Many places in town rent out motorbikes. I happen to find a guy who operated from a corner across the main square. He spoke only basic English, but something about his low key friendliness made me want to give him my business. He offered several choices, the most expensive being a 130 cc bike for $6 a day, which was the same price as others were charging for underpowered bikes. Given the steep hills, I went for the extra power.
The only downside was that the tank was virtually empty. In standard operating procedure in Sapa, the renter is responsible for gas and the operator basically empties the tank whenever a customer returns a bike. They need the profit margin. Whatever. I filled up three quarters of a tank in Sapa's only gas station and off I went, heading to Lao Chau village, my first stop of the day. Being on a motor bike gave me the freedom to go where I wanted and stop when I wanted, and I made full use of it snapping photos whenever something struck me.
Near the the turn off to Lao Chau, I heard a loud squeal. I couldn't really tell what that noise was so I stopped. I looked toward the source of the sound, but all I saw was another motorbike. Again, this was a case of my brain taking time to register what I was seeing. I've heard of pigs in a blanket, but...
I got very lucky in stopping for that photo. A Dao woman (the one on the right below) approached me to sell handicraft. I politely declined with a "Sorry, no shopping today." But she was very pleasant and soft spoken, and we started talking about the pig, and then about Sapa generally. Cee (her name) spoke decent English and something about her clicked with me. I hadn't planned on hiring a guide or anyone else, but I asked her if she would like to be my interpreter for the day. At first she demurred since she wasn't a guide and didn't know how to do it. I told her I just wanted an interpreter, and that I had already planned out my route. We agreed on a very reasonable price. She hopped on the back of my motorbike (I was now very glad that I chose the 130 cc engine) and off we went.
Entering Lao Chau village, I saw immediately how brutally hard it was to work these terraces. Manual (or oxen) farming is in itself difficult, but the terraces mean that one needs to climb up a trench to go to the next small strip of land, which is not easy by any stretch. I didn't want to disturb this man's work with idle chatter, but he nodded when I indicated that I wanted to give his daughter some candy. Both his smile and her smile supported my theory of goodwill gestures being worthwhile.
The road in Lao Chau is reasonably well paved, and Cee and I rode along at a very slow pace watching the villagers go about their business. Morning times are the busiest, and most villagers were in the fields.
Whenever we ran into someone on the pathway, I stopped to try to make conversation with Cee's help. Almost all of the villagers were friendly and happy to chat, particularly with a sweet candy token for them or their child. Unlike some of the harder edged sales hawks of Sapa town, these villagers generally struck me as ordinary people who were as curious about me as I was about them.
I continued down the side road to the next village, Ta Van. The weather had totally cleared up, but temperatures remained quite pleasant. I stopped whenever I could to chat with people, and most of them happily responded, usually without even trying to sell me anything. I think we were all trying to be friendly.
Cee and I discussed the fact that many babies and young kids were unattended since their parents were working almost the entire daylight hour. Cee remarked there is a dark underbelly to this parents' work ethic. It doesn't happen often, but anytime it happens it's tragic. Caretakers (or strangers) have been known to exploit the parents' absence to abuse the children. That disquieting thought put a different perspective on seeing these kids; I can only hope that abuse is an extreme rarity.
If that thought wasn't unsettling enough, I almost ran over this guy who was hunched over in the middle of the road. He had apparently caught a snake, which he had then attached to a stick. He was trying to sell it, but he didn't look or behave like he was entirely mentally stable. Cee urged me to move on, and I didn't argue. Heroin use apparently is not uncommon in Sapa.
I reached a major intersection, and I headed north as I now wanted to check out the Thanh Kim village. During this loop, I saw some of the most picturesque terraced paddies.
A popular hotel, the Eco Lodge, is located here. From the outside, it appeared that their property had great views of the valley. I stopped and inquired as to whether I could have coffee in the restaurant. The views from and around the property were indeed pretty good. Unfortunately, the totally disinterested service from the hotel staff kind of turned me off. Perhaps it was because I wasn't a hotel guest, but I was certainly paying real cash for my coffee. Or perhaps it was because I was with a local tribes person. Or perhaps the staff was just having an off moment. But I felt very unwelcome and that the staff couldn't be bothered. In any case, I drank my coffee and was happy to move on. The 300 meter walk from the restaurant to the hotel entrance felt longer.
I just drove around nearby and snapped some extra photos, and then we were off to the next village.
As an aside, I was extremely pleased that I was motorbiking to see these villages. Trekking has its merits, but I could not have seen as much as I did without being on a motor bike. One downside of touring by motorbike is road hazards. This fallen bamboo tree almost took my head off because I was distracted looking at the terraced paddies. I saw the fallen boulders well in advance, but they made me wonder when more might tumble down. And while the roads were paved in many spots, others were no more than dirt and rock, making me wish for more posterior padding.
