There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 30 March 2012

Trekking from Sa Pa (3), Around Ban Den then back to Hanoi: Part 7 of Vietnam North to South

Back to Part 6
Trekking from Sa Pa (2): Ta Van to Ban Den
On to Part 8

Those more familiar with OS maps might note that red indicates a (largely) metalled road of any size.
Tracks shown in yellow are footpaths or concrete strips for motorcycles

Next morning, despite Minh’s assertion that today’s walk was all on a nice simple concrete path, one hour out, one hour back, Lynne could not be persuaded to leave the homestay. So after a bowl of noodle soup with a fried egg and a couple of slices of watermelon, Minh and I set off without her.

Minh and I set off without Lynne

Sitting in the middle of the road to the village was a young man eating fruit from a plastic box. ‘Would you like to try?’ Minh asked. The fruits were about the size and colour of plum tomatoes, but more cylindrical with a core running down the middle. I bit into it and winced, it was almost as bitter as a sloe. ‘It’s better dipped it in salt,’ Minh suggested. The lad offered me his salt and that improved it enough for me to finish it, but not so much I wanted another one. ‘What are they?’ I asked. ‘Nhot,’ Minh said. I tried ‘nhot’ in Google Translate, and it came up with ‘viscosity’, which is a strange name for a fruit. 

We walked through the village, crossed a suspension bridge over the main stream and then another over a side stream. The deck of the second was seriously rusted, some of the holes being as big as my feet. Through the bridge I could see the rocks and tumbling stream below, expecting to be in it at any moment.

The centre of Ban Den village

Once out of Ban Dem we found the concrete path. What Minh had not told Lynne was that the ‘one hour out’ was all uphill, sometimes gently, but more often steeply. I kept up a cracking pace leaving Minh trailing in my wake. At least that was what I want to believe, though, more probably he was just allowing me to set the pace.

Minh lags behind - or not

The concrete path was not entirely continuous, but after an hour’s walking we did indeed arrive at the collection of rough wooden houses that are the Dao village of Nam Toóng.

Nam Toóng

We walked between the houses to where the path ended and the rice terraces began. The farmers would soon be planting their crops and we watched a man carry his plough down the hill to his waiting buffalo.

Farmer carrying his plough

Wading through the mud, we returned to the village and dropped in on the school where relay races were taking place. I slipped a few thousand dong into the cardboard box standing at the entrance and we stood and watched.

There was great enthusiasm among the children and the young male teacher adjudicated on close finishes, penalised those who set off too early and dealt patiently with the unco-ordinated who ‘hop’ using alternate feet and never quite realise they're running (there is one in every school). His decisions were swiftly given, as fair as was humanly possible and accepted without question. After each race the winning team shouted and waved their arms in the air and lined up for the next with barely suppressed excitement. The money in the box is supposed to help the children, but if it ended up in the teacher’s beer fund, I would not begrudge it; it is always good to watch a professional at work

Relay races, Nam Toóng school

We moved on to a house where Minh was greeted as a friend. The older child – who perhaps should have been in school – was waving round a large beetle attached to a bamboo frond by the stump of a severed leg. The beetle tried desperately to fly away, but could only buzz in angry circles. The younger child, held in his mother’s arms, had a slightly smaller but particularly evil looking bug in his hand and was clamouring for his parents to attach that to a similar frond. I do not generally find I have much sympathy for insects, and I know these children do not have access to the wealth of toys my grandson enjoys, but the game made me feel distinctly uncomfortable.

We set off back down the hill to Ban Den. I do not like long descents, they hurt my knees, but we moved along swiftly and in forty minutes were back at the rusted bridge. Minh was right to say it would take us two hours, but it was an hour up, twenty minutes there and forty back rather than an hour each way.

Minh leads the descent

I held my breath as we crossed the bridge, though I doubt that made me any safer. Minh had suggested a twenty minute detour to a waterfall, so a hundred metres later we turned off the track and worked our way obliquely back towards the river along a jungle path. Reaching the water’s edge we crossed a small beach and scrambled onto a boulder a couple of metres high for the best view.

Along a jungle path

The waterfall was truly underwhelming. However whilst sitting on the rock I suddenly noticed that despite the usual hundred per cent cloud cover it was now distinctly hot. I had a slurp of water but realised that what I wanted more than anything else in the whole world was a cold beer.

Not the world's biggest waterfall

We clambered off the rock, always harder than climbing up, and made our way back to the homestay, arriving at almost exactly the time we had told Lynne to expect us. Minh stuck his head and shoulders into the chest fridge on the terrace and emerged holding a couple of bottles of Tiger beer. Never had anything tasted so good. Lynne had one, too, though I had to point out (more than once) that she had done nothing to earn it.

She had spent a pleasant morning sitting in the garden chatting with the various people who wandered in, some to sell handicrafts, some just to talk. The conversations were, it seemed, not particularly hampered by the lack of a common language. It seemed quite normal for anyone to wander in as they pleased; at one point a boy had walked up the garden path, gone into the kitchen and helped himself to two slices of water melon. Mrs Ut neither acknowledged his presence, nor chased him away.

Looking about her, Lynne could not help noticing how widely bamboo was used; there was a birdcage, the garden railings, several baskets, a range of drainpipes and gutters, and last night's dinner to point out only the most obvious. I was able to add instrument of insect torture to her list. [And as of July 2016, she can add 'gramophone needle']

It was nearly lunchtime and Minh brought a plate of fried potato slices out from the kitchen. We nibbled our way through that and then another plate arrived. We finished the second just in time for lunch, and we set to work on a huge plate of fried rice with pork, the remains of yesterday’s bamboo and other assorted goodies. It was excellent, but the quantity eventually defeated us.

Feeling pleasantly stuffed we took our leave of our hosts, walked down the track to Ban Den and found the car ready and waiting to return us to Sa Pa where we were reunited with our suitcases.

Down the track back to Ban Dem

During the hour’s delay before the car was available to transport us down to Lao Cai, we watched a funeral procession bring the centre of Sa Pa to a halt. Pictures of the deceased in what seemed to be police uniform were carried in front of the coffin. ‘Was he a very important man?’ I asked Minh. ‘A very old man,’ he replied ‘that is why the funeral is so large.’ I was just musing on the thought that at home, the older you are the smaller the funeral usually is when Minh added, ‘He was 64.’

Funeral, Sa Pa

The journey to Lao Cai passed quickly and we checked into the Thein Hai hotel for a shower and to change the clothes we had been wearing for three days.

Minh had recommended a couple of restaurants, but we were still full of fried rice so we wandered the street market in search of something we might eat on the train. We found a woman sitting on a blanket with the last of her banana stock. The local bananas are sweet but small so we asked for four. This was clearly an eccentric request. Waving a 10000 Dong note to indicate her price, she made it clear we could have the whole branch – some two dozen – or nothing. For 30p we took the lot. We ate four on the train, nibbled a few more the following day and left the rest in our hotel room. I hope they were of use to somebody. One legacy of French rule is that the Vietnamese bake decent bread, so we bought a baguette and a triangle of ‘La Vache Qui Rit’ cheese, the Laughing Cow being yet another French legacy. At home any shop would sell a single banana but few (or less) would split a box of foil wrapped cheese. In Vietnam it is the other way round.

Street market, Lao Cai

Equipped for our picnic, we said farewell to Minh at the station and enjoyed an uneventful overnight trip back to Hanoi.

Back to Part 6
Trekking from Sa Pa (2): Ta Van to Ban Dem

On to Part 8

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