We're on a 9 passenger mini bus traveling a winding mountain road from Sapa Village to Lao Cai on Vietnam's northern border with China. As the bus speeds along the pitch black road, I'm thinking about what it takes to be happy. After the last two days, I'm convinced it doesn't take much. Right now I am warm and dry. I'm not hungry or thirsty. I'm not in any pain. My family is with me and are safe and comfortable (one is a little po'd that I wont let her watch Tin Tin for the 86th time on her iPad because she will puke on the back of the driver's head). None of the people sitting next to me smell bad. I might smell bad but this is about my happiness not theirs. All in all I think I'm doing pretty good. In fact, compared to where I was 24 hours ago, I know I am.
We came to Sa Pa in a spur of the moment decision to escape Hanoi's insane city life for a few days and trek in the rice terraced hills and minority villages of the northwest. In the span of 18 hours we've experienced the absolute worst and perhaps the best trekking experiences of our trip to date. We also broke one of our cardinal "year off rules" - No Snow. Other than once every five or six years, it's a safe bet on no snow here in Sapa, even in the dead of winter. Welcome to year six or seven!
The overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai was heavenly. We had four clean, comfortable bunks in a cabin all to ourselves. Fresh flowers on the little table and four bottles of water. The train left on time and we slept soundly for 9 hours before it arrived - in the pouring rain. Our rooms were not ready when we arrived in Sapa Village so our Guide decided to get one trek in before supper. The torrential rain did not seem to be an issue for him, so we donned the rain gear we've been humping around for months, rented one umbrella and four pairs of rubber boots, and hit the track. Destination Cat Cat - a traditional hill tribe village about 6 km out of town. The clouds were too thick and low to really see any scenery and as for the minority hill tribe people, I'm sure they were laughing at us from the comfort of some warm, dry place as we descended further into a soaked river valley. We tried to keep our spirits bright for the kids' sake, but it was tough sledding. Within 20 minutes we were soaked clean through with no hope of warmth or shelter for hours. Nothing was interesting. Most of the trails we walked along were lined with tourist souvenir shops. Our guide was more focused on his smart phone than making us comfortable or even interested in what we would have been seeing had not the heavens opened up. I swear the only thing he said for the entire three hour trek was "It vely laney." No s*** Sherlock. When we finally stopped to eat lunch, it was at an outdoor cafe of all places. We had a little shelter but honestly found it warmer outside than in! Hot tea was the only small comfort. The girls did get a chance to see how a typical family lived in this rural, farming area where central heating is unheard of. Babies were bundled up with hats and scarves in open cribs on dirt floors. Mercifully, a van came to pick us up and deliver us to our hotel before complete hypothermia kicked in. Our miseries were far from over, however. As the van approached town, the driver began to scream excitedly while pointing at the road. Had we run over a small child? Had the rain carried away a bridge? Had it stopped laning? No. "Hala!" as it happens, is the northern dialect word for snow. And not a light dusty snow. A thick, wet, chill you to the bone if you weren't already there, snow. As you might imagine, we were not nearly as excited at this development as our driver and the townspeople were. We were cold and wet and hungry and still glowing and gloating from the fact that we were not in Yellowknife where it was minus 55. When we finally made it to our room, it was nice, but a veritable ice box. We turned the heater up on max, but it made little difference. We all stripped off our wet clothes and dove under the cold blankets, incredulous of the fact that we could see our breadth. It is the coldest I have been in many, many years. I drifted off to a fitful sleep, dreaming about my hot tub and wood stove home in the canadian arctic. The kids did very well. Shannon was unfazed by the whole thing. Mira complained a little before reminding herself of a line from the Cremation of Sam McGee "it wasn't much fun, but the only one, to complain was Sam McGee." "Can you include that line in your blog Daddy and use my name?"
Things were looking no better this morning. The ground outside was covered in slushy snow. It had been too cold for our clothes to dry completely overnight. The room was still freezing. We inquired about renting the room for the day simply to give us somewhere private to be miserable until our train brought us back to Hanoi. No go, they had guests waiting to get in already. Uggggghhhhhh. I dreaded getting out from under the covers but this was definitely one of those "learning moments" for the kids.
We used the hair dryer to get some of the frost out of our socks and underwear and headed out into the chilly morning for some breakfast in the unheated restaurant. Our hearts sank when we learned that today's trek would be a 13 km cruise to two villages with a picnic lunch. Dear Lord would this nightmare never end.
We managed to buy some cheap gloves, hats and scarves from a street vendor and bite our lips when he scoffed at how soft we Americans were. A little warmer now, we headed out of town, watching with some amusement as young children squealed with delight as they made their first snowman or pelted an unsuspecting old lady with their first snowball.
