Into the clouds of Northern Vietnam

rice paddies on the sides of mountains

From the bustle of Hanoi to the serenity of the mountains close to the Chinese border, the night train was our gateway to a beautiful part of an amazing country.

Is it a coffin? Is it the practice box for Houdini? Nope, its the sleeping arrangements in a Vietnamese night train. Triple bunks had very little room for even the smallest amongst us never mind my gangly body (really not an advantage when travelling) so the night was mainly spent sitting and chatting on the lower bunk facilitated by the fact the second bunk folds up. Are you scared of things that go bump in the night? If the answer is yes then my head would’ve been the most terrifying thing in the universe, thanks to one light bulb inches from my face… Thanks Thomas Edison. Apart from this the beds were surprisingly comfortable and as long as toilet trips were kept to a minimum you could have quite a pleasant journey. Seriously though, the toilets were the stuff of nightmares, think oceans of urine.

We arrived in Lao Chai in the early hours of the morning and took a minibus to Sapa rising up through the clouds until we were above them in the early morning light. The view was stunning, looking at the rice paddies stepping down the mountains that were disappearing into the clouds below. We arrived in Sapa which would act as our base throughout our time trekking as well as before and after the project in a remote village.

Sapa

Living perpetually in a cloud was a new experience for me. Obviously rain is quite a regular occurrence but when it clears in Sapa it’s worth the wait.

cloud covered mountains
An unbeatable view of our hostel when the clouds clear

The Sapa region has recently become more recognised by tourists as a place to visit in Vietnam thanks to its stunning scenery and ethnic minorities that populate the area. While you often see them round town its only to ask you to buy from them, if you want to know more about their real lives and find out more about their culture then homestays in the surrounding mountains are the way forward (see more about this later).

My time in this town was split fairly evenly between sleeping, wandering and eating. The sleeping is fairly self explanatory and was due to the amount of travelling we had done, the wandering mainly consisted of walking around the market which was full of lots of interesting things from live fish in washing up bowls to machetes and old coins. Finally one of my favourite parts of travelling, the food. We enjoyed a relative feast compared to the dinner of oreos and a baguette that we had on the night train. Chicken spring rolls, spiced sizzling beef and vegetables with white rice it was simple but excellent.

 

The Trek

We were trekking in the area surrounding Sapa for a week with a guide to help us get to the right home-stays. Balancing on the edge of rice paddies where the path gives way to a farmer’s field and walking up and down mountains was all in a days work. The scenery ways incredible as you can tell from just a few pictures I took during these hikes.

rice paddies in Vietnam
Not a bad lunch stop

 

 

A river in a green river valley with mountains in the background
A landscape that hardly looks real

 

At the end of everyday’s hike we arrived at our homestay which were always a different experience. Bamboo floors cut from the surrounding forests, friendly local people and some of the best food I’ve had in my life. These are some of the things you can expect from a homestay in Vietnam. We mainly sat around playing cards, waiting for dinner. It may come as a surprise to you but my mind was very focussed on the food rather than the cards. This wasn’t particularly conducive to a good run of luck in the games but the heartbreaking losses in poker were soothed by the home cooked food that came out in huge quantities. When you’re as hungry as me 24/7, the sight of deep bowls of rice being refilled at will is a joyous occasion.

As well as all the incredible traditional food, which I could write about forever, there was a strange addition thanks to our guide Thanh who made these strange sweet and garlic chips. They sound horrible. An unthinkable experiment to a much loved food but it worked. Now I miss them and need them back in my life.

Note: If you can organise it homestays were a brilliant experience and something unforgettable about my stay in this part of Vietnam.

 

The Project 

After coming back to Sapa for more sleep and inevitably more rain, we set off to a remote settlement with a maximum of 10 houses to start our project. The aim was to build a concrete path through the village to help them during the rainy season. At this time of the year the hill goes from a path into a low budget waterpark characterised by one slide where a mud slurry replaces the water. Lovely.

Project in Vietnam with a concrete path
Never has anyone been as determined to do anything as Teddy was to get into every single photo of mine for a whole month.

A week and a half later we had been woken by cockerels every morning and I had decided they are the true incarnation of the devil. We had sung bohemian rhapsody in torrential rain while pouring hand mixed concrete and standing under the biggest leaves I’ve ever seen. I had done the Cha Cha slide (slide being the most relevant part of this song) while walking up the hill carrying sacks of sand on a wooden stretcher. Tired bodies, little piglets running riot and lots of rain. A fantastic week in the remote Vietnamese countryside.

From here we would travel back to Hanoi and on to Central Vietnam.

Final thoughts

It may seem like on the most part this trip was made up of me sleeping and eating which is a pretty accurate summary of my life, never-mind the trip. However, when I did look outside, past the clouds, northern Vietnam was filled with incredible people, awe inspiring landscapes and unforgettable experiences.

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