This is the second time I’ve lost my phone on this trip! I’m at the train station in Hanoi a few minutes after realizing that my phone is no longer in my short’s pocket. After scrambling to find a nearby café with some wi-fi, I log into the cloud storage which contains my phone contacts, and write down the number for the hotel I had just departed from and my Vietnam phone number (which I didn’t remember). I’m kindly offered a phone by another traveller and get in touch with my hotel who had booked the cab for me. They are brilliant, and 10 minutes later they have called the taxi driver and have the phone en-route back to the hotel for when return…..phew!
It is kind of fitting that I won’t have my phone on me for the next few days though…..my 9 hour journey on a sleeper-train is taking me to Sapa, a mountain town in the North West of Vietnam. Sapa is famous for its beautiful landscapes and rice terraces. Endless hills and mountains with beautifully carved green and cascading steps. Do I really need to be checking emails for the few days I’m in the middle of the mountains in North Vietnam? :-)
I arrive the next morning and grab some breakfast in a nearby café in Sapa town. I’m hoping to ‘homestay’ for the time while I’m here. The population of Sapa town and the surrounding small towns in the mountains are made up of 6 or 7 ethnic minority groups, and since the boom in tourism here, a lot of locals have opened up their homes to visitors to sleep, eat and show around the areas for trekking.
I’d been recommended a homestay from another traveller I met in Halong Bay who had given me the number for ‘Mama San’. I try to ask the waiter if I could use the restaurant phone to call but he doesn’t speak English. I make the hand signal for a phone to my ear, and the guy smiles and takes his own mobile out of his pocket for me to use :-)
One hour later I meet Mama San and her husband, and I’m soon on the back of a scooter driving an hour further north through the windy mountain roads. We arrive at a 3-storey, massive yellow building and the bike stops. “Oh my god, is this your home?”, I ask.
“No”, Mama San laughs, “This is the school, but this is the nearest road for the bike to stop”
As we walk up through the fields to get to the house I realise 2 things. 1, flip-flops are not going to be a good idea around here! It’s been raining quite a bit in Sapa over the past few days so I’m walking at a snail pace due to either slipping over or loosing a sandal to the mud! 2, I think I’m going to have put everything into laundry once I’m back. Even after the careful walk up to the house, the squelch of the mud in the fields has mud spatters on me from head to toe :-)
I meet the rest of the San household. Mama San, her husband, their 2 teenage sons, 2 dogs, 2 puppies, 1 cat, 1 cow, 1 calf, 5 roosters/hens, 1 bird and 3 other ‘homestayers’ who were just about to leave.
After getting changed, Mama San offers to show me around the village. I switch my flip-flops for some more suitable footwear and we head out. We don’t get far and the drizzle turns into a complete downpour.
“We’ll go to my sister’s, and wait for the rain to stop”, Mama san tells me and we make a right turn and walk up a little stream.
This little detour turned out to be probably the most rewarding thing on the trip. For the 2 or 3 hours we were hemmed in by the rain, I got to meet the extended family, the nephews and nieces and Mama San’s youngest son of the 3, affectionately nicknamed ‘monkey’. We had some food, noodle soup with egg and just chilled out while the rain relentlessly pounded on the wooden roof. It was a real pleasure and a privilege to be allowed to spend some time there and get a small glimpse into their family life.
While me and Mama San ate, her sister was outside chopping up a banana plant. “It’s a really useful plant”, Mama San tells me, “It can be used to food or for clothing”, and she takes be around the side of the house where some vats of bubbling liquid are over a fire…containing clothing dye. The kids seemed to be having the best time playing with an empty cardboard box with the occasional wander over for a chopstick-full of noodles. At some point monkey spots my camera and loses interest in the cardboard box……the new game is to pop the flash on the camera and put it back in as many times as possible! I saved the photo he took by accident when pressing the wrong button :-)
After dinner, Mama San gave the kids a treat, an orange/jelly drink she had brought with the noodles. The pack was handed to monkey to distribute out. He broke up the pack, and the first thing he did was look up and hand me the first one…..it was so sweet and selfless from a-2 year old! Really touching:-)
When the rain doesn’t subside after the 3rd hour we decide to give up on the walk for the day and head back for dinner. I meet the other 3 homestayers who have arrived and we all sit around the dinner table with the San family by candlelight, eating absolutely delicious food (it really was, well done Mr San!), and being plied with shots of ‘happy water’ (fermented rice wine).
I wake up the next morning, my head a bit fuzzy from the happy water. I need a shower to wake up and feel more human, but the house has no running water. However, it is still pouring down outside! ‘Natural shower it is as I grab’ a towel and some shower gel and head out for a secluded spot in one of the distant fields :-)
The couple of days we take some hikes around the nearby towns. The weather was on and off rain, drizzle and cloudy….but it’s one of those rare places where it willstill look beautiful in the rain, and the cloud cover coming in and out just made the ‘reveal’ of the views a bit more dramatic :-)
The final day, Mama San takes the 4 of us back to the town to catch our bus. I’m getting picked up at a different point to the rest of the homestayers and say goodbye early. As I thank her for the brilliant time she hands me a little cloth bracelet as a gift. “You go for good now? We say goodbye?”, as she gives me a massive hug…..Mama san may be small, but she hugs like a bear! :-)
After another sleeper train, I arrive back in Hanoi and make my way back to the hotel for my phone. I can’t thank the hotel enough. Apart from helping me out with the phone situation, they let me use the lobby as a base for the day, take a shower, free tea and coffee, while they sorted out my (now completely mud-caked) laundry!
I took another sleeper train that night to spend my final few days in Hué, central Vietnam. A few days chilling, exploring the town and the Imperial City.
Thanks Vietnam. It’s been (too) short and sweet! I’ll be back, and I promise to sort a proper visa out next time! :-)