Gradually, the day warmed and the clouds lifted a little. The mere absence of pouring rain was already making this excursion more enjoyable than yesterday's. We managed to converse with some other trekkers in our group from Spain and California who had been equally as miserable as us the day before as we descended the hillsides. Then, there it was, the stunning scenery we had seen on the ubiquitous postcards. Rolling layers of green terraced rice paddies as far as the eye could see. It was not growing season, but even with a low and colourless crop poking its head out of the watery terrace beds, we were slack jawed at the structured, curving beauty of it all. Up close, each bed looked scraggy and neglected. From a far, the stepped layers were more a work of art than an ingenious manner of eeking out a livelihood from the steep, soaked hillside. Of course, I didn't bring the camera for fear that it would get wet and the battery of my iPhone was dead within an hour from taking pictures. Around every corner it kept getting more and more beautiful. Below us a wild river, fed by countless mountain waterfalls raged past tiny farmhouses that seemed to grow out of the muddy earth. Above us loomed snowcapped mountains including Fancipan - the highest in Southeast Asia. Around us were the rice terraces, carved out of the hillside centuries ago, and still farmed by hand and water buffalo by peasant farmers.
As we approached the village, children as young as three years began approaching us to buy trinkets mass produced in China. By the time we made the cafe where we were to have our picnic lunch, it was a veritable swarm of hawkers trying their pathetic best to unload a few rags or bracelets for a dollar or two. None of us could resist, but the moment we flashed any cash, the frenzy increased threefold. The girls would gladly have handed out all their spending money in this one place had we not put our foot down. It nearly brought tears to their eyes to say "no thanks," over and over again to these poor, simple people. The rest of the walk was splendid along red muddy paths, gravel roads, the lips of elevated rice terraces and tiny villages. The temperature was perfect - a touch on the cold side of warm. The air was crisp and sweet and sometimes it felt like we were in a Rocky Mountain resort town just before the start of ski season. By the time we made it back to Sapa Village, dusk was setting in. For the first time we were able to take in the sites of this picturesque mountain village. The great effort to which they had gone to decorate the town for Christmas was accentuated nicely by the remnants of the day's snow and snowmen. Cozy little cafes had signs taped to the door advertising "warm wine and hot fire." All along the streets and sidewalks shop keepers and homeowners were roasting meat or boiling tea over glowing coal barbeques. The air was festive and warm. It was the closest I've seen to anything authentically Dickensonian. It was wonderful and heart warming after the experience of the day before.
Tomorrow night we take another night train south to the old Imperial Capital of Hue. It was here that the last of the Vietnamese Emperors abdicated to Ho Cho Minh's communists after the Second World War and where one of the fiercest battles of the Tet Offensive and the Vietnam War (or the American War as they call it here) raged for weeks. We're looking forward to warmer weather again, but a bit of first world hardship mixed with some authentic seasonal cheer was a nice start to Christmas.
I should say a bit about Halong Bay, which deserves a blog entry of its own. Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Sight (this country is full of them) and one of the modern natural wonders of the world, is the most popular tourist destination in Vietnam, and with good reason. Set into the Gulf of Tonkin on the South China Sea, the bay is littered with a thousand towering limestone islets that jut straight up out of the sea. Legend has it that the islets were carved by a dragon descending to earth. We drove three hours to meet up with our Junk Boat that was to tour us around for a couple of days. Our boat was mid range, but still very comfortable with excellent rooms, down to earth hospitality and great local food. After weaving our way through the sublime karsts we stopped to visit one of many caves formed inside one of the islets. Words cannot describe how impressive it all was from the strange light to the massive grooved stalagmites and stalactites. Evidence of prehistoric human life has been found in these gigantic caves. One doesn't need much of an imagination to picture what life might have looked like back then. After cave touring we stopped and kayaked around a small floating village that reminded us alot of Houseboat Bay -only without the whining or politics. Here, fishermen solemnly repaired their nets, tended to their catch, smoked, napped and laughed, oblivious to the hordes of tourists gawking at them and taking pictures as they paddled past. It was good to see where our supper was coming from that night.
After a great night's sleep we were transferred to a beach resort where we relaxed in the company of the limestone monoliths and a secluded beach. I'm sure it's a tropical paradise in summer, but in December we were happy to play cards and stay warm challenging our new friends from Holland and Australia to soccer and volleyball games. The water actually wasn't that bad but without the sun screaming down, noone was interested in staying in it too long. The next day we transferred back to the main boat for a quick cooking class and then the bus back to Hanoi. Halong Bay is one of those places that is simply too beautiful to believe it's real. Maybe we are just desensitized to incredible scenery, but by the end we were "oh yeah, that one does look like a giant chicken, now what's trump?" It all goes back to that "appreciating something more in the moment or the future" thing I guess. Anyway, we checked it off our list and got some good photos. Halong Bay and Sapa were the first guided tours we've taken in Southeast Asia. I'm not convinced you can visit some of these places on your own, but even the kids were making sheep noises as we got on and off the boats and busses. The service its great here in Vietnam and we really can't complain, even while being herded from point A to B every detail is looked after competently - which is good or bad depending what you signed up for.
I think the kids are more into the Indy travel groove now than at any time before. They love striking up conversations with other travelers and listening to their stories. We love watching them react when someone tries to speak to them in a language they don't understand or push them outside their comfort zone with strange food or customs. We are all learning new stuff and trying new things. It's strange and wonderful and exactly what we signed up for. Except for the snow. That'll be quite enough of that thank-you kindly.
We're on our train again now and just about to wiggle into our sleeping bag liners for the overnight trip back to Hanoi. The klink klink, klink klink of the old rail cars will soon have us sound asleep and dreaming of our next adventure. We are all tired - but happy.