As we went through the next village (Ban Ho), Cee mentioned that there was a neat water fall up ahead. We drove through Ban Ho, until we ended up at what appeared to be the end of the road. Cee jumped off the bike and shouted a greeting to another woman who was standing on the side of the road. I was momentarily confused, and Cee explained that the woman was her "sister" and would lead us to the waterfall. Hmmm. The cynic in me thought I was being hustled a bit, but it turned out that they were just old friends and had unexpectedly met today.
I felt like the odd man out as they happily chattered between themselves and easily cut through the shrubbery, almost leaving me behind. It's a bit humbling to be out-trekked by two old ladies. Once again, the water fall was kind of blah. It was more like a wading pool.
Afterwards, we spend some time just cruising around Ban Ho village. Once again, I found the people to be very friendly and eager to exchange pleasantries and whatever simple thoughts we could share.
My conversation with this couple was typical. They were puzzled by my question as to whether their life was difficult. Life is neither hard nor easy; it just is. And they remarked that while times change, they are generally happy with their lives and don't really wish for much more, other than better farming tools.
It was now time to backtrack towards Sapa. One village I had skipped was Giang Ta Chai, because its main attraction was also a waterfall. As I drove back towards Sapa, I thought "what the hell" and decided to give this waterfall thing another chance.
Along the drive, I met a bunch of local people. Most of whom again were happy to talk to a foreigner, and well...one that really wasn't happy to see me.
Giang Ta Chai village is tiny, and there is a small shop near the trail head down to the waterfall. I stopped for a beer, and with Cee's help made conversation with some of the locals, including this guy who (to me) was dressed like he was auditioning for Dracula.
The walk down to the falls was scenic, and I took my time because we encountered many interesting people along the way. I didn't talk to this man, but thought this was funny because he was passed out on the field while about 20 yards away from him a group of women were working feverishly in the fields.
His nap contrasted greatly with the work ethic of this little boy. He took a candy without a word and just kept moving.
I am 100% positive this man struck this pose when he saw me pull out my camera, because he was all hunched over just a moment earlier.
This woman shouted at me, one of the few to do so. Cee said she wanted money to photograph her. My bad.. I already snapped the photo so I gave her 5000 VND. That's 25 cents, and she was happy.
These two girls were making decorations for church. I asked Cee about the prevalence of Christianity versus other religions in the area, and she didn't really know.
Eventually, I made it all the way down to the waterfall. Guess what. it was a big disappointment. Basically, think of someone squirting a hose down a sheet of rock.
I took a slightly different trail back up to the main road, and had a great time just walking and shooting photos, with the occasional conversation thrown in. The grandmother in the second photo was funny because when I gave her candy for the kids, she took the entire batch and then said "You have any for the kids?" with a straight face. I replied "I gave you four, including one for you", she shrugged and doled out some of her stash to the kids.
t was time for me to say goodbye to my translator. I dropped Cee off on the main road, and headed back to Sapa. Near Lao Chau, I ran into these two kids who were running around with what looked like a propeller. The best toys are the hand made ones.
I eventually made it back to Sapa. Out of nowhere, some water buffaloes had decided to commandeer the streets. It wasn't exactly "Running of the Bulls in Spain", but it was kind of funny.
Now to something not as funny. Remember my comment about the poor quality of Sapa's restaurants, and in particular me growling about a local place? This evening, I was in the mood for a hot pot. Hot pots are quite expensive at $15-25 compared to other local dishes (but cheap by Western standards). They are meant to be shared among several people, but I was famished and when I saw this place serving some, I knew I had to have a shabu shabu like meal even if I was alone.
The restaurant was crowded, with locals sitting inside and some foreigners sitting on outdoor stools, so I thought that was a good sign. When my dish came, however, I was quite surprised. With hot pots, you always get a clear boiling soup, and then a side of vegetables and meat to cook along in the soup as and when you want to eat it. Hence the term "hot pot." And in fact, that is what my local neighbors clearly were doing in the nearby tables.
What the waitress placed in front of me, however, was a fully cooked pot of something. It looked brown because everything else was already in there and had been cooking for awhile by appearances. My mother didn't raise a fool. I knew I was being served someone else's leftover hotpot. I asked her why she was serving me this instead of what the others were eating at the nearby tables. The waitress said "This is the way foreigners eat it." I told her I wasn't going to eat that, and chastised her for serving me leftovers. As I stood up to leave, she had given up and said she would bring me the correct dish, but there was no way I was staying. She made no protest. She would probably just simply give it to the next unsuspecting foreigner.
I ended up having a hot pot a couple blocks away at Co Lich. A bit wary, I asked the waiter specifically how it would be served first. He looked at me like I was an idiot. He pointed to the other tables and explained I would get a clear soup and a side of vegetables and meat to cook as I saw fit. I relayed to him my prior experience, and he just laughed. Apparently, that restaurant is known for recycling food. Travelers beware! I ended up enjoying my meal at Co Lich, and returned the following day for lunch.
My earlier hot pot fiasco couldn't detract from what had certainly been a fantastic day. This day felt so much more vivid and authentic compared to my first day. I was swiftly falling in love with the area and its people. I knew I would be back on a motorbike the following day to continue to tumble around greater Sapa.