Never say never!
The Sapa tour couldn't have started any worse; I was ready and waiting at the hotel at 7pm, but after both 8pm and then 9pm passed I was worried. The staff tried calling the office to no avail, and after sitting with them as they picked their noses and explored their hair for foreign bodies I was getting a little fed up of their company. They finally got through to some sort of tour guide at 9.15, when a woman shouted in very bad English to get to the train station as soon as possible. I was getting a little irate at this point, trying not to shout back down the phone at her as I wanted to get on the tour. She kept on putting the phone down on me, but the hotel staff called her again and managed to ascertain that she wanted me to go to the station for the train at 9.30pm. Great. They tried to put me on the back of some random's motorbike, which I refused to do, and so the bloke from the hotel took me on his bike, helmet too this time. My huge rucksack was balanced on the front of the bike as I watched his helmet rather than the bikes sailing past my left and right. It was only scary when we stopped, as I was unsure where to put my feet to balance the weight of the bag at the front. We arrived at the station at 9.30pm, and the woman was just sitting on her bike, she said they couldn't find me as they had the wrong address - twaddle. She gave me a ticket and told me to follow a group of Chinese, the tour was not looking good. I managed to find my carriage and saw that I was sharing a four-bed room with three Vietnamese men who simply stared at me as I took my shoes off and did some acrobatics to get on the top bunk. One of them did kindly help me launch my rucksack up there, so it wasn't all bad. The bed was clean and surprisingly long, so I slept through until the 5am knock on the door as we pulled in Lao Cai.
It was surprisingly organised getting off the train, I went straight to a sign that said 'Sapa Summit Hotel' and checked my name on their list, then waited speaking to two Australian men around Mum and Dad's age, they hated Vietnam after three days and yet still had two weeks left. I told them about my drama getting to the station and made the cardinal sin of stating 'it can only get better', how wrong I was. We walked over to the bus, but after letting a couple on I was told there were only two seats left, as the Aussie blokes were travelling together and there was another Sapa Summit bus beside us I let them on, leaving me alone. I wasn't put on their bus though, I was pushed into the back of taxi bus where leg space wasn't seen as a necessary space requirement, and then the tatty 'conductor' took it upon herself to push my bag down onto another seat, even pushing my fragile day bag. This wasn't what I signed up for, and she got a proper shout as I told her not to touch my stuff, nonetheless I still had to cram myself further in the back in the bus, and look forward to an uncertain future as I worried whether she'd been paid by the hotel or even if she knew which hotel I was going to. Both of the conductors were hanging out of the door touting for business as we drove through Lao Cai, picking up the locals and their chickens as we made our way up to the hotel. I just focused on getting to the hotel, making sure I didn't fall asleep just in case something else went wrong. I tried to enjoy the scenery, but unfortunately the fog was so thick I couldn't even do that. To my surprise we pulled into the Sapa Summit Hotel and I didn't even have to fight with anybody about money when we did. I checked in and was given an itinerary that included breakfast before leaving at 9am, it was now 8am. My room was on the ground floor, apparently in the VIP area, but apparently this meant I didn't even get foggy summit views, just a rubbish tip. Loving Vietnam.
To top my morning off my watch had broken too, but I managed to fix that over my baguette breakfast so all wasn't lost. I hired some wellies for 20,000VND as someone who'd done a walk yesterday said how boggy it got in the town, the ladies there even gave me the correct size without even asking. I struck up a conversation with another girl on her own who wasn't wearing wellies, but was told she'd be fine, and ended up spending the whole weekend hanging out with her. Her name was Nat from Sydney, although she's moving to Melbourne on her return. When the guides were being allocated she promptly asked if she could be in my group as we were the only two lone travellers - we had to stick together!
Our guide was Van, a seventeen year old Black H'Mong girl from the local village of Ylinho; she took us down to the Cat Cat village, which was surprisingly touristy as we walked down the many hills it had to offer. Some local girls had walked with us, talking to us in English and asking about our lives back home, and when we arrived at the village they promptly asked if we wanted to buy anything from them. I ended up paying way over the odds for a local scarf, but I did get a free bracelet and I asked Sana to see me later if she could get me some of the local earrings. Walking through the village we saw a woman with a large red spot on her forehead, and learnt it was due to a heated buffalo horn being placed there for twenty minutes to cure her headaches. Apparently it worked, but she didn't look too happy about her treatment.
