The Strange and Serene in Sapa and Hanoi

After my sister left, I headed to the train station to grab the night train up north to Sapa. The night train was like VIP travel compared to the buses I had been taking before. The bunks were nearly long enough to stretch out in so I hardly complained for the extra hours of sleep when the 8 hour trip 11 hours. The only thing a bit strange was sharing the locked door cabin with three Vietnamese men. Maybe less strange then sharing the bus-bed in Laos with the girl, but there is something a little peculiar about falling asleep with three unfamiliar guys, but maybe the felt the same about me.

The train arrived in Lao Cai, a city that practically borders China and is the closest city to Sapa with a train station. From there it's an hour bus ride up steep rolling hills that offer some of the most stunning views of Southeast Asia. I was amazed by my first glimpses of the Sapa area. Mountains stacked with green terraced rice paddies that have been etched into the landscape by hand and hard work. The mist that settled in between valleys looked like something made for movies. And the scene stretches on for miles.

Sapa itself is a very small town nestled in between these hills. The quaint main street in lined with shops and restaurants catered to tourists. But somehow is still charming. Even the "natives" (what the Vietnamese call the local tribes people) with their black outfits, or striking red hats, are constantly smiling even as your refuse (for the thousandth time) their offer for a bracelet at a good price. Though all of that smiling could be due to the copious amounts of marijuana that seem to be consumed by local and tourist alike.

I had a pleasant couple of days in Sapa. The first day I went out with a group of British guys that I met. We rented some motos and managed to get ourselves lost off some tricky path in the middle of the most stunning scenery. Our motos were eventually stopped by the tricky mud slides, and rivers that were too hard to maneuver through, but not before we ran into a jovial local reeking of alcohol and barely managing his saw. When I say saw I literally mean a saw, the size of me(!) meant for cutting down trees! Our communication with him was limited, but we got that point that he wanted a ride into town when he tried to jump, saw and all, on the back of one of the motos. We managed to escape with apologies, and our lives, before heading back into town.

That night I met an Israeli couple that was staying in the same hostel as I was. They were great fun and we booked a trek together for the next day. The trek was beautiful, walking through some of the most stunning views, but with all the tourists it felt more like a middle school trip. Fortunately the company of the Israeli's and the view was great enough to make it a good afternoon. When we made it back, we had the best food I've had in all of Southeast Asia so far at the local market. Nothing compares to fresh food being cooked in a wok over coals right next to your table.

At night we headed out, Trang as our guide to get a massage from a parlor that apparently all the locals frequent. If anyone knows me, you know I'm apprehensive about touch. So when we arrived to this place with seedy pink lighting and was ushered upstairs to a room, told to take off my clothes, and lie on my back staring at floral heart and swan stickers that were pasted to the cieling, I was more than a little uncomfortable. The massage was nice, albeit awkward at times like when the girl jumped up on the bed, between my legs and massaged by calves. Weird. But overall not a terrible experience.

I came downstairs and felt slightly guilty. The atmosphere just seemed to indicate I'd done something wrong. But everyone was sitting around a table and Trung passed out more Vietnamese tea while he explained the appropriate way to smoke the waterpipe that every Vietnamese man smokes for Breakfast, Lunch, dinner, and more. We all somewhat successfully smoked the pipe, though it left some coughing and gasping for air, and others lightheaded and high (we were assured it was just tobacco) before headnig back to misty bar for a night of pool with the locals.

The next morning I had to leave early in order to catch my day train back in Hanoi. I booked the day one because seats were half the price as the night sleeper and I thought the scenary would be nice. The seats, however, were hard upright wooden booths, and the pain along with the noise of 50 overly jovial Vietnamese passengers in the car with me, distracted from any views that may have been had. I would maybe not opt for this 10 hour journey again.

Back in Hanoi, I negotiated for a cab to the airport where I was supposed to fly to Bangkok to  meet my sister again. by negotiate I took out all of the Dong (yes that is the Vietnamese currency, and yes jokes were made) left in my wallet and said this is all I have. It was still under so I offered to through in a few Kip, told him it was worth $2.50 and he accepted my negotiations.

From there we headed to the airport. Only not really. First my driver wanted to stop for food. Ok. i was hungry, but I had no money. He said it was no problem and we stopped for my last Vietnamese street meal of rice, veggies, soup, and coke. Back in the car the driver kept asking if i wanted to go to a hotel to shower or sleep before my flight. No dude. my flight is in 2.5 hours. Let's just go. "No money, no money," he kept saying as if that would somehow encourage me to go to the hotel with him. "Airport," was all I could say back.

So we drove. "Coffee?" "Airport." He stopped anyway, first for petrol (reasonable enough) then for tea and to take a hit from that water pipe. "Airport." I yelled out the window to him as he sipped his tea. Back on the highway, he kept trying to get my to drive. "No thanks." Before just trying to hold my hand, his stereo typically long Vietnamese fingernails scratching my palm. At this point I really feared I would miss my flight. But suddenly we were there and I nearly ran out of the cab to check in.

I should really get paid for the rest of this post because essentially it's going to be a raving endorsement for Qatar Airlines. Listen, now I know what a 5 star airline is like. Why it was the cheapset flight from Hanoi to Bangkok? I do not know and do not care. What airline passes out little mints before you take off? Unbelieveable. And a music, movie, and t.v. selection that rivals on demand cable! Plus the food was even good! I am not really a fan of flying, in fact I used to be absolutely terrified. I'm really ok now, but still get nervous with too much turbulence or something. Here, we were flying through a thunderstorm and I was stretched out over the entire empty row bouncing around wishing the flight would be longer! Only it wasn't. I thought about pretending to sleep through the stopover in Bangkok and head to Doha with them, but eventually I managed to pry myself out of their comfy seats and make my way off the plane. Besides, my sister was waiting at her hotel for me to arrive, so that's where I went.