he wanted to get them something nice. He was looking for pants for his mother, whom he described as “very tall.” I asked if she were as tall as me (5’5”) but of course she wasn’t.

We ended up going for drinks in a bar full of westerners smoking hookahs and playing pool. We had fun guessing who was Australian and who was American. (Depressingly, Peter is much better at this game than I am.)

When we left the fog had somehow become even thicker—visibility was maybe 20 feet in front of us. And we were unsure how to find our way back to our hotel, so we ended up wandering up and down deserted streets. All the stores were closed, but many families lived in their stores, so Peter knocked on the door of a bakery where we could see a family watching TV and asked them where we could find our hotel.

Eventually we made it back—only to find that the front door was padlocked shut! At 11:00pm! After we rang the bell a few times with no result, Peter found a way in through the shop next door.

Our rooms were off the roof, where they was a little garden, and we ended up standing out there for a while, listening to water running in what we could only assume was a very big (and yet invisible to us) river. He said it was the first time he had heard silence since he came to Vietnam a month before.

And, of course, at that very moment someone honked their horn.

The next morning I woke up at 7:30am, eagerly anticipating a hot shower before my 9am tour. But almost as soon as I was out of bed I got a call from the front desk informing me that my tour actually left at 7:30! I rushed downstairs and hopped in a minibus headed for the Sunday market—3 hours away. My legs were killing me after the hiking the day before and being squished into the van didn’t help matters much, but at least the scenery (once we were below the fog) was nice.

My friend on the trip, since Peter had stayed behind to go on another hike, was a retired Australian named Mark whom I liked very much–while very much hoping that the Vietnamese wife whom he often referred to wasn’t my age. As we drove Mark and I pointed out “Chinese mountains” to each other (curved mountains that looked straight out of Chinese paintings, totally different from anything you’d find in Australia or the United States.)

The market turned out to be very, very large, with hundreds of stalls selling food and crafts, as well as a section selling farm animals. (I gave the water buffalo a wide berth after my experience in Hue!) Most of the sellers, as well as the patrons, were Hmong, which was nice because it wasn’t as touristy as I had feared. And since it was so crowded, there wasn’t that much pressure to buy.

After lunch we went to a different Hmong village—and I have to say, I wish we hadn’t. It was very poor and sad feeling. We went into a house and it was freezing cold and extremely spare, with a kitchen with a fire, a virtually empty living room with a dirt floor, and low-ceilinged bedrooms below a storage space for their rice. Ang gave some candy to the barefoot toddler who lived there; I wished I had something to give him. (Heat? Electricity? Options?)

Then we drove back to Lao Cai, where we had our pictures taken across the river from China, with the red flag waving in the background. I knew that I was about to be left at the train station five hours early(!), so I considered crossing into China for a  few hours, but I was afraid that something might go wrong and I might not make it back in time, so I decided to sit in a restaurant and work on my blog. A French couple who had been on the market trip, Jean-Baptiste and Yeter, sat down beside me, and we chatted a bit until Peter and the Aussies showed up a couple of hours later and I went out to say hello to them.


The Vietnamese couple reappeared just in time to get on the train, but, alas, I was not in their car this time. This time it was me and three Vietnamese men I had never seen before, who proceeded to ignore me (which was probably just as well).

In the morning a car was waiting to take me back to my hostel, and back to big city life.


Jungle Fever

398060_10151231626586025_915081573_n[1]Before I came to Thailand, the last time I saw an elephant outside of a zoo, it was standing in the middle of a road in Kruger National Park in South Africa, giving our Volkswagen a look that said, “Get out of my way or else.” Its meaning was so unmistakable that my friend Maggie, who was driving, immediately shifted into reverse and sped in the opposite direction.

At the time I wished there were a way to signal somehow to the elephant that we weren’t like the other humans—we weren’t interested in her tusks or in mounting her head on our wall. We just wanted to admire her (and perhaps, if she were willing, cuddle a bit.)

So when I read that in Thailand it was possible to ride elephants through the jungle and even go swimming with them in rivers, I was immediately sold.

It was only later, when I started reading that the elephants are often badly treated and that it is uncomfortable for them to carry people, especially on seats that have to be strapped onto them, that I started to have misgivings. I was hopeful that we could book something at a place with a reputation for being humane—a place where the elephants didn’t have to do tricks (at the place across from our guest house, we saw the elephants walking on their hind legs). Unfortunately, the place that our guide recommended was all booked up, so we were faced with a difficult decision: risk supporting a place that might not be as good to its elephants, or leave Thailand without interacting with any? We chose the former, but I have to say, I wish we hadn’t.

Overall our experience was pretty good—we arrived at the elephant farm and were immediately told to climb a platform to board the elephants, who were instantly standing below us, wearing seats that were about three feet wide. Isaure climbed easily onto the one we shared—I hesitated for a moment, eyeing the 10-foot drop in the space between the platform and our elephants back, but I made it. Khalid had a slightly smaller one that could only carry one person. The mahouts (elephant trainers) sat directly on the elephants’ heads, armed with a small scythe which ours fortunately never used except to cut down vines for the elephant to snack on. However, another mahout who was part of our group of about five elephants hit his elephant very hard, and repeatedly, on the temple a few minutes into the ride. The sound was cringe-worthy and I am pretty sure it drew blood (the next time I saw it I noticed purple patches on its forehead—Khalid and Isaure and I were not 100% sure if that purple stuff was blood or perhaps some sort of antiseptic. We tried to research the color of elephant blood but our internet access has been so spotty we didn’t get very far.)

