Sapa, Lao Chai, Ta Van

Amazing news: it’s sunny today! It happened! I saw the sun today for the first time since that one day in Versailles when we had a nice morning. When I opened the window today, instead of a solid white wall of fog I could actually see the entire valley sprawling in front of me. I dashed downstairs, had breakfast as quickly as possible -not difficult to do since it’s so unappetizing- and went out for a walk before our trekking started. I wanted to see at least a glimpse of the town without the fog, and indeed today it was a lively and cheery mountain town instead of an eerie forest settlement.

We met our guide at the hotel lobby at 9:30, and went on our way! She came escorted by a group of H’mong women, one with a baby on her back, and chatted merrily with them while we followed them as best we could. Our destinations were the towns of Lao Chai (not to be confused with Lao Cai, where the train station is) and Ta Van.
If yesterday’s trek was a very easy walk, today’s was definitely the next level. We weren’t out fifteen minutes when our guide asked us if we wanted to take the less touristy route, since the main one was pretty crowded. We said “Sure,” and instead of taking the path everybody else was taking we kept going on the main road for another twenty minutes. This part wasn’t very scenic, as the road is kind of carved into the mountain and you don’t get to see the landscape very much.

After that, though, we were diverted into a very narrow dirt path and so the true adventure began. She wasn’t kidding when she said this wasn’t touristy -we took a series of meandering paths, uphill and downhill, through small forests or rice paddies, sometimes having to tread very carefully to avoid sliding down a slope. Some parts were very muddy from yesterday’s rain. Sometimes we had to balance on the edge of a tiny canal or cross “bridges” that were just bamboos the width of a foot, like this one:

You could feel it bend when you stepped on it, you guys. We all did okay, but there were several spots where I had to stop and look at the rocks very carefully to plan exactly where I needed to step! I am so not used to this!
The thing is, we were rewarded with the most amazing vistas for our efforts. Literally the whole time through, since leaving the main road until we reached Lao Chai at around noon, we could see the vast, tiered valley from every angle. It’s like a completely different land from the one we saw yesterday. We only ran into one other group of travellers; otherwise it felt as if we were the only people in the mountain (but I had perfect 3G reception all day, if you can believe it). It was sunny and warm -I used my cap and sunscreen for the first time- but not uncomfortably so. Last night, looking back at the two last side trips, I idly wondered if it would’ve been that much worse if I’d just stayed in Hanoi and gone to the cinema or something. This, finally, made everything worth it.

There were ducks on the mountain, swimming in a tiny pond, and buffalos walking on the roads or up and down the rice paddies. Most looked at us very attentively as we went by, with one of them very worryingly stomping its hooves like when a bull is about to charge. I didn’t stay to see what happened!

We eventually made it to Lao Chai, the town at the very bottom of the valley, where we had lunch at a barebones tourist-pen where tribal women and little kids tried to sell us bags and bracelets. From there on we walked to Ta Van, this time flat and on roads. The towns aren’t much to look at, though once again the valley looks beautiful from the ground-level perspective as well. In these towns there are H’mong and Dzao people, and although there were some handcraft stores, for the most part the townspeople seemed to be minding their own business, working the fields, feeding animals or just chatting by the road. The sun was directly overhead and the buffalos were resting in the small pools of the rice fields.

After Ta Van, we were supposed to get a van ride back to Sapa, and once more our guide felt adventurous and took us through a shortcut. We were grateful to avoid the tourist traps along the road, but then the shortcut was actually across a rice field! Just like the ones above! The guide skipped merrily over rocks like a tiny Vietnamese goat, but of course all of us at one point or another stepped on mud up to our ankles. I can’t believe I have to wash and dry my sneakers again after the sun came out!
After the mud baths, and climbing up a nearly-vertical hill like a struggling Spiderman, we managed to get into a van that drove like a Vietnamese Fast & Furious up the narrow, winding roads back to Sapa, including stunts like overtaking a bus on a two-way road with motorcycles coming in the opposite direction on the side of a cliff. We eventually made it back to the hotel, where, after waiting for half an hour in my muddy shoes, I was allowed to get into a free room for a shower and a much needed change of clothes. In the afternoon I will be taken to Lao Cai again, for dinner, and at around 20:30 or so the train will depart back to Hanoi. I’m crossing my fingers that my night is as quiet as on the way here!

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