After a quick pit stop in pretty Ninh Binh, where we visited Tam Coc, temples, rode bikes and took a boat trip through rice fields and caves, Sanne and I said our goodbyes. She headed south to Hoi An and I went north to Sapa.
For those who were there, imagine Glastonbury 2016 mud. How it either clung to the bottom of your Hunters and sucked you in or you slid and slipped around the top of it before you eventually fell arse over tit. This is what I spent a day trekking in in the remote mountains and valleys of Sapa, but without pints of Brothers cider and Adele singing her lungs out on the pyramid stage to make it all Better.
It was a test of physical endurance to say the least but it was probably one of the best days of my trip so far.
After hearing night bus horror stories, I booked an early 6am sleeper bus through Inter Bus Lines. You have a little sleeping compartment (and by little I mean, suitable size for borrowers), charging socket and wifi. I prepared by downloading as many episodes of Suits as my phone could store and a new book for my Kindle. It was supposed to leave at 6 and arrive before 12 but in the end left at 7:30 and arrived just before 2. My plan had been to arrive in Sapa, drop my stuff and head straight to the Bat Ca Sunday market in a nearby town, but because I was late I wasn’t able to do this.
My guesthouse was clean and comfortable but the on the edge of Sapa town was unremarkable and had I done better research I would have avoided being near the town altogether.
That being said, I was only using it as a base to trek from and given that it was so cold in Sapa, I was so grateful for a hot shower and own room after my trek. The trekking homestays aren’t amped up for tourists, you are literally living the way the tribe live. From the one I’d been shown on my own trek, to others I had spoken to, who had rats in their homestay, no water, a rug on the floor instead of a bed or a pig sharing their sleeping space, I think that may have tipped me over the edge after my day trekking in the freezing rain.
I booked my trek through Sapa Sisters after careful research. It wasn’t cheap at £35 but they seemed by far the best company and I really liked their ethos.
I was paired up with a delightful guide, Jane, who spoke perfect English and became my friend (slash hand holder) throughout the day. We also joined up with another few small trekking groups for the day too.
I was advised to opt for the easy-medium trek given the weather. The mud made it difficult but I think I could definitely have just done a medium trek in normal weather. Amusingly (and, some might say, in a further tribute to Glastonbury) I was told not to bother with hiking boots and wear their wellies instead – later I found that this was because in some places, the mud would be almost up to my knees.
We trekked around 15k in total, down into the foothills of the valleys, through rice terraces and up the other side of the mountain again. There were places that the path wasn’t muddy or we’d hit the main road/dry grass for a short time, and this was a god send. On the way we walked through tiny rural farming communities, horses, pigs, cows, chickens (and puppies!!!), past children playing, women grinding rice maize.
We stopped for lunch in a modest local house and I was served welcome steaming hot plates of ginger and garlic water spinach, tofu, pork, runner beans and rice. However, when I said I was full after two bowls, this wasn’t accepted. I was told I should finish all the food (enough for about 7 people), literally force fed around 6 bowls of rice and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been so full in my life (except maybe the time I ate so much at a Spanish buffet restaurant when I was 13 that I was sick – it was the all you can eat ice cream, tell me you wouldn’t do the same).
After lunch, we continued trekking – you could either opt for the same route back into town or keep trekking for another couple of hours further into the mountains and get a motorbike back to Sapa. I opted for the latter so we could see a different route, and thinking the motorbike back would be an adventure. Of course, on beginning this journey back in cold mountain rain and zero visibility with a driver who thought it was sensible to overtake other vehicles on narrow mountain roads in these conditions, I wondered if I should have taken the easy option. There aren’t really any times on this trip I’ve genuinely panicked and feared for my life, but as we skidded around bends next to a sheer cliff drop, this was unequivocally one of those times. In the end I just closed my eyes, repeated my auntie Pauline and Mum’s mantra ‘all will be well’ and clung on for dear life while getting pelted in the face by rain. And here I am!
The Hmong tribe – and Jane
The Sapa region’s ancient black Hmong tribe are fascinating and I asked Jane as many questions I could, as long as I could breathe, while we trekked together. The women wear black clothes accessorised with bright, patterned home dyed and stitched fabrics, elaborate headwear and plenty of jewellery. Most women in the Hmong tribe go out to work while the men stay at home and clean the house, cook etc. Women are highly respected and held in high esteem. Riiiiiise! They live modest lives and work hard, but the irony of ancient and modern worlds meeting as Jane took calls on her smartphone while we trekked through remote Vietnam was not lost on me. This slow and slightly jarring merging of the East into the West is apparent everywhere you turn in Asia, and this was just one prime example. Jane was different from other Hmong women, though. She was full of questions about my travel because, it turned out, she wanted to travel too. She had married at 18 but, now at 23, didn’t want kids yet. She felt she had more life to live and spent the little free time she had trying to see more of Vietnam. “My family want and my husband to have children now, but we dont want. We want to explore Vietnam and take trips. I work 7 days a week and in my time off, I go on holiday,” she said frankly. Jane was the first woman in her village to have ever taken time off to go on holiday, having visited Hanoi, Halong Bay, Cat Ba and Hoi An with her husband, much to the distaste of many of her fellow villagers. It was Jane’s ultimate dream to fly on a plane to another country. Somehow I think she’s going to make it happen. (If you couldn’t already tell, Jane is my hero).
