When somebody first told me about Sapa (yesterday) I felt a chill in my marrowbone. I immediately thought of the South African Police Authority (I don’t know why as they are called SAPS – ‘service’, but it was close enough) and you do not want to be spending any time in their company. Believe me, I have been there, walked passed the cells crammed with the unfortunate, wailing, crying and screaming souls who all probably deserve to be there. OK, I was only registering a car document and the traffic office was located on the other side of the cell block. God knows why, probably some sort of a warning. Anyway, do you know what they do to pretty young boys like me in places like that? You do? No you don’t, and you don’t want know to either. Nor do I.
When I decided to escape the Hanoi heat for a few days I looked for flights to Sapa, a village in the northern mountains of Vietnam near the Chinese border, but I learned that the only real option was to take one of the overnight trains. There are several available. The Orient Express, The Victoria Train, The Green Line and about 6 others, all ranging in price and therefore, I assumed, standard. I also noticed that they all left Hanoi Central Station at the same time, which was odd. It conjured up images of a race but, being twelve, I quite liked that idea. I selected the one that offered a private cabin but, as usual, things were not as easy as they at first appear, or should be. After more nodding, pointing and charades it became obvious to me that I couldn’t have a private cabin. ‘Why not?’
I turns out that the private cabins were for couples and I would have to share with someone. Now, obviously, this could turn out to be a Swedish backpacker in hiking boots and shorts who turned into a whisky dispensing nymphet ten minutes out of Hanoi Station. But I am too experienced for that these days. I know how my luck runs. I get the snoring middle aged German. That’s how it runs and I was having none of that. ‘I am a couple, there are two of me,’ I argued. I sensed that she already thought that. ‘Ok Mr Jack,’ she said with a sigh, ‘and the name and age of your traveling companion is?’ I had to think fast. ‘Jameson’ I said. ‘Ms. She is eighteen years old and has been going everywhere with me for twenty five years.’ After all, it’s not entirely untrue.
She gave up on me at that point, issued two tickets, charged me two prices, looked at me as if I were an idiot (also not entirely untrue) and off I went to the station. Hanoi Central is an amazing experience and would have been fun if it hadn’t been about 1600 degrees. I sat outside for a few minutes with a cold beer just to absorbed the scene. It was just like one of those Michael Palin documentaries, ‘Around the World’ or something like that. Teeming with people, excitement, anticipation, back packers, locals, the good, the bad and the ugly. And me watching the whole mad event with my traveling companion zipped up in a suitcase. I fully expected to see the great man himself emerge from the crowd, remove his panama hat, wipe the sweat from his brow and ask for a slug of my 18-year old. I would have shared.
Before too much longer my head began to melt and so I made my way through the departure hall and hurried passed the ticket inspectors. ‘And Ms Jameson’? one of them called after me. ‘It’s alright, she is in my bag’ I shouted back, and left them wondering. ‘The Orient Express?’ I asked someone on the platform. He pointed to the single train standing there which read, The Green Line. ‘Where is the Orient Express?’ I asked again and he pointed further down the platform. As I walked I noticed the names on the side of the carriages changed and it then dawned on me. There is only one train, just different carriage classes with varying names. And they all left at the same time, obviously. So there was to be no race after all.
I found our cabin, spent a few moments enjoying the air conditioning, put the second bedding on the floor as a carpet, made myself comfortable, switched on the internet radio (TalkSport), read the UK newspapers, turned lovingly to my 18 year old and drank myself to sleep. It is a shame that it is an overnight train as, apparently, it chugs through some of the most glorious scenery in the whole of Asia. I was awakened at 5.30am by a guard pulling on my leg. I didn’t like that. I had locked the door from the inside and he clearly had an override key. That means they are able to slip into your cabin at any point during the night and into your valuables, or worse. I made a mental note for the return journey. Actually, to be honest, I wrote it down because mental notes are no longer as reliable as they used to be.
