BootsnAll Travel Network

In the (Indochina) Loop Again

My bus from Kunming to the Vietnam border town of Hekou left promptly at 7pm. The sun was setting quickly, and after only about 20 minutes, it was too dark to read and since there were no lights on the bus, I pulled out my handy but geeky headlamp and read some more. The bus seemed to be lurching and having some problems, and after another 15 minutes or so, we pulled over at a rest area, where we were suddenly stuck for about an hour while the driver and his helper, plus two men from this little repair shop took out the gear shift and messed around with some bus parts for a while. After going to get another part and installing it, we set off again, a little late but nothing to be concerned about. Or so I thought.

After another 1/2 hour or so, I shut off my headlamp and tried to get comfortable in my little bed. Finally, pure exhaustion took over and I slept, a bit of tossing and turning, waking up everytime I needed to turn over, but managed a few hours. I was fully asleep when I woke up around midnight, to hammering and soddering and drilling. Not really knowing what was happening, I looked around and noticed hardly anyone else was sleeping either. People were getting on and off the bus or smoking and kind of milling around. As it happens, we were in a true repair shop now, and whatever was broken was not easily fixable. Unable to get any proper sleep with the noise, but unwilling to wander around this area by myself at night, I was confined to my bed, and tried to get some sleep. After what seemed like eternity, and was about 4 hours in total, our bus was repaired and off we went to the border, now very much behind schedule.

Only two hours later, the sun was coming up enough to wake me and everyone else on the bus. People started stirring and moving around, and it was the first time I noticed we were in the mountains and hilly jungles of southern China. About an hour later, around the same time we were supposed to have arrived at the border, we pulled over to a rest area, which I assumed to be just another toilet stop.I got off the bus, brushed my teeth and used the toilet, and came back to the bus. No one else was getting back on, so I stretched my legs as long as I could. There seemed to be some commotion, and many passengers were talking and arguing with the driver, about what I couldn’t understand. A few minutes later, a few people hopped into a passing mini-bus taxi and took off, and it finally dawned on me that it wasn’t a rest stop at all, but the bus had broken down again. This time for good.

I approached a young Chinese man, someone I thought might speak some English, and asked him what was happening. In broken English, he stated, “The bus is broken; finished.” Sighing, I went back on the bus to get my things, and noticed a young white guy sleeping on one of the top bunks. The Chinese guy I talked to woke him up, and tried to explain we needed to get off the bus as it was broken down. Turns out that Adam, the only other foreigner on the bus, slept through most of the nights festivities, and now, grabbing his stuff off the bus, was in the same predicament I was in. Luckily, the Chinese guy agreed to get us on a mini-bus taxi to the border that he was taking, at our own expense of course. Another mini-bus taxi pulled up, and our helper quickly ran over and secured us three seats, and after agreeing to the fare (like we had a choice) drove off into the hillside. Knowing that we had stopped for about 4 hours already, I knew that we were nowhere near the border.

Our minibus taxi drove on, through the windy and dirt roads, passing small villages along the way. Adam and I talked the whole time about our travels. He started in York in England, and has traveled overland all the way to China, something I’m not sure I’d have the guts to do, and was trying to avoid flying anywhere. We finally reached one bigger town, and thought it was the border, but in reality, we just had to switch minibuses to continue on our trip. Finally, after about 5 hours, we reached the border town of Hekou and thanked our Chinese helper man for getting us there. We quickly bypassed all the moto and tuk tuk drivers and walked to the border, which was only a few hundred meters away. Border crossings are always interesting, and this one was no exception. The Chinese exit official seemed to haveĀ a serious concern that I had two single entry visas to China, and just could not figure out my entry and exit points and dates. He studied my passport for at least 15 minutes, asking me a few questions. I was slightly embarrassed at the fuss, and Adam laughed at me, until it was his turn and he had more trouble than me. Some of his visas were from rarely seen Central Asian countries, or “the Stans” and his official took a long time looking over his as well. Normally its the country that you are trying to enter that gives you a hard time, but the Chinese people just didn’t seem to want to let us go. Finally, after a crazy long time, we were stamped and let through.

