A Christmas Miracle in Sapa
I arrived in Sapa in northwest Vietnam much earlier than I planned, at about 2am on the morning of Tuesday 25th December 2018 – Christmas Day. I’d been told that the bus would arrive closer to 6am, getting me there just in time to find a place to stay, dump my gear, rest a bit and then plan my adventures in this remote mountain town. Instead, I found myself in a sleeping city, with not a single hotel open for business.
This presented me with a bit of a problem. Realistically, I had at least four hours to kill, if not longer. I was alone, rapidly getting cold, exhausted and carrying a fair amount of expensive camera gear, not to mention a substantial amount of Vietnamese dong. In other words, I was a prime target for a mugging.
I didn’t panic, though. I wouldn’t exactly say that I’ve been in this situation before, but I was somehow confident that I could figure out a solution. I just wasn’t sure what, yet.
The Kindness of Strangers
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I should just cut to the chase and rename my blog to “The Kindness of Strangers”. For it was, once again, purely through such kindness that I found my solution. I walked around the town for a bit, hoping to find some sign of life – a hotel or guesthouse which had heard of the concept of 24-hour reception. I found nothing but empty streets and dark buildings. Eventually, I returned to where I’d debussed, heading towards some other streets. It was here that I encountered my kind strangers.
There was a market of some kind in the main street. I’m not sure if it was one that was winding down from the previous evening or one that was setting up for the next morning – neither circumstance really works properly for what I saw. There were metal frames set up for a load of stalls, but few were populated at 2am. There weren’t many people about other than a group of women having a barbecue. They invited me to join them, but I mumbled in reply that I wasn’t really hungry, but was increasingly tired and that I needed a hotel room.
Instantly, they shouted a young man in a leather jacket over. He directed me to a taxi, which I got into. My mind finally turned traitor and started racing to unpleasant conclusions. We started driving around the dark streets and the driver made a phone call, muttering something in Vietnamese. The streets got darker and narrower and I was fully expecting us to reach a dead end where I would meet my own end, ambushed by a group of the driver’s mates.
We did indeed reach a dead end and the driver motioned for me to follow him. He then pointed to a hotel, a young woman who looked freshly roused from a comfortable bed holding the door open. I paid the driver and checked into the hotel, amazed that, once again, things had somehow figured themselves out.
A sight for sore eyes
I was a little lazy in rising the next morning, savouring the novelty of having a room for myself again after the previous nights in the dorm room in Ninh Binh, not to mention the night on the bus. I finally emerged from my windowless room close on midday and made my way downstairs towards reception. As I did so, this sight met my tired eyes:
The lightless mountains had been hidden in the dark at 2am, so I’d had absolutely no idea that this scenery was waiting for me. As I said in the first post on this trip, I’d intentionally not planned the journey, doing next to no research on any of the destinations. All I’d heard of Sapa was that it was in the mountains and was supposed to be a pleasant place. I hadn’t expected it to be so jaw-droppingly epic!
Paying the 300,000 dong for the night and thanking the owner profusely for checking me in in the middle of the night, I walked back up the narrow alley and out into town. I had a vague sort of a plan to book my bus journey to my next destination, find a cheap homestay with Wi-Fi and decide what I was going to do for the next couple of days. As I was rooting through my pack for something, a little black-clad woman walked up to me and asked where I was from.
Having lived in major tourist destinations like Pattaya and Phuket, I’ve become extremely suspicious of people approaching me with good deals. Particularly in Phuket, touts tend to be annoyingly relentless in their efforts to sell you stuff you don’t want. It therefore took a conscious effort, on my part, to not ignore this little old lady.
She introduced herself as “Mama Chu” – a member of one of the nearby Hmong hill tribes. She showed me a simple sketch map of the nearby valley and detailed a two-day itinerary which featured visits to a number of nearby villages, including a homestay in her village. Her English wasn’t dreadful (certainly better than my Vietnamese, anyway), but there were a couple of details I was a bit patchy on – the first being how we would get to her village.
The trip sounded appealing and, lacking any better plan, I agreed to it. I need to make it clear, at this point, how uncharacteristic this act was for me. I would ordinarily never accept such an offer from some rando on the street – I’ve been scammed far too many times to take such offers at face value. However, I was still in a sort of “Yes Man” mode and decided to see what the universe would throw at me if I remained open to being pleasantly surprised.
I agreed to the plan Mama had outlined, she wrapped a friendship bracelet around my wrist and we set off.
The first step
We walked through the town, buying some water and bus tickets along the way. I then followed Mama up a narrow side road which got progressively even narrower until it finally became a dirt track heading right up a hillside.
I’m not great with hills – my knees very quickly get very tired from trying to push my not-inconsiderable mass against the force of gravity. I’d been under the impression that we were going to get a motorbike for the journey to the village and, when she explained that we were going to be trekking more than 10 km to get there, I realised that wearing jeans that day might have been a mistake. Mama was desperate to help and I eventually agreed to the humiliation of letting her carry my pack on the agreement that I’d take it back once we got up the hill.
Fortunately, the hill was only a short part of the overall journey and, after that, the inclines and declines were very steady and well within my capabilities. Other than hills, I’m actually very good at walking and can go for a considerable distance without tiring.
Into the valley
After roaming across some beautiful rolling hills, we reached a restaurant overlooking the valley where most of the hill tribe villages are located. The sun was shining from the other side of the valley and into my eyes (and camera lens), so the view wasn’t especially clear. However, the sense of scale was palpable. It felt big. It really suited the word “epic”.
We had a quick lunch – we were running a bit behind schedule because of my lie-in that morning – and then headed further into the valley, accompanied by a friend of Mama’s for much of the journey. We finally descended into Mama’s village – Hầu Thào – as the sun was itself descending behind the mountains on the other side of the valley. I then discovered that, when she’d said that I could sleep in a homestay, she really did mean “home”. I was to sleep in a room of Mama’s own house.
The house itself was very basic – a concrete floor, wood frame, wrinkly tin roof and breeze block walls. There was a kitchen with a badly-ventilated fireplace, a water tank that acted as the sink, a couple of gas burners, some rough wooden shelves, a log pile, a noisy cat and a cute dog. Here, Mama prepared a fairly extensive dinner of homemade spring rolls, boiled cabbage, some kind of pork and beansprouts thing and, looking a little out of place, a plate of chips.
Eating my fill of this very fine repast, I retreated to an extremely comfortable bed quite early for a long and peaceful sleep. I’ve said in previous posts that I feel homesickness the worst at Christmas yet, despite being thousands of miles from anyone who even knew me, I had an absolutely delightful Christmas, never even thinking about the distance. Apparently, amazing scenery and adventure travel make a great distraction!