The journey from Lao Cai Station to Sapa village, as the sun rises, is one of the most pleasurable experiences I have ever had. And it had nothing to do with the Swedish back packer, wearing shorts and hiking boots, sitting immediately on my left who had been on the same train. The scenery in Northern Vietnam is stunning and definitely equal to anything I have seen in South Africa. And with less chance of your coach being held up at gun point by people from the Cape Flats wearing Man United shirts and with their balaclavas on back to front. As usual, I was on the side of the coach that faced the mountain wall for the whole journey (see, I told you that is how my luck runs) and had to duck and stretch to see anything at all, apart from down her T Shirt. I could do that easily enough by barely moving. If you are making this journey then the left hand side of the coach/mini bus is the side to aim for. And, make sure your hotel in Sapa has booked a seat for you. That way a; there will be someone on the platform holding up a sheet of A4 with your name on it and b; it will cost $3 which the hotel will pay. If you haven’t done this you may find yourself negotiating with a thieving bus driver at 6am in a far away place for a $50 seat.
An hour later and I was the only one being dropped off at the hotel I was booked into. I think I was the only one in the hotel at all. It didn’t seem to be very popular and, I suppose, at $12 a night that is hardly surprising. The Royal Grand it is called, or The Grand Royal, something like that. It looks, and feels, like the sort of place you would find on the Bognor Promenade in 1864. It certainly hasn’t been upgraded in the last century but, once I had seen the views, none of it really mattered. The view from my bedroom is one of the finest I have ever seen. So much so that I took only my second photograph since I have been in the country. I prefer not to take photographs because nobody wants to see them and besides, I am supposed to be a writer. If I can’t explain it without a picture then…… Well, you know.
Incidentally, the first and only other photograph I have taken is of a crashed American B52 bomber that was shot down and landed in a tiny lake in a heavily populated area of Hanoi. It is testament to the fine aviation skills of the pilot, or the timing of the anti-aircraft gunner, that it managed to miss every single building. What it must have been like to see a B52 crash twenty yards in front of your window I can only imagine. They have left it there and declared the area a Monument of National Importance Recognizing the Struggle against American Imperialism, or so the plaque on the wall says. And I quite like that, hence the photograph. I do wonder about myself sometimes, I really do.
The Lake is called Ho Hun Tiep in the Ba Dinh District. Tell the taxi driver you can only reach it from Hoang Hoa Tham Street. On Google maps it is called Ho B52 (Lake B52) Anyway, the view. Miles and miles of mountain side with neat steps cut into it and something green growing on them. I don’t know what it is but I imagine it is edible, or drinkable. Apparently, a few years ago, it used to be smoke-able but they put a stop to all that. They don’t look like vines from here so it is probably rice. What I could also see were the trek-trails snaking their way through the vista as though somebody has laid thin silver threads upon my photograph.
I ventured outside to buy some provisions and to have a look around and it started almost immediately. ‘Buy this from me Mr, where you from, what your name? For a man of my genial and patient nature this became irritating inside ten seconds (a record, I think) but the indigenous local people of the Black Hmong are as persistent as I am grumpy. One of them even tried to tug on my sleeve to stop me from walking past her. She had no idea how dangerous that was since I became acutely trained in the western art of being pissed off in Old Hanoi Town. (I now have all the charm, and reflexes, of an Arsenal fan) I came here to escape all this for a few days. Then, a Vietnamese looking woman dressed in jeans and hiking boots approached me. I was immediately on my guard. ‘Excuse me’ she said in a thick American accent. When I say ‘thick’ I mean, oh never mind. ‘Do you know where the trek is leaving from, I seem to have missed my party and don’t want to go out there alone. Unless you would like to join me?’ I looked her up and down, thought for a moment and then said, ‘Sorry, but I don’t speak English,’ and walked off.
I had just seen the treks from my hotel window and they all look uphill to me. No I don’t want to go trekking thank you. I have only just stopped complaining that Fawlty Towers here doesn’t have a lift and I have to walk for two flights up the stairs. I would rather climb up the outside of the hotel than up that mountain. Instead, I will enjoy the views, enjoy the cool breeze, enjoy the local architecture, history and the market. Only the market is full of the meat of just about every animal you can think of. Some of them were still in cages outside, waiting for their turn. Inside there was about 1000 SqM of what looked to me like a hundred autopsies being performed. The living, the dead and the about to be dead all sharing a single roof. It was horrible. Market? Do me a favour. It looks more like Al Qaeda have just held their Christmas party in there. I think I need a beer.
Sapa, Northern Vietnam. June 2013
Next – In the hills at Sapa
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