Homestaying in Sapa
After Cat Ba it was back to Hanoi for a night and then on to Sapa. After riding for 10 hours our asses felt like they had been through a meat tenderizer, but the drive was worth it. The last hour and a half was completed through the mountains under the watchful eye of the full moon. Riding by the guidance of the moonlight was both a peaceful and introspective experience.
Arriving near closing time, we found a hotel room and posted up for the night. The next day a thick fog descended on the mountains making the streets look like the set of an old horror film. With the weather less than ideal for riding or trekking and being exhausted from the previous days ride, we didn’t do much except nap and eat some hearty chicken pho from the local market, perfect food for a dreary day.
The next day turned out to be warm and clear so we took advantage and rode through the mountains. Sapa is famous for the huge, green, multi-leveled rice fields nestled along the valleys between forested mountains. The views certainly lived up to their reputation and it was very cool to see indigenous tribes at work in their local habitats. Even small children were hammering into the earth to create the holes to plant the rice. The minorities were very friendly and dressed in vibrant colors, eager to sell their handmade bracelets or homegrown mary jane. The kids on the side of the street were very enthusiastic and spoke astonishingly good English. One girl in particular was very insightful and got a kick out of seeing her little brother rocking my sunglasses.
I think he looks fly, she thinks he looks funny.
That night, we followed one of the local Dzao women to her home in the village for a taste of Sapa life homestay style. She and her mother in law, who lived in the house up the path, hopped on the back of our bikes and we cruised to the top of the mountain for a 360 degree view of the area. Back at the house, we played games with the three adorable little girls and helped to remove peanuts from their shells for the night’s dinner.
Some of the rice fields that make Sapa famous.
The dinner was cooked over a natural fire in a large pot similar to a wok. It included slices of pork fat, reminiscent of bacon, cooked bamboo shoots, steamed greens, rice, and roasted peanuts which we wrapped in fresh lime leaves. Our host family’s father and his friend poured us shot after shot of strong homemade rice wine, performing a cheers where everyone swaps glasses and then congratulates one another with vigorous handshakes after each shot had burned its way down the pipes.
The youngins ready for sleep after a rowdy night.
After an enormous amount of food and an equal amount of alcohol, the family brought out some traditional clothing for us to try on. Naturally it was a little small, but we managed to squeeze into the shirts and model them to the amusement of the children. Momma, the mother in law, wanted to show us her house so we made the quick walk up and swung on the hammock with the youngest daughter, full of 6 year old smiles. After sampling a bit of beetle, a plant with seeds that stain your teeth red and help with digestion, we retired for the night. Martin and Jeff shared a small bed and I posted up on my sleeping mat on the floor. Not exactly luxurious, but definitely a more realistic taste of actual village life, and our buzzes made it easy to fall asleep.
Sapa’s next top models.
After saying ours thanks to the family and wishing them well, we joy rode around some more villages and then headed west to cross into Laos. Riding along the main road, it randomly led down to a newly created dam, uncrossable except for the local boats docked next to the shore. After haggling with a local Vietnamese man and agreeing on a price of 20,000 dong per person, we loaded the bikes and took a 15 minute cruise up the river to where the road restarted. When we handed him the money he looked at us incredulously and pulled out a 200,000 note, explaining in Vietnamese that the price was 10x what we agreed on. After threats of him following us on his friend’s bike and contacting the police, we gave him a 100,000 note and told him to shove off. There was no way we were going to be bullied into paying 600,000 dong for a quick boat ride.
The next day we made it to the border and after paying a small $5 bribe to take the bikes out of Vietnam (technically us even owning the bike’s is illegal, so this small ‘penalty’ for not having proper paperwork was expected) and headed to the Laos entrance. Here we got whored out, having to pay overtime fees for entering on the weekend, a stamp fee, a motorbike import fee, and a doctor’s fee for them to scan us to make sure we don’t have H1N1. This came to around $9 in fees on top of the $35 visa fee and wiped us out of all the kip we had converted our leftover dong into.
But we had effectively gotten ourselves and our bikes into Laos, ready for a new country and new adventures (and unfortunately a new language, but being able to count to 1,000 in Vietnamese might help someday). Looking back, Vietnam greatly exceeded all of my expectations. I am certainly going to miss it’s cheap beer, beautiful views, and awesome people.