In Sapa

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August 11, 6pm or so, a hotel in Sapa, near the Chinese border.

The air is clear and this place is beautiful. Our hotel sits far up on a hill overlooking a valley. Anything not covered by clouds is green. There is the green of maize on the steeper slopes, there is the green of rice in terraces, steps up and down the whole valley. There is the green of cattle mown grass, the green of weeds on fallow fields and the green of dead straw. In between and one the roads there is a lot of brown wet mud.

There is the green of the forest on the mountain opposite. It is a huge mountain and stretches far in both directions. The clouds occasionally move aside to reveal lots of black jagged peaks of stone. It seems like a huge wall, it's top frayed and worn by the wind and clouds.

I like it here. I say "our" above because I'm travelling with two women (Italian and French) and another guy (Israeli).

Yesterday, I'd gone back to the Darling cafe, advised some people to go to Catba (a couple of Danes), had the usual problems ordering dinner, and said goodbye to the Paul and the French Lisa. She might be following a little later, he was going to try and rent a jeep to go to Dien Bien Phu or something.

I realized that it had been nice to come back and tell someone what had happened on the Island. There were times where I felt where I was bursting. And wherever I go I'm always thinking: how can I write this down, how can I describe this?

I walked to the train station as evening fell, my goodbye to Hanoi.Our carriage was crowded with backpackers. My cabin seemed a bit dull, my cabin mates seemed a bit dour and unfriendly.

Enter an Italian woman, Gina. So friendly and insistent was she, that I end up switching with a Vietnamese guy into their cabin. I soon realized why. The French woman, Viviane, and the Israeli guy, Jacob, had met a few days before and sparks had flown. Gina was left out in a way, so I was the foil, the fourth. A pawn in other words.

Still. she was cool, a biologist, outgoing and pretty. It was her first time to Vietnam and she was heading back soon to Milan for exams. She'd known the Viviane through her father. The fathers were both Swiss, had been friends a long time, so the two girls had often seen each other in one place or the other.

The night passed slowly and I may have slept, but not very well (even though I don't feel particularly tired now). I watched moonlit landscapes, listened to the weird noises of the train, composed blues songs to the beat of wheels on tracks, listened to the calls of hagglers whenever the train stopped.

Finally as day broke, we arrive in Laocai, a hop skip and a jump from China. About 40-50 backpackers pile off the train and onto buses. We are a bit slow and get onto the last one, a great ugly Russian thing with tiny seats. The price is 3 dollars. Everybody thinks it is high, and it is talked down to 2.50. A English girl whinges and whines her head off. She says very loudly to the bus driver, "this costs more than it would in England," (pitch ever increasing, until the last syllable where it drops) as if the driver gave a shit, or could understand for that matter.

She slept most of the way up, thank god, she probably would have gone on a lot longer given the opportunity.

English buses also don't tend to have to drive up mountain sides or over crappy roads. The bus driver leaned on his horn a little too much, but there was too much to see as we worked our way up the valley to really care.

We'd often disappear into the whiteness of clouds for a while, or they would obscure the view beneath us. The bus overheated once, but it was a quick fix at a nearby stream.

We also caught our first glimpses of some of the tribes people who live up in the mountains: basket backpackers, red turbaned women, guys wearing black and navy vests ad skullcaps. The trim on all the clothes are colorfully woven, lots of read black and blue. There are lots of little kids herding water buffalo, looking as though they'd been everywhere the buffalo had.

In Sapa, we get mobbed by women, very young or very old trying to sell their handicrafts. There is lots of silver jewelry, big heavy earrings and neck rings; there is pants, jackets, pouches, bags, little mouth instruments. They know a few words, "jolie" (pretty in French) and "ok," everything else they just try to repeat what you say or do. One girl is persistent enough to break me down, and I buy one of the little mouth instruments. It sounds a less powerful version of an Australian Aborigine instrument.

We pass up one hotel and go to another. The place seems pretty crowded and we were some of the last to arrive. We have breakfast on a patio overlooking the valley. The air is clear, but the mountain (the highest in Vietnam, called Fanispan) across the way is shrouded in ever shifting clouds.

We go for a walk after breakfast. My suggestions of paths are all vetoed though. I being to notice that Jacob is imperious and always has to be in charge. Gina seems to share my impressions. We talk, hanging back a bit from the other two. She thinks he is overbearing and a control freak. I couldn't agree more with her.

I wasn't too bothered, not at first anyhow. Gina said he's nice but she always starts speaking with her friend in French because she knows he can't stand it. I think he is only nice to Gina when it's a means to get to Viviane. The only reason Jacob wanted me along was to get Gina off his back... I'm beginning to think I'd've been a bit happier on my own.

Sapa mountains

Anyway we walk four hours or so down and into the valley. Clouds keep rolling up the valley over our heads. They occasionally sprinkle rain down on us, but there are equal parts sun and wind. Terraced hills are all about us, all colors of green, maize growing on steeper unterraced slopes, rice everywhere else, forests on the steep mountain side. There are horses, mules, little hogs, water buffalo, pack horses and the Blue People.

They are called Blue because their hands are perpetually blue from the dye they use to make their clothes. The young boys are never dressed in more than a tshirt and shorts, which are often as brown as the water around them. They seem to be the chief herdsmen and can be seen swatting water buffalo with long switches as they clamber up and down the slopes, through fields and along the roads. They follow cattle wherever they go. Noses are all a run and you see some health problems, a strange looking eye here, skin disease on kids head.

Most are friendly, but many scatter whenever a camera is raised. I stopped taking pictures after a while, trying to place myself in their shoes. They will often ask for things and the Jacob is often trying to bribe people so he can take their picture. They'll come up to you and ask for things: food, money, my hat, my swiss army knife...

I read this pamphlet on Sapa that I bought here and immediately I feel foolish. They ask us to be careful of the impact we are making, not to give things away or try and bribe people. Yet only today I'd given some pens when kids were asking for them. I thought of all the women surrounding our bus in the morning and wondered what they would be doing if we weren't here.

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