Enroute to Cao Cai


Vietnam Airlines: Last to load. I have a knife. No big deal. I give them my bag at the gate. A very nice guy slings the bag over his shoulder with a big smile on his face, trailing me down the walkway. Halfway to the plane he's shown the handle and wheels for the bag. His smile get bigger. Everyone's concentrated in the front of the plane. I sit in the rear for a window seat. As the two and a half hour flight gets underway the movement in the cabin is that of a long distance flight, with people walking arond, taking seats in the back of the plane and reclining for naps.

Hanoi Airport: The only english on the bus is "07". I know it goes to Hanoi's French Quarter but I have no idea if there'll be a sign. No sign and in fact, very little english. Everyone wants to give me a ride on their motorbike. I finally acquiece and go to a big hotel to get my bearings. My plan is to rent a motorbike and head up highway 6 to Sapa. My phone doesn't work. My motorbike driver understands I want to go to the train station, I change my plans and schedule a soft sleeper to Lao Cai for nightfall. Hanoi Water Puppet show. Started in the 11th century in ricefields during the rainy season. Completely magical in how the puppets move through the water.

Lao Cai at 4 a.m.: Arrived in Lai Cau to the conductor wrapping on my window. Someone approaches me to give me a ride. It was very cold. He follows me and helped me through figuring out that I was supposed to show my train ticket in order to leave. There is no english anywhere, and noone other than this guy speaks english. And his english is not that great. I follow him to his car and put my bag inside. He's going to the hotel I was going to check out. I wandered to watch the scene, and return to the van to discover it gone, with my bag. Everyone wants to give rides on their motocycles. The guy who's going to give me a ride to Sapa needs to get gas and a jacket. Our drive to Sapa is cold and wet, but the road is good. The driver doesn't have any idea where the hotel is and drvies around and around Sapa giving me a great tour. But my cold is my bones and I want to find the hotel. We finally find the hotel. The the driver from the train station has my bag, but he won't be back for an hour. Time passes and they say another ten minutes. Thirty minutes pass, and they say another fifteen minutes. I settle on a price for my room and motorbike, and guide for the next day. Always a hidden price, no clear answers. But this is part of the adventure. I finally get settled, and reunited with my bag. It's cold and I need more layers to get rid of my chill and shiver. I find a big bowl of Pho and slowly regain the warmth in my bones before heading to the first of the numerous minority villages, for which Sapa's known. Roadblock on road down to the H'mong village. Rocks dynamited. Loose ones pushed to the side for road base. Many go down the steep hillside. A 'homeowner' sitting in the yard, hundreds of feet below, watching the rocks roll down but narrowingly falling short of his garden, livestock and land. People trekking, trucks, cycles are stopped while the work of removing the stones is completed.

Minority women are more aggressive in Sapa than in their villages. They bargain harder and have a sharp business sense. I bought a small blanket, mistenly for 100,000Vdn and I thougth it was a large one. Another woman in the group would only come down 120 Vdn. An important rule in this sport is to know when to walk away. When I return I can't get a clear answer on Lai Chau as to whether I could get a guide and/or bike, so I move on to someone else for answers. Everyone has a different price and rental structure, so I keep moving until I get the arrangement that fits.

I left Sapa in a wet cloud. I know the sites are spectacular, but the clouds gave no visibility. My motorbike has four speeds, that takes a couple of hours to get them figured out. At one point the clouds opended up to confirm the amazing colors and views hidden by the clouds. I found an area in one of the valleys to stop and watch the clouds empty themselves. The landscape was steep and rocky, with lots of vegetation. There were shacks along the road selling textiles and food being cooked on small grills. Everyone was huddled in their dry shacks watching the rain, talking and watching TV. That is, everyone except for me.

I continue down into the valley and leave the rain behind. I'm not completely dry, but that's a small price for visibility. Which I now have. I've stopped at a roadside stand for lunch. Hand gestures say I want to eat. Ten fingers mean ten VDN, the price for lunch (in US dollars, twenty-five cents). I start pointing to what I want in my soup. Watching the road as I wait for my lunch, I see men and women squatting on the roadside, eating and talking; Pigs, chicken, water buffalo, cows, dogs and children peeing. The landscape is amazing. Minority colors change some. Girls with green embroidered hats, red embroidered hats. Some Dao women. Sometimes I stop and give the children balloons. They have the biggest smiles on their faces as they watch the balloons expand. The mother's equally enjoy the event. If I take out my digital camera they let me take their picture because my eyes don't hide behind the camera. Therefore they don't like my 35mm.

Bargaining for a room is neccesary and spans $6 - $15 with or without a bathroom in my room. I see a man dragging a bamboo ladder behind his motorbike. Evening entertainment is a Badmitten tournament under the court spotlights. I leave early in the morning to catch other activity. I give children balloons. Some are scared when they are blown up. Others try to undo the knot. Driving along the road I follow the smallest and narrowest path which ends up leading to a home. The adaptability to the steep hillsides and lush vegetation is amazing. The ride is incredible as it's especially clear. Early morning life shows men with their oxen. Women and girls go to the rice fields as well. All of this was missed the day before due to rain and time of day. Markets are busy. They have the same in every market. Meat freshly cut, Barber stalls, all sundries for the home. The vegetation begins to change as I reach Bien lo. The fellow from Lai Chau gave me a map that shows many villages around Pa So. I've finally learned that the showers last a short time, and to pull off at the closest roadside cafe and wait.

Sitting at road side stands attract so much attenttion and have so much to watch. some children wave and stop to give them baloons. A village group waved and I stopped. Soon I was surrounded by 6-8 women and as many children. They wanted to sell me things. That was OK. They were offering their head pieces that they wore under their head weavings. They were dark blue cards that were hardened and on the top had silver discs and what looked like silver chopsticks. They wanted 50kdon. She came down to 30 but I had bought tow bracelets for 30k. I only had 20k left in my wallet. I got very sad. These women were taking off their bodily dressings and wanting to sell them to me.

As much as I loved the head dress I couldn't buy it. As well as the necklaces they wanted to sell me. I couldn't divorce myself from the apparent sadness of them taking off their jewels for money.... so I started pulling out balloons. Hands came from everywhere. I started giving balloons that were not blowen up and returned to bargaining. They dropped clothing on my lap. I couldn't remember faces to the clothing. Finally I had enough... they were taking off more clothing to sell me. Enough. I started my motor bike and saw they couldn't blow up the balloons. I stopped and blew up ten or so balloons. They were very happy with me blowing up the balloons and also continued to try and sell me their belongings. I had to go. And I felt sad. I though, well, maybe it makes sense to have goods ready to sell. Even for the quasi-faint hearted as myself, I had had a hard time.

I thought, it's nice to have one last stop before returning to Sapa. I'm stitting at a stand with what I think is a grandmorther and father, son and grand child. The baby clearly just wet his pants but they continue to pass teh baby between the father and grandmother. So much for the feeling of sadness.

No sooner do I get started that another group of women flag me down. There are five women and another five or so girls. Same thing. The take off jewelry, head pieces and hats. The shock's worn off, and I realize this is their marketing style. I should have know, but then again, why should I? The ride up through the above clouds was amazing. Many more sites today than yesterday in the rain. I'm thrilled to the bone. My room has a tub which is a highlight unitl I discover the hot water is hardly hot, just warm. NOthing that would warm me. I go for a walk thinking that would warm me and I just get the warmth of older minority women trying to sell me goods.

more to come...


© 2005 MW Sears