We booked our entire Sapa journey through our hostel, Central Backpackers (a fabulous hostel) in Hanoi. Since we based ourselves in Hanoi to get to and from Sapa (and Halong Bay) we stayed in Hanoi two nights prior to departing for Sapa. The first day Nat and Ross separated for the first time of the whole trip and Nat went to a cooking class to learn how to make pho and Ross hung out at the hostel. We cannot say enough great things about Apron Up cooking classes. At the last minute the other people enrolled in the cooking class didn’t show up so Nat was the only student and the class still ran. Nat went on a trip to the local market and learned to cook her favorite dish, pho, obviously it was one of the best days of the trip so far, spring rolls, Vietnamese meatballs, egg coffee (better than it sounds) and a green mango salad. When Ross came to pick Nat up we both indulged in the yummy fruits of her labor.
The next day was spent in our room after a night of debauchery with Ben (remember him from Myanmar?). Well we managed to go out and dance until about 3am drinking Long Island Ice Teas from pitchers, because that was a good idea. It was so good to see Ben again as he was one of our best friends from traveling – plus it was one of the best nights out yet!
We arranged to get to Sapa by train, the first train of our entire trip. We did not know what to expect but we were pretty surprised by how swanky the train ended up being. The booths were nice with fully reclined beds and sockets for charging in the wall. For a brief moment we thought we might have been lucky enough to get the whole room to ourselves, until two children between the ages of 8 and 14 popped in with their parents. The parents left their children to get settled into whichever room they had booked. The children were mostly well-behaved but the older one kept staring at Natalie’s chest. Fortunately that is all he did.
After arriving in the morning we departed the train station to find our transfer van to the next location. The driver was holding a very helpful “Natahe” sign for us to locate her. After some confusion over which van we were supposed to enter we finally made it into one that got us to the right location where our trek through Sapa would begin. We had just enough time to order a quick breakfast and coffee before starting out on our journey. From the very beginning were were accompanied by local women and girls in traditional garb. We had been warned they follow you in order to get tips or sell useless trinkets. Trying to avoid this we did our best to avoid them.
We walked along and through the various stepped farmland above a central valley seeing lush greenery everywhere. It was in the middle of harvest too so we were able to see the locals hard at work harvesting the rice and planting new ones along the way. Unfortunately the weather could have been better for us. In particular the current and previous rains had made much of our path extremely slippery and made it more difficult for us to travel. For the first time Ross really appreciated the difference between the grip on a running shoe and a hiking or trail shoe. While most of the group was falling all over the place Ross was able to manage only one minor slip towards the end of the trek. If you ask him he would tell you it was his skill and cat like reflexes, but it was mostly just the shoes.
Sure enough, after around 3 hours of hiking, as we got to the point of the trail where our local helpers needed to detour home they stopped the entire group to beg or sell wares. Natalie and I simply stood several meters away not engaging in order to avoid parting with our money. We were able to get away this time.
After strolling through more gorgeous mountainside we eventually made it to our first homestay which was not what we were expecting. We still had the image of our homestay from Myanmar; no electricity or running water. This homestay had all the fixings including a throne toilet. We were also able to further connect with our travel group over beer and drinking games. Afterwards our guide explained more of the local culture and history to us. The most fascinating aspect of the local culture was easily the wife stealing that persists to this day.
To be clear, unwed women would be stolen to become a man’s wife, and there were many bizarre aspects and rules embedded in the practice. Perhaps the most bizarre was the fact that only the mother of the woman being stolen could stop it in the act. Even if the girl had several brothers who did not approve of the stealing they would take no action beyond vocal disapproval while their sister would be spirited away. When we asked our guide why and the answer was more or less that it was just the way of it. There was also several political and personal factors that were woven into the stealing. It is important to understand in that culture if a woman was not wed by her mid twenties she was considered too old or it was assumed something was wrong with her, like she was a lazy worker and would not make a good wife. While on the other hand a man can be a viable bachelor for much longer. So under certain circumstances being stolen can be a good thing. Our guide’s sister, for example, is a stolen bride. Her boyfriend had not proposed to her nor made any indication he was going to do so. She was getting to the age where it would be difficult for her to find someone else. So according to our guide she got lucky she was stolen, especially considering that she enjoys the marriage she has with her captor. It its also somewhat common for parents to arrange for a kidnapping because they do not like the boyfriend of their daughter. If the parents were against the kidnapping, however, there is a designated time frame of a few days after the kidnapping where they are able to negotiate the release of their daughter. If they do not negotiate her release they negotiate the terms of the marriage. Being kidnapped is a pockmark upon the girls eligibility as a bride. So even if the parents do wish to negotiate her release they must consider she may never find a husband if she does not marry her captor now that she has been kidnapped once already. If any of this seems too far fetched please observe this YouTube video of a kidnapping taking place: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkGLb7tU0xs. As a side note, if you are uncomfortable with the uncertainties of a mail order bride, many women in the Sapa valley are very keen on marrying a foreigner and will even boldly ask you if you want to get married.
All the while learning about this strange cultural phenomena, Natalie was playing with a very bitey puppy owned by the household. The little creature was so adorable but seemed to only want to explore new things by feeling it with his teeth. We asked the owner if she thought it had rabies and she laughed and said she would email us if it died in the following week. By the time all the biting was done we were actually kind of hoping this was a food dog.
After the harrowing tales of wife snatching and a delicious dinner we turned in for the night and awoke to pounding rain in the morning. We geared up with our slicks to begin our journey through more of the spectacular hillside, but we might have gotten away dryer if we hadn’t. ]It was so hot that after all the sweating under the non breathing, plastic ponchos it looked as though we had just jumped in a pool. Further, due to the rain and muddy paths we did end up using the help of new local tag-alongs, we caved and bought some cheap fabric bracelets off the youngest girls. Cheap as they were it was not worth it when the rest were encouraged by this act to ask us to buy theirs. When we said we already had one they insisted we should buy one from them. Traveling teaches you either to ignore the sad faces of children or how to use money to shield yourself from guilt.
We finally arrived to our second homestay which was a little more rustic than the first but nestled in a no less beautiful area of the valley. We were warned not to leave our shoes outside because a local special needs child would steal them, and there were spiderwebs everywhere, but it was hard to beat the view. Talking with the owner of this establishment we learned not about grand theft persona but about shamans and how to keep a marriage going. The woman told us about a nearby shaman she was thinking about seeing because her husband had changed recently and became depressed and would rarely speak to her. She was going to seek the shaman’s advice because he could divine the future her and tell her the path she should take. She was actually a very astute woman who spoke very good English. It felt a lot more like she just wanted someone to tell her what to do about her husband and a shaman was the most qualified, rather than truly believing in magic.
We left never knowing if she decided to go to the shaman at all, visiting a huge waterfall made bigger by the recent rains. Once done we headed back to our original starting point by car. We realized talking with our group that our bus ride home was unnecessarily late in the day and we could make it back before midnight if we got on an earlier bus. We called our Hanoi hostel to ask them if they could make the change for us and they agreed. However, there was at least a small communication error somewhere through the chain because the bus company did not have a record of the change even though we were given a confirmation email. Fortunately the lady working the bus station was very nice and offered a floor spot if no other locals took it. We eagerly accepted because they would pull out mats for the floor and it was actually horizontal instead of the awkward recline of the seats. The floor was actually the best option and we wish we had known we could ask for it at the beginning of Vietnam. We got our floor spots and continued on our way back to Hanoi for a brief couple nights before going on to Halong Bay.