We walked across the bridge and the Red River and got to the Vietnam border, where entry was a breeze as we had our visas already. We found the minibuses that would take us to Sapa, and luckily for us, the price was exactly the amount of money I had bought from Mark and Linda in China. The Vietnamese dong has an exchange rate with the US$ of 15,000 to 1, and our hour minibus ride cost 25,000 Vietnamese dong. After another windy road, we arrived at Sapa, a gorgeous hill station set up in the hills of rice paddies and green valleys. We found the guesthouse that Mark and LInda recommended, and bargained for a good room with a great view over the hills and valleys. A bit worn out from our ordeal but not wanting to waste a day, we set off to explore the little town and get some information about treks and walks, and had some dinner overlooking the valley and watched the sunset. It was good to be back in Southeast Asia, and the difference in mood and atmosphere and attitude of the people was immediately noticable. Plus the fact that almost everyone spoke good English and we had English channels on our TV made me very aware I was out of China for good.

Our guesthouse rented a DVD player and movies for $1, so we watched Syriana, a good movie but was hampered by the Vietnamese subtitles blocking the real Arabic subtitles of part of the movie. The last 10 minutes of the movie also cut out, which was so frustrating, but just so very Asia, and luckily Adam had seen the movie before and told me what happened. We fell asleep to Enemy of the State and nice cool breezes coming in our windows, a huge change from anywhere else in Asia. The next day, we went to a few more travel agencies, and booked a two day trek and homestay in a nearby village. There isn’t a whole lot to do in Sapa aside from trekking and wandering around the town, so that is pretty much what we did, and aside from some internet time we just relaxed and ate and hung out in the small town. We found a small bar with a pool table and some good music and hung out there for a bit, but since we had an early morning of hiking, we called it an early night.

In the morning, we woke up to a rainy, cloudy, altogether crappy day to go hiking, but quickly packed our rain gear and checked out of our room. We met our travel agent at a nearby hotel to meet for our hike in the morning and after some confusion, we were put in group with couple from Australia and two French people who met on the train up to Sapa. Our guide was a young Hmong girl who lived in one of the nearby villages that we would stop at, and as probably required by her job, she was dressed in their traditional clothing. Her English was perfect and she was an enthusiastic guide, explaining everything to us that we asked, and probably telling us more than she should have about her tribe and some more negative stuff about the impact that these tours have on the local villages. Because of the rain, our trail was very muddy and we were slipping and sliding all over the place. I was dismayed to see alot of other groups along the same trail, and realized exactly hour touristy this two day excursion was. There were at least 50 people doing the exact same route, and would end up staying in the same village as us. But the scenery was really beautiful, and while the trek wasn’t really a trek but a walk through the hills, it was a nice day outside and we learned alot about the local villages and different minority tribes that live in the area.
Along the entire trail were many local women and young girls that followed us and helped us over the rougher parts of the trail, carrying jewelry and embroidery that they would try to sell us when our hike was over.You could choose to get annoyed by the women, but for the most part they were very nice and talked to us along the way. They didn’t actually try to sell us anything until we stopped for lunch, and by then they had walked about three hours with us already. I was the only one in my group who didn’t buy a blanket from them. Beautiful as they were, I wasn’t prepared to carry it through Vietnam at that point. After lunch we continued on, past a waterfall and some more scenery, before reaching our guides village. She showed us her house, and also showed us how the village had rigged a hydro electric power supply along the small river. We continued on with our walk ,reaching our final destination for the night, which was a homestay at a families house in the one of the villages. Normally for a homestay, you meet the family and eat with them, and play with the children of the family and neighboring houses. But here, we learned from our guide, the family had 3-4 groups stay a week, and were probably completely sick of it. So we barely spoke to them, and our guide handled everything for us, setting us up in the house with our beds, and getting us drinks and bringing us our dinner. The family did show us how to roll springrolls, which was sort of interesting but I would rather have been shown what all went into the mixture. After a very good dinner we settled outside with plenty of mosquito repellant, beer, cards and some rice wine, which is really more of a hard liquor and tastes awful but gets the job done quickly.

It was getting late and we were all pretty sleepy, so we went to bed fairly early, not wanting to disturb the family any longer than necessary. Our guide told us that of the $20 we paid for our tour, the family only gets 20,000 dong of that for each person, which is about $1.30. I feared to ask what our guide got of that money, and what went straight to the travel agent. After breakfast we set off again, this time heading down towards the valley and heading back towards the road. We would walk only a few kilometers before our bus would pick us up and head back to Sapa. It was a nice two days out, but the trekking wasn’t very challenging and many people were disappointed by this, as they had seemingly been told it would be a much harder walk. We got back to Sapa in the early afternoon, checked back into our guesthouse and showered and relaxed for the rest of the day. We went back to our pool bar and met up with Keiran and Rachel, the couple from Oz and had some drinks with them and played some pool. They were heading to Hanoi on the night train, and after a few drinks they said goodbye and set off for the train station. Adam and I stayed and played pool, where he proceeded to get his butt kicked every game by a young local girl.

