"Hey, did you get an STD test recently?"
"Bc it would have been nice to know how many diseases we got specifically from these sleeper bus blankets."
These are the kinds of conversations you have when you're taking a sleeper bus from Hanoi to Sapa Valley (about a 6h drive). We arrived in Sapa at 12.30pm after a questionable half-sleep situation due to the fact that our beds were shorter than we were seeing as we are taller than the national average by a long shot. Upon arrival, we met an aggressively friendly H'mong woman named Shushu who really wanted us to stay with her in her village but wouldn't tell us how much it would cost, so we headed for a beautifully decorated cafe around the corner to take stock of our surroundings and figure out our next move.. The H'mong people, by the way, are the native inhabitants of this region and have villages scattered across the valley. You can spot the women by their colorful headscarves, warm smiles, and aggressive determination to sell you their goods.
I'd like to mention now that it was freaking cold. Like Europe cold, but without the appropriate clothing plus a mist that literally encompasses the entire area and makes you feel like King Kong is about to shake some trees and throw some cars. So we really appreciated the refuge that was this cafe seeing as my toes were about to fall off if I didn't take a moment and thaw out. After some delicious tea and some serious research, we decided our best option would be to take a taxi to a homestay out in the rice fields. We knew it'd be colder, but Sapa is known for its rice fields and we didn't see the point in staying in the city if that's what we'd come for.
So you know that Indiana Jones ride at Disney where you're jostled around and the roads are nonexistent and it'd be terrifying if it were real? Take that, add zero visibility due to an all encompassing mist, tons of crazy twists and turns, and everything from tiny motorbikes to massive trucks coming at you in the opposite direction. I felt like my mom when I drive her around in my truck bc all she does is grab onto the handle and look terrified as soon as I go 26mph in a 25mph zone. Unbelievably, we arrived at our homestay unscathed to find a cup of hot tea and a very friendly host waiting for us. We just booked the first night (bc we weren't sure how long we'd want to stay what with the killer temperatures) and headed up for a quick nap before family dinner.
Now listen. You would think a place whose inhabitants played games on their iPhone 7's all day would have actual walls, but you would be wrong. There were no solid walls, rather concrete met with bamboo over openings and doors that didn't shut. It was all we could do to bundle up under our comforters for warmth and wonder at how it could possibly be this cold before it was time for dinner. We headed downstairs - our sleeping area was the entire upper floor of the house looking over the first floor - which was an assortment of rice and meats and veggies and - wait for it - duck embryo. Yup. I can't say I was excited about it, but our host suggested we try it and I couldn't say no. In all honesty, it wasn't bad aside from the strange texture, but I stuck with the pork for the rest of the night. Our hosts kept pouring us half shots of what they called "happy water" which is basically a veeeery strong (40%) rice wine, and a few bowls of food later we were absolutely stuffed.
We headed to the kitchen/living room - an area with a dirt floor and a swinging door to the outside - to sit on some tiny Toys R Us chairs around hot coals. The family had three dogs that wandered in and out of the house as well as a cat that was very keen to sit in our laps and claw the hell out of us. The dogs, however, were fairly skittish and unwilling to be pet. It was actually really interesting to see the difference in relationship between this family and their dogs versus my family and ours - especially considering I can tell you with 100% certainty that my mom loves my dog more than she loves me, and our dogs are essentially treated like human members of the family, but I digress.
We woke up to a free breakfast made by our hosts with the choice between pancakes and noodles, two things that gluten-free-me cannot enjoy. I anticipated problems like this, especially in the more rural areas, so I was prepared to enjoy a protein bar I'd brought from home with no complaints. That is until another Vietnamese guest who spoke enough English to translate to the cook what the situation was negotiated some eggs and rice for me. I could not have been more grateful, honestly. It was beyond sweet of her to take the time to find out why I couldn't have the normal breakfast and even more so to communicate with the cook on my behalf and find something I could eat. Even in rural Vietnam in the middle of the rice fields of a small village, I was able to stay gluten free. How incredible is that?
After breakfast, we headed for the showers. The thing about showers out here is this: the entire bathroom is one big shower. The faucet connects to a shower head on a cord, and the whole floor drains to one corner of the room. So not only is it difficult to keep your clothes dry in a small bathroom, (even if you set them on the toilet), there's no way to shower with two hands bc you have to hold the spout with one. This would be fine if the bathroom didn't have open windows leading outside so that the temperature of the bathroom hovered around 40* and your choice of water temperature was either freezing cold or scalding hot. I went with scalding and shed an entire layer of skin, it was quite an experience. After showering and packing up, Ky and I agreed that Sapa was too cold to be enjoyed for more than a day, so we headed downstairs to check out and book our night bus to Ha Long Bay.