Sapa town was grim. Perhaps foolishly, when I read about the lake, church and square I imagined some lovely quaint French market town in the mountains. It was so foggy and rainy I could barely see a thing, but what I could see was that the town was a construction site, polluted, ugly and soulless. I found one nice restaurant to eat in but the rest of the town left very little to be desired. Most people don’t go to Sapa to see the town, so it’s not a big deal and shouldn’t put anyone off going to the area to trek. It’s just one of the few places I’ve ever visit that I have been really pleased to leave!
Hanoi home truths
It’s not all sunsets and life changing experiences and euphoria when travelling, although that’s what Instagram might suggest. Sometimes things go wrong and it’s shit, especially when you’re alone. I was looking forward to going back to Hanoi. I planned to spend the afternoon buying north face stuff for my family and posting that, and stuff I didn’t need anymore, home – then buying a new backpack and repacking (my old faithful backpack sadly died a death, much to my devastation) before having a relaxing evening wandering the Old Quarter.
Instead, I had a difficult 24 hours when seemingly everything went wrong. I hadn’t slept for a few nights before hand, then spent 7 hours on a bus which was, as usual, two hours late arriving. I had booked a well rated private room so I could rest and sort all my stuff out. When I arrived, the receptionist beat around the bush for about half an hour, serving other guests, offering me coffee, bananas, water, before finally saying that they had double booked and I had to go somewhere else. “But don’t worry!” She smiled cheerily. “We have a motorbike ready to take you there. It’s 5 minutes away and a very nice hotel!” It wasn’t. It was 15 minutes drive, the other side of the lake. And it was a shit hole – it was an actual construction site on the inside with only the top floor of rooms suitable to stay in. I should have moved hotels again, but at that point I was too exhausted to walk the streets trying to find somewhere and didn’t trust the hotels on booking.com to actually have availability. I had to get my shit done so I decided to suck up the room as inside it was clean and at least private, but the construction went on all night. I tried to say I didn’t want to pay the full price the next day, I was met with a hostile, aggressive reaction and they refused to give me my passport back until I paid.
When I headed to the airport to fly to Da Lat, My taxi driver drove like a maniac and then threw my stuff from the boot onto the floor when I refused to give him more than a 20,000 tip. In Dalat, I was ripped off further by a different taxi driver who promised me one fee before I got in his car then doubled the fee once I was in the car, before getting lost for an hour. When I put my brand new backpack on the baggage belt at the airport, one of the back straps completely snapped – yet again, despite extensively examining every zip and strap, I’d been ripped off and paid well above the odds for a cheap fake backpack which had broken (and I may as well just have kept my old one). In this 24 hours, I also realised I had lost my precious crystal bracelet my mum gave me for protection on my trip. By the time I arrived in Dalat I was a bit of a tearful wreck.
I generally hate complaining about things on this trip. I am fully aware that none of the things that happened above are going to harm me in the long run. I am aware of how lucky I am to be on this adventure, so feel guilty and berate myself when I start to feel sorry for myself. I repeat the mantra “at least i don’t have to go to work” to myself if I start to feel this way and generally that snaps me back into positivity. I remind myself that when I get home I’ll laugh about the all the mishaps and misendeavours as the bad days will pale compared to the good. And they already have!
But I did have to admit to myself at this point that solo travel in Vietnam was starting to wear me down a bit. Being constantly on the move, the cold, wet weather in Hanoi and Sapa (Ninh Binh was actually sunny!), the long days travelling, not sleeping because everywhere I stayed was a construction site and being repeatedly ripped off, all without a travel partner, justifiably made me feel a bit wobbly.
You see, travelling alone is not a holiday. In fact it pisses me off when people at home describe it as that, although I know it’s usually in jest, as while it’s AMAZING it could not be further from a week in the sun in Europe or a sightseeing weekend break with your mates. There is an abundance of relaxing and beautiful and exhilarating moments, yes, but it’s much more convoluted than that. Being alone, especially as a woman, navigating foreign and unfamiliar countries; always needing to plan your next move, think on your feet, keep safe and be resourceful; constantly checking your budget, checking your map, checking your backpack, checking your valuables; being your best self because you’re meeting new people; having time to really think about your life and face up to some home truths about yourself, relationships, friendships, money and work – it can all be a challenge. And it’s especially a challenge when you have anxiety and tend towards introversion for at least 50% of your life. And I think it’s ok for me to admit that, knowing fully now that after every down comes an up, and they totally make every challenging moment worthwhile. It’s just part and parcel of this wild and wonderful experience.
Part of this involves taking matters into your own hands, so I decided to head down to south Vietnam, where the sun was shining, for just over a week then cut my time there short and head to Cambodia ahead of Akriti arriving. I’m so beyond disappointed to miss Hoi An and central Vietnam but the rain hasn’t stopped in two weeks and Hoi An flooded again. And I absolutely made the right decision as my week and a half in the south was one of the happiest and most relaxing of my trip! I will blog about Dalat, Mui Ne and Ho Chi Minh next.