Sapa is the kind of place that sucks you in, so to speak. It’s easy to just hang around there for a couple of days, and that is exactly what we did. The next day, seeing as we didn’t have much to do, we decided we would head to our pool bar early and play pool and cards and listen to some good music all day. Vietnam makes wine called Dalat wine, and while it won’t win any awards , is drinkable, and I proceeded to have many many glasses of the stuff throughout that day and night. The bar began to fill up later in the day, and quickly became crowded with loads of other tourists and locals alike. Before I realized it, it was almost midnight, and after having more than my fair share of Vietnamese wine, I decided to pay my bill and head for home. Adam was still enjoying his pool, but the bar closed shortly after and he wrapped up his night as well.

I came to my senses the next morning, and finally booked my train ticket to get out of Sapa and head to Hanoi. Adam was going to stay and climb Fansipan mountain, and tried to convince me to do it with him, but after my experience in CHina in the altitude, I chickened out. I wanted to get moving south anyway, so we exchanged emails, and I told him I’d wait for him in Hanoi so we could head to Halong Bay together. My bus left for the train station at 6pm, and after a day of putzing around again, I headed off back towards Lao Cai border town, which was also where the train was leaving from. On the bus I chatted with a guy from France, and we watched each others bags as we each went to get some food and water for our train ride. When they finally made the call for our train bording, we went up to the door, only to be turned away and the officials pointing outside. There were other tourists who had problems with their tickets as well, and we finally figured out we had to get stamped by the train officials on our hotel vouchers to get on the train. After what seemed like some small chaos and miscommunication, we all finally got our stamps and headed back to the train. I said goodbye the French guy, and went to find my cabin.

Much to my now non-surprise, I couldn’t find my cabin. Mine was numbered 29, and they went up to 28. I found a conducter and showed him my ticket, which he stared at for a while, and then motioned for me to follow him, quickly! I finally caught up with him, and he showed me into a small room at a corner of the carriage, with only two beds in it, that was clearly normally used for the staff to sleep in. Seeing as this sort of thing only happens to me, I was immediately frustrated, and became pissed off when it was apparent I would be expected to share this little cubicle with one other strange man. I found the conductor again, and while he didn’t speak English, my gestures and general tone of voice made it apparent I was not happy and wanted to move. He motioned for me to get my things, and I followed him two carriages down, where he showed me to another corner box with two beds, and one strange man sitting on the bottom bunk. Noticing I was now in the same carriage as the French guy, I went down to his cabin, and he said he thought they had an empty bed in his, so I grabbed my things and put them in his cabin. The conductor came by, and seeing me there, started gesturing me to get back to my cell, and I flat out refused. I paid the same amount as everyone else and I was not sleeping in that place with just one guy. Seeing that I meant business and wasn’t going to budge, he motioned for me to again, grab my bags and follow him. I lost him in a maze of other passengers arguing with other conductors, apparently all pissed off about something. He finally found me a bed in a normal cabin, but why I couldn’t stay in the other one I never found out.

My fellow cabinmates was another young French guy who got screwed out of a 1st class cabin and wanted his money back (haha) and a middle aged VIetnamese-American couple who was visiting family and taking a vacation. It was now almost 9, and after all this racing after the conductor and dragging my now heavy bags all over the place, I was hot and sweaty and tired. I quickly got into my bed, and was instantly asleep. For about an hour, until the loud screeches of the train and lurching sideways and forward woke me up. And this continued the entire way to Hanoi, me dozing and then being woken up by either the movement or noise of the train, or the snoring of the old guy in the bunk above me. We arrived in Hanoi at 5:30am, and not having a clue where I was or what was going on, hopped in a taxi to a guesthouse in my guidebook. The city was barely awake, with hardly any traffic, but as we passed the Hoan Kim Lake in the center of town, and I saw hundreds of local Vietnamese doing exercises and playing badminton and games, I knew that I was in a totally different place altogether from Sapa, and was looking forward to exploring a city I might actually enjoy.

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