12th - 19th September (Dien Bien Phu - internet cafe undergoing noisy renovations!)
My early impressions of Vietnam are not great; I am dissapointed by the route from Mai Chau, the settlements we pass through are of scruffy concrete buildings instead of the beautiful bamboo hut villages i have been used to in Laos, there is rubbish strewn everywhere and the vehicles kick up dust from the roads. My first impressions of Hanoi are worse;
i get off the bus to a throng of motorbike taxi riders shouting, waving and pulling at my arm - at this point i don't know where in the city i am (as there are a few bus stations) or where i am going (my first priority is to find an ATM). I speak to a bus station official who points me towards the nearest bank, he says 1km so i start walking with my big rucksack on my back. I walk for at least 1km in the city heat with hassle from moto taxis every few seconds, and find a bank, they tell me i need Vietcom bank, 1 more km. After about a km i find another bank, they also tell me i need Vietcom bank, another km. Eventually i get there and to my relief get some money and by this time i know where i am on the map, and am resolute not to take a mototaxi, i have a lot of time to kill as i intend taking the night train out of here so i walk the remaining 4km to the train station hot and exhausted with an occaisional stop for food and cold beer. I arrive at the train station with three hours to spare sitting on a plastic seat reading whilst very loud Vietnamese tv blares out 'who wants to be a millionaire' among other things. The train is six to a cabin and the bunks are narrow and hard, i don't sleep too well.
The train arrives in LaoCai and a minibus takes us on to Sapa and drops us at the summit hotel, a little way up the hill from the main part of Sapa, the rooms are very nice and the view is terrific. 8 dollars. I explore the area, enquire about a trek up nearby Fansipan mountain but nowhere seems to be running this as a group trek, so book a less strenuous 3 day hill trek for 45 dollars and then walk up some nearby hills for good views of the town, mountains and valleys.
It's a lovely hot day but a nice cool breeze in the hills.
Sapa also has an abundance of mototaxis but they are not too pushy.
The trek group are made up of a Spanish couple, an aussie guy and an English guy - they are a decent bunch. Our trek guide is a 19 year old Hmong girl in traditional costume called Sisi, she speaks a strange cockney/aussie english and is very funny. There are several other small groups with young Hmong girls leading them. We do a fair bit of walking, beat some rice out of it's stalks, swim in the beautiful, freezing cold river and then stay with a Hmong family who speak no English but communicate via the medium of raising a shot of rice wine, i get through about 15 shots,
the old man of the family is drunk and can't stop laughing. Sisi cooked up some great food and we played cards into the night.
Suprisingly there was not too much of a hangover although the stomach felt a bit iffy. The rest of the group had only booked a two day trek and left about 2 o'clock in a jeep, leaving Sisi and I to trek some more and stay at another home where we ate and drank but a much quieter affair than the previous evening.
The final day started gently enough with a beautiful ice cold swim, but after that a two hour walk straight up hill in the sun. We ate noodles for lunch then had 17km mototaxis back to Sapa. I got a new hotel room in the centre and showered before phoning mum to wish her a happy birthday. In the evening Sisi took me to a dingy cheap restaurant where the locals eat, there are no menus, just a glass cabinet where the uncooked meat and fish sits looking a bit ropey. We had some fish, chicken and beans with rice and it tasted better than it looked. We watched some rather odd, unenthusiastic traditional dancing and music playing.
The following day was a Sunday so Sisi was off work, we hired a manual motorbike which took some getting used to. With Sisi on the back we went to Lao Cai where i hoped to get some money out of the ATM, apparently not for foreign cards on a Sunday! We looked around some shops and ate noodle soup with some horrible fatty, boney pork in another dingy locals restaurant. Back to Sapa for warm clothes and waterproof jacket before a ride to the waterfall - very cold and foggy, my toes were freezing as i was wearing sandals. In the evening i treated Sisi to pizza and pasta in an expensive restaurant, she had never tried either and loved the penne bolognese, at these prices i doubt she'll ever eat it again. Sisi is really sweet and i think she has a bit of a crush on me (well, she's only human!) I leave tomorrow.
According to Lonely planet, the public bus to Lai Chau takes 7 hours, in less than 3 hours the bus drops me off at a place called Lai Chau, strange! I ask a mototaxi rider for Lan Anh hotel (in the lonely planet), he double checks my request like this is strange then we ride for 40 minutes out of Lai Chau while i get more confused. The scenery on this stretch is breathtaking. Eventually we get to a Lan Anh hotel where i meet 4 aussies about to leave in a jeep with their driver and guide so i tell them about my confusion. Apparently this is the new Lai Chau, the old one (90km away) in the book is slowly being deserted as it will be flooded by the new dam. There is not much there and not much here either so i take them up on their offer of a ride to Dien Bien Phu as it is further south towards Hanoi but also west towards the Laos border. The ride in the boot is a little cramped and i don't see much of the pleasant scenery.
We stop at a village where the kids huddle around the cameras and giggle at the resulting pictures.
I've noticed that some of the kids are fascinated by my hairy legs and arms as men here are pretty hairless. The 10 dollar hotel room in Dien Bien Phu is very nice, i eat with the friendly aussies, 2 couples about 50 years old (you're never too old to travel!), they give me their details and say i am welcome to visit them in Oz.
In the morning the aussies leave for their guided jeep tour. I walk around until i find the war museum, cemetry and A1 hill where the decisive battle that sent the french packing took place. I'm not really that interested which is why i hadn't intended coming here but ther isn't much else to do.
After 3 months of travelling i have spent about 1900 pounds, 20.90 pounds per day, which with all the travel, diving, climbing and trekking i don't think is too bad.