We had a few hours before our bus was due to arrive - we'd planned it so we had time to actually check out our surroundings before running away from the cold - so we started our walk through the villages of Sapa. A wrong turn took us to what could potentially be the most perfect set of puppies in existence - they were so cute that we didn't even mind when they got our pants and jackets muddy - and this was when we learned that I could fit one whole Vietnamese pupper in my purse. We sent our moms pictures in hopes that they'd want to adopt, but quickly learned that there would be no new additions to the Bearce or Janecek families any time soon. Our walk continued and we wondered at the beauty that Sapa holds, despite the freezing temperatures and overwhelming mist. The rice fields seemed to go on for ages and the vegetation held more shades of green than I've ever seen in one place. Most interesting for me was the contrast between the beauty of the fields and the surprising amount of trash littering the ground. Everywhere you looked was a breathtaking view, but the moment you looked at your immediate surroundings, your eyes were met with broken down machinery, trash bags, and a plethora of other items people had just left on the road. It was quite a stark contrast, but nothing could truly detract from the beauty of this area.
Eventually we headed back to our homestay to grab our bags and catch a taxi into town for another Indiana Jones-esque ride. Once we were back in town, we searched for a grocery store where we could buy some snacks for our overnight bus ride. Do you have ANY idea how different grocery store food is in Vietnam as compared to home? Before entering, we didn't either, but boy did we learn. There is no such thing as pre-packaged lunch meat. Candy is sold by the kilogram. Produce is unrecognizable (except for the apples we found). It was an experience, let me tell you. Somehow we made it out with what felt like enough to get us through and only spent about $3 each. We headed back towards our bus stop and found a place to grab food and wait for our shuttle to pick us up.
And this, boys and girls, is where it gets good. We were picked up by a small shuttle, as we'd anticipated. But after a 40 minute ride, it took us to another shuttle rather the bus we were told we'd be getting. This shuttle did in fact take us to a bus, where we got the coziest sleeper bus seats we could find in the back of the bus and settled in. It was only 7pm, but we were exhausted so it didn't take long before Ky was asleep and I attempted to follow suit. Fast forward several hours and we've both come in and out of sleep about a dozen times due to the bouncing of our barreling bus, the sound of the engine blaring, and the sudden stops that had me sliding down my seat - which would have been okay if not for the fact that the bottom of my seat fell out into the aisle as I was in the back center of the bus, and I wasn't trying to fall out of bed. Fast forward a few more hours and we arrived at what should have been our stop for the night - the bus station at Ha Long Bay - so we figured the bus would turn off and we would be allowed to sleep until 6AM as we were told. We figured very wrong. The bus literally LEFT the bus station and dropped us off very conveniently at what seemed to be the only hotel open in the area. Coincidence? We think not. The driver came back and told us we had arrived and to get off. When we told him we were informed we could sleep on the bus till 6, he repeated that we were at Ha Long Bay and to grab our bags. Either he didn't understand, or he didn't want to, but regardless our butts were dropped off groggy and confused in the middle of Ha Long Bay proper at 2.30 in the morning. Naturally, the lovely man waiting outside his hotel informed us that he was the only place open and could offer us a room for $5 a night. When we told him no thank you, he went down to $4. Both of us had realized by now that the bus driver and this hotel owner were working us, so we declined in the hopes of finding our planned hostel (not booked yet but planned for the following night) would be open. It wasn't, bc what kind of hostel is open at 3AM? Not this one, that's for sure.
At this point we were a little concerned - and pretty pissed at being touristed (that's a verb now) - so we stopped at the bank for some cash bc we were running low, and reluctantly headed back towards our good buddy at the hotel, who truly did seem to have the only place open nearby. Of course, he was gone. But the hotel next door saw us and opened their doors to us, offering us a cheap room and a checkout at 12PM, so we paid our dues and headed up to our room. By now it was about 3.15AM and neither of us were tired bc we'd gotten some form of half sleep on the bus, but we weren't awake bc it was the middle of the freaking night. We settled into the concrete slabs masquerading as hotel beds and watched some very disturbing late night Vietnamese TV until sleep came back to us.
This morning I slept in while Ky woke up early as usual bc he's a freakin' weirdo, and we had a slow morning prepping for the day to come. We packed our bags and rolled out right around noon before finding ourselves a bite to eat in town. The restaurants we've visited so far have been pretty wonderful, but this one stood out. It looked like every other dive on the street, but the service was extraordinary. The staff was beyond sweet. They spoke no English, but they made us feel right at home in every possible way - the food was delicious, the coffee was even better, and when we finished our meals they even brought us complementary dragon fruit and star fruit (which we'd never tried) to snack on as a palette cleanser. It was freakin' delightful. Their kindness made our day in so many ways, especially after the rough night we'd had. Mind you, bc of who we are as people, we took everything last night in stride bc neither Ky nor I are big on getting upset when it won't do us any good, but our second first impression of Ha Long Bay was much better than the first... If that makes any sense.
The point is, there are wonderful people everywhere, and while a common language is nice to have, it is not a necessity to show people you care.
Today's list of surprising things:
About the Author
Mouth like a sailor, great lacker of empathy, paper cut survivor, avid arguer, harsh critic of people who put clothes on their pets, easily distracte
USA, Mexico, Iceland, Austria, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Morocco, Malta, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Hungary, England, Poland, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Scotland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Croatia, Greece
The Baltic countries,
if Covid allows for it (Latvia, Estonia, maybe a stop in Finland)
(in August in the US)