The Sleeping Bus...Yikes!
We set out to Sa Pa on a sleeping bus. Alternatively, we could have taken a train, but we opted for the bus because it seemed that it would be a much shorter trip (a 5-6 hour bus ride vs. an 8 hour train ride), and a much better price.
Let's just say that if we had to do it over again we would NOT pick the sleeping bus over the train (though we have no evidence the train is any better)! After loading up all the tourists in Hanoi's Old Quarter, the bus stopped a million times to pick up random people (who all seemed to be Vietnamese, probably just along for the ride). After the bus was packed up, we got on our merry way. Or so we thought!!
Shortly after midnight the bus stopped again. At first we thought the driver was getting gas, but as minutes passed and the bus was still not moving we peeked out the windows to see what's going on. Turned out the bus driver was having a dinner party with other bus drivers. They were all having a nice sit down meal at a Pho restaurant on the highway! Whaaaaaaaat??!!!! He finally returned... after about 45 minutes.
Ok great! Now we will keep going...and we did...with only a few more random breaks along the way (really it's not that long of a drive, I don't get how many breaks are required). We arrived in Sa Pa just shortly after 5, and were under the impression from the tour agency that this is when we could go to the hotel and get some extra rest. WRONG! Instead of letting us out of the bus, the bus driver turned the bus off and left...yes you read that right...he turned the bus off and just left us alone without a word! No air conditioning...no vents...about 50 people sleeping (or at least trying to)! I was so grateful that we were sitting by a tiny window, however it was a little creepy as we saw groups of women gathering outside the camper van peering in and just hanging out. It was a quite "sketchy" as my husband pointed out.
Finally around 6:30 AM, the bus driver let everyone off the bus. I should probably point out that as uncomfortable as mommy and daddy were, with only random bits of sleep here and there, the kids were perfectly content and slept the entire time! Hannah fell asleep before the bus even left!
Sa Pa Walking Tour
After we left the insane sleeping bus, we were picked up and brought by taxi to the hotel, where we had time to change and relax for a bit before breakfast.
After stuffing our bellies up and wearing warm clothes (oh yes it was quite chilly in Sa Pa for our summer chasing taste, somewhere in the mid 50s), we were picked up by our walking tour guide named Mi, who we later learned is part of the Hmong minority group in Vietnam. We trekked 13 km through beautiful scenery to the Loa Chai village with Mi and a few other ladies from her village. Those ladies were a godsend, as they really helped us through the muddy areas.
The landscape is so beautiful and breathtaking that it is hard to pick just a few pictures, but here are some of my favorite. We were also glad that as we walked, the sun started peeking through the clouds and it got a bit warmer.
The People of Sa Pa
As we walked, we learned a lot from Mi about the different minority groups in the region. We learned that there are 5 groups in Sa Pa: Hmong, Sapo, Tai, Red Zao, and Green Zai. They all have their own language and culture! In addition to learning their tribe's language, most also learn Vietnamese, and only the ones that learn Vietnamese are able to communicate with other tribes.
I asked Mi how she spoke English so well and she told me that she had just learned from tourists! Mi does not know how to read or write, but she speaks great English! Isn't that something?!
Along the walk and especially at the village, we saw a lot of young girls trying to sell us bracelets or other small trinkets. They all have such sad puppy eyes and they really know how to get you to buy something. They also know enough English to sell their products. "Buy from me, Buy from me...." you will hear them say with sad voices, and then when you buy from one, the rest will storm you and say, "you bought from her, buy from me too, buy from me too...". I swear if given the chance these girls would be great business women, they sure have the street smarts. The sad part is that instead of going to school this is what many of the girls here do. When we passed by the school, we saw mostly boys and only a few girls. We also learned that children generally do not go school beyond 8th grade. Only a few actually end up going to High School, which is usually very far away, and the rest go back to the farms to help their families. Some smaller villages don't have any schools and the kids in these villages have to walk miles/or be driven on motorbikes to the closest school, where they are allowed to stay during the week and only go home on weekends. As the girls get older, they continue to sell items to tourists. Throughout the town of Sa Pa and in the villages, not only girls but older women also try to sell items like bags, hats, and musical instruments to the tourists. This was perhaps the only part of Sa Pa we didn't like, that you are constantly being asked to buy things. It is sad, and you want to give money since you feel bad for them, but really how many bags and bracelets can you buy? The worst experience was at the restaurant in the village, where they provide the many different tour groups with lunch. Dozens of girls/women would take turns approaching each group of tourists, selling pretty much the same things, and would not leave even after you say no :(
Mi, our guide, told us that almost all the tribes that live in Sa Pa are rice farmers. They plant in April and May and harvest in August and September. I asked her where they sell the rice after it is harvested and was extremely surprised when she said that they do not sell the rice! They keep the rice for eating or exchanging for other goods! They lead very very simple lives and most of them seemed quite content.
As I mentioned earlier, the other ladies that were walking with us really helped us with the trekking. Even with kids of their own on their backs, one of them held my hand through all the muddy areas, and another would lift up Kian to save him from slipping. Hannah got a sweet deal, with Mi giving her a back ride for all the rough parts. Even with Hannah on her back, Mi was the fastest of us all!! We weren't entirely sure why these extra women came along at first, and only at the end we actually found out it is yet another form of money making for these people. At the end of the walk, they also want to sell you their items, and after getting to know them a little and having them be so helpful, it's hard to say no to them like you do to many of the others who randomly approach you!
We saw a lot of kids when we walked through the main part of the village and saw a lot of young kids taking care of even younger kids or even babies. We saw some cute happy faces who had yet to learn the sad puppy looks and some sweet camaraderie amongst young girls.
Hmong Village Homes
We saw quite a few village homes as we walked. All very very simple with the kids generally playing and clothes hanging outside. We also learned from Mi that all the yellow buildings were either schools or some sort of government building.
At the end of our trek, they (thankfully) provide a shuttle bus back to the hotel, as walking 13 km back up the mountain would be a pretty impossible task, especially for kids!
Overall, we had a lovely day of trekking and learning. I think Mi is the reason why we learned so much. I asked her if she has ever traveled outside of Vietnam, and she told me that she would love to, but she has never left Sa Pa.