We walked further down some steps to a waterfall, which inevitably meant walking up again. To encourage us up the hills Nat and I dreamt of hot chocolate, and on getting back to Sapa town found the 'Baguettes and Chocolat' cafe someone had recommended for hot chocolate: we'd found our destination for later. Having worked up a sweat walking it was a shock to come out of the shower freezing cold, and I could only look forward to my tasty hot chocolate later. Unfortunately the Gods didn't want me to have hot chocolate, as I was locked in my room! I tried to walk out to meet Nat at 12.15 for lunch, but was unable to turn the doorknob, even after trying numerous times to push and pull I was still stuck. I shouted, knocked, and even cried 'help', but nobody came to my rescue. Being on the ground floor suddenly became a bonus as I opened the window to climb out, but apparently getting out in a fire isn't an option as there were bars on the window! I started to panic as I realised I couldn't get out, and then of course my eyes darted around the room at the dodgy electrics, electric blanket, and open sockets and I panicked a little more. I eventually shouted to a cleaner in the rubbish tip and gestured I couldn't get out, I showed her my room key and she wandered off to reception to find help. I had tried calling the hotel from the phone, but there was no direct reception number anywhere and nobody was picking up the outside line. Eventually a woman came to help after ringing me to find out the problem, but she couldn't open the door with her key from the outside. A handyman then came to the door, but he wasn't having much luck either, and so I was asked to move away from the door as they hammered at the doorknob, knocking it completely out to open the door. I was finally free! She promised me she'd watch my things as he changed the locks, and off I pottered to lunch at 12.50pm! Nat was sitting happily eating her meal, and I provided the entertainment for the eating masses as I told my story and they all suddenly understood what all the banging was about. Nat said she was going to check on me after she'd eaten, as if I'd fallen in the shower I wasn't going anywhere!
Happy to sit down in an open room I ate my lunch with Nat before we wrapped up in pitiful winter clothes that included a rain mac, a thin fashion scarf, and some gloves and headed into town for the market. My bargaining skills at the market left a lot to be desired as I paid too much for a game, but as my notes went down my bargaining got tougher: I got a mirror for 30,000VND down from 100,000VND, and a little smoking pot for 100,000VND down from 350,000VND. I'm sure it was still too much, but I was happy with my skills. We showed some interest in a belt an old lady was making, but regretted it almost immediately as all her friends gathered around us and tried to sell their things. The woman followed us with her green fingers for a while and made us unwilling to shop for mucth longer. Nat was after a North Face coat, so she was trying them on in the market, I made a face at one that she didn't like either, and the shopkeeper took it upon herself to touch my quite lovely pink coat and make the same face at it - cheeky!
Succombing to the cold we headed to 'Baguettes and Chocolat' for a hot choclolat and tart, it's a cafe like the 'Friends' cafe in Phnom Penh where they train disadvantaged locals to waitress and bake, and the food was delicious. More walking down the high street followed, but we failed to find anything and so we headed back, when the girl who sold me the scarf outside Cat Cat village turned up. I'd refused to buy any other earrings until I saw her, and so when she turned up I offered a joke price of 20,000VND ($1), she said 'fine'! I added on an extra five thousand, but I think she knew she got a very good deal from me in the morning for the scarf. I asked if she'd mind having a photo with me, she didn't, and said I'd email it to her - I was gobsmacked that she and her friends had email addresses, but I suppose technology gets everywhere. She gave me her email address and I warned her not to give it to any men - my words of wisdom for the day! I had to bend down to make sure both our heads were in the same photo as she and her friend can't have been much over five feet tall.
Back to the hotel for a beer after I managed to successfully get out of my room, I tried Bia Ha Hanoi beer, but it didn't really warm me up. We shared a big dinner of spring rolls, chicken, sweet and sour fish, rice, and even chips, before heading out for another beer. As we walked down the hill freezing cold I suggested going back for another hot chocolate, as we'd only be cold drinking a beer - Nat didn't take too much convincing of this option. A warmed chocolate croissant went with the drink this time, and I was now feeling a lot warmer, but it went down far too quickly. The young waiter kept giggling whenever we asked for something, we think he might have had a crush, not sure on which one though as we were both a foot taller than him! A Dutch couple, or so we thought, joined us for a little while before we headed back up the hill for bed at the late hour of 9pm.
My electric blanket was heated up beautifully as I got into bed - bliss after such a cold afternoon.