We arrived in Hanoi and after serendipitously seeing an old friend’s (actually a previous professor’s) insta post that he was traveling SEA for 2 weeks we were able to meet up with my old pal Frank Cirioni and his betrothed for a beer and some dinner on our first night. We spent the next day and a half seeing the sights of Hanoi and checking the old quarter for motorbikes to buy (more on that later). I had really wanted to get up to Sa Pa, way in the north to see the mountains and terraced rice fields it’s famous for, but figuring the 10hr motorbike ride on mountain roads would be a trying introduction to our two wheeled travel for Athena I thought we should take the bus up instead. For reasons to later become evident we only had 2 and a half days before being back in Hanoi to check it out so we opted for a tour being sold through our hostel. A first in this trip! So we woke up the next morning and got on the 6 hr sleeper bus up to Sa Pa. the bus takes much less time than a motorbike or the train because it goes on the newly built highway that runs north, then about 25km away in the town of Lao Cai it turns west up a crazy twist mountain road with incredible views up to the mountain town of Sa Pa.
We got off and had 100% no idea what to expect. Like I said this was the first tour we’d done and we’d booked it in a hurry, “2 day, 1 night sounds good”. We were met by a person with a sign of Athenas name, then got in a taxi to a hotel. We went into the wrong hotel because the taxi driver didn’t know, and were then found and collected to go to the right place and served hot tea and lunch. After lunch we were told the trekking tour would start at 2:30 and we had 20 minutes till our guide arrived and we met our fellow trekking companion, Rink. Rink is from Holland and was quite a funny dude for our later travels. Eventually our tour guide showed up and standing tall at about 4’10” Chee, pronounced like “smile, CHEEse!”, was awesome.
She asked us to guess her age and rink said 11, and I swear I almost said the same thing to, SHE WAS TINY!! But no Chee is 17 years old! Over the next two days I got to know her better and she has a very similar story to many of the Hmong people around Sa Pa. she went to school (sometimes) through 7th grade but her family couldn’t pay for high school so she would regularly hike down into town to sell handmade goods to tourists there. You see these kids everywhere in Sa Pa working to bring home even the tiniest amount to their families. It was selling trinkets that she learned to speak English, and quite well. Thus allowed her to become a trekking guide and she was able to move out when she was 16, but still sends most of her income back to her family. I learned that many most Hmong people marry young and if you are a woman and not married by the time you are 18, you likely never will be. But Chee didn’t have any interest in starting her own family. She was to work for the next 10 years as a guide so that by the time she was 27 she could have saved up enough to go visit “the wonderful country of Australia!” She was so funny and kind and her story more than anything else of our quick trip to Sa Pa is what stuck with me and gave the most perspective on the daily struggle of the minority people who live here.
We started our 9km trek to our homestay walking along dirt roads and through rice fields and we learned from Chee that the fields were all empty now since harvest was in September. A great time to go as all the rice fields are a gorgeous golden yellow. Sa Pa, and the surrounding villages, can only plant and harvest once a year unlike the rest of Vietnam due to the cold (sometimes freezing at night) temperatures is gets in the winter. This means many of the local people (almost all who are farmers) have very little income and must find alternate ways to provide during the cold months. Luckily the tourism industry is strong, but even then it is important to make sure your money actually goes to the people and not just the booking companies who arrange the tours.
After a beautiful day of trekking and now that it had gotten dark we made it to our homestay in a small village down in the valley. We met up with 4 other German guys who were also staying at the homestay and talked and ate dinner. After dinner our host brought out bottles of traditional Vietnamese rice wine. Which is some strong, terribly flavored stuff. After being introduced to the Vietnamese way to take a shot (a chant that I still can’t remember…wonder why?) we proceeded to finish one bottle after the next that they brought out. Then we took the long arduous walk to the bar…next door to play pool and listen to music over a few more beers. Chee had made sure to remind us we had to wake up early before heading off to bed right after dinner.
The next morning wasn’t nearly as hard as I though it’d be. We had pancake/crepes for breakfast and many cups of tea and managed to be up and hiking by 8:15. We hiked for a bit and talked more with Rink (who almost didn’t make it in the morning) and Chee and had a great morning watching the sun break through the clouds over the valley. Honestly great weather the whole time considering it regularly pours in Sa Pa valley making the dirt hiking into treacherous ankle snapping mudslides.
We eventually got back to the main road where we waited for a van to bring us back up the mountainside to Sa Pa town. A t1n sprinter no less (a vehicle near and dear to my heart). We were now cutting it a little close as our bus back to Hanoi left at 1:30 and we needed to get back and have lunch before our trip. The van left and climbed up the steep extremely and rocky road and got us about 2.5km away from town when in a particularly steep part the driver stalled. Ok not bad just start it up…but no go. We waited like 20 minutes but it was now about 12:15 and we needed to get back for lunch! So we got out and started to walk. And the whole rest of the van, whose tour guide had left them joined us. And power to tiny Chee for taking charge and trying to figure out how else to get us back in time. So many phone calls along the way and eventually the tour people told her to just get a taxi for the 3 of us back to our hotel. She even tried to help the other group who didn’t have their guide but they didn’t know what there hotel was called, who they’d booked through or where to go. That and suddenly one of them decided it just wasn’t ok for Chee to leave them, even though we she had nothing to do with their tour company and was hired as our guide. And while I understand their frustration if I was in a similar spot getting mad at not your tiny tour guide when you don’t know where to go as if all Vietnamese people in Sa Pa who speak English are working for the same company isn’t cool. But luckily right as we got in our cab the van from before appeared around the corner and was able to pick up the other group. Things just end up working out like that. We got back and had lunch with Rink and said goodbye to Chee who I had to demand accept my tip to help her dreams of travels before she ran off before Rink could give her any more. Just such a sweet, kind person who is making the most out of a very hard life she’s been given, living vicariously through the travelers she meets and someday dreams she could be.
After our speedy lunch we were put back in a cab and sent back too the bus station and were pointed in the direction of a bus office which had tickets for us under our names. We had about 5 minutes before the bus started loading so I took the time to get a couple shots of Sa Pa town.
Suddenly we were ushered into our sleeper bus and we were off back to Hanoi.