After that it was hard to really enjoy the experience. Especially since the terrain was not particularly varied or interesting—most of the time it looked like your average deciduous forest, though we did walk through an interesting grove of rubber trees.

The highlight was when we arrived at a river and were told to climb off onto a tree house-platform so that we could swim with the elephants. All of us tourists (the three of us plus a couple of Austrians and some Koreans) stripped down to our bathing suits and climbed onto a big boulder beside the widest parts of the river. The mahouts took the seats off the elephants and let them into the river (the elephant which had been hit earlier was kept on a chain but allowed in the water). The mahouts encouraged us to go in, but most of us hesitated; in the water, the elephants were suddenly intimidating—it was plain to see that they could easily crush us if they wanted to. (I also couldn’t help but remember a brochure in my travel doctor’s office that warned of the horrible diseases you can contract from fresh water in the tropics.) Khalid jumped right in, and I decided I had better make the most of the experience and follow. I hate jumping into cold water so I picked a shallower spot and slid into the stream. The elephants did not seem terribly interested in killing me (or interested in me at all), so I approached them and began patting one on the back who was facing the other way. The mahouts encouraged me to climb onto its back. I pulled myself halfway up and enjoyed the sensation of feeling the sun on my back and cool water on my legs. But of course the elephant moved, sending me plunging back into the river. After a few minutes Khalid and I had had enough (especially since the water was rapidly filling with elephant dung) and we climbed out. We joked to Isaure (who had been snapping pictures from the boulder) that if Khalid and I got sick the next day and she didn’t, at least we would know why. But then she decided to carpe diem, so I filmed her laughing on an elephant’s back from the shore.

The rest of the walk was uneventful and mostly pleasant—but I couldn’t shake my feelings of guilt. The mahout would not be hitting the elephant if people like me didn’t want to interact with wild animals. What did I expect? How else do you get an animal of that size to submit to tiny humans? I made a mental note to make a big donation to an elephant sanctuary.

After the ride we fed some bananas to the elephants in their pens (including a mother and rather sickly looking baby), then were deposited back at our guest house. We were about to move down the island to Bang Bao Bay, a comparatively remote place, so we decided to take care of some errands while we were in town. We had some photos taken for our Cambodia visas, and booked seats on a bus to Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat). It’s an all-day bus ride, for which they are charging us 500 baht (there are 30 baht to a dollar.) It’s hard to understand why that is so cheap when the cabs on Koh Chang are so expensive. (Our cab to our new accommodations in Bang Bao Bay from Kai Bae, a drive of maybe 15 minutes, was 450 baht.)

Our new accommodations look very much like an American motel, with little rooms all in a row, facing the road, which borders the sea. It is much quieter than Kai Bae—it takes a good 15 minutes to walk to the village. The rooms are around a corner of the hillside from the reception area, which is basically a large verandah overlooking a rocky cove. Hammocks, tables, arm chairs, a swing, and a bar fill the open air room.

As soon as we checked in we noticed a path along the cliff opposite the reception area, and decided to check it out. The path was a homemade wooden boardwalk over the sea (there were patches where I had to steel myself to keep walking.) When we reached the end we were very surprised to find a deck with a small bar. Apparently it is open every day from 5pm-7pm, so you can have a cocktail and watch the sunset.

There were stone steps leading further up the cliff from the deck, so we decided to climb up (almost vertically) and see what was there. It turned out to be jungle—and much more jungly-jungle than we had trekked in with the elephants. Vines hung from every tree. Palm leaves littered the path. The feel was very tropical and, despite our proximity to our hotel, very remote.

Our mahout had told us there were cobras in Thailand, so as we walked we mused about what cobras ate (I seemed to remember that they like chicken)—and as a result got more and more anxious. Khalid and I were only wearing flip flops, and none of us were wearing long pants, so we felt pretty ill-equipped to tangle with snakes of any size. Right when I was feeling most nervous I heard a noise from my left that definitely was not made by the wind. And then another. For a minute I wondered if there were other hikers there. And then Isaure said: “Monkeys!” I looked up and saw two large monkeys high in the trees. Relief flooded over me—as well as excitement, since it was the first wild animal I’d seen in Thailand. Since the sun was setting and we were dressed like “stupid Americans,” as Khalid put it, we decided to come back the next day.

We had dinner on the verandah. I gave in and had my first hamburger since arriving in Thailand. It did not taste like a hamburger. But it did have a slice of ham on it. So there’s that.

Khalid and Isaure turned in, but I stayed up to FaceTime with my parents. It really is remarkable that you can see and talk to another person a world away without so much as a SIM card. I don’t even have a phone—I use my iPod Touch.

After that I found out that after the monkeys and the hammocks, the best thing about our new accommodations is the mattresses, which are in serious danger of putting the local masseurs out of business.