Sapa – Part 1 – Chinese New Year


“We’ve been invited to somebody’s house to slaughter a pig”  My pre dawn head picked up each word in turn; examined them carefully; put them back together and still had no idea what to think.

Scott’s comment hung in the air. Liz and I had just stepped off the sleeper train from Hanoi to Lau Cai. A small city in Northern Vietnam that straddles the border with China. The night had been filled with a demonic mosquito that seemed to have developed a fetish for ears. And a train conductor who every few hours would open our door and literally scream inside. It never seemed to coincide with the arrival at a station. She may have been drinking.

As our minibus creaked achingly up the hillside, he regaled us with the story. He had taken  the train an hour earlier than we had. As he sat having a coffee outside the station, he was befriended by a women named Kim; who had invited the three of us to spend the Chinese New Year with her and her family. She lived with her husband in Australia but was back visiting.

“It’s about an hour away from Lao Cai” Scott also added – which realistically could have been deep into China.  Liz and I mulled this over as we climbed higher and higher. Half dozing – until a tight chicane appeared unknowingly, and deposited everybody inside almost into an entirely different seat. I ended up on the lap of the 50 year old women next me. An uncomfortable moment for everybody involved.

As the morning broke over Sapa we simply gawped in wonder. Steep Mountains rose all around us, racing up to the perfectly blue sky. After a quick breakfast, we literally bumped into a women who said she a room in a hotel with three beds. A rare commodity in Sapa. We followed her and were in our room within minutes. On reflection, walking past a rooster in the hotel reception who appeared to be eye balling me – with eyes that said ‘your a long way from home boy’ should have rung some kind alarm bells. More on that later.

We spent the day walking down to the neighboring village of Cat Cat. Home to the Hmung tribe. The views down into the valley below were jaw dropping. The rice paddies crammed onto every available piece of land on the hillside, finishing in a strangely organized chaotic mess at the bottom. The village itself was incredibly simple, often basic wooden shacks. Interspersed with souvenir shops, basically selling the same things. The people had the look on their faces that they have had to put up with tourists tramping through their village for many, many years. Yes it brings money but you can’t help but feel it comes at a high price for them.  I’m sure most westerners murmur just how wonderfully quaint it is – in reality these people are desperately poor, and their lives are harder than we can ever imagine.


That night the rooster began his hellish chanting at 2.30pm. The sun rose around 6am. It was continuous and belligerent. The pillow around the head technique did nothing. I got a little sleep but couldn’t take it by morning. I opened the window

“Shut the fuck up” I screamed down at him. The rooster stood at the bottom. His chest puffed out; eye balling me again. I’m sure his head was tilted ever so slightly to the side

“Come down here and say that!” he bellowed back.  I retreated shocked and defeated. He taunted me for the next few hours. Eventually I got up and sneaked out quickly. I’m sure I heard the faintest of shouts of  ‘Yeah, you better run!’ as I trotted down the road.

That day we hired mountain bikes and rode up to Tram Ton pass – the highest in Vietnam. After suffering a flat tire and a broken chain in the first twenty minutes we motored on. At times flying along and towards the end, inching along through an almost constant pulsing burn in the legs. If hell has a summer camp this would be a key activity, without the views of course. The scene that greeted us was straight from Lord of the Rings. Mountains on either side of the pass surged up, then dropped spectacularly into the valley. The ride back down was a mix of utter exhilaration, and fear that comes with shear drops and questionable brakes.


As punishment for my insolence early that morning, the next day the rooster began earlier and with greater force. He stood under the window and screamed appalling insults for six hours. He questioned my manhood on numerous occasions and I’m sure I even heard a few racial slurs.

“We’re not coming back” I muttered bitterly as we were packing. As we left he stood sneering at us; a sly grin dripping from his ugly face.

We had agreed that a Vietnam Chainsaw Massacre was indeed possible if we agreed to go to the families house. But decided to go anyway. We agreed on some code words:

  • Tropic of Thunder – ‘The is no pig, we are the dinner – run for your life’
  • Donkey – ‘I do believe that the older women’s intentions towards me are not entirely honorable’

We caught a bus back to Lai Cai train station to meet Kim. The women that hopped out of a minibus, greeted Scott with a hug, then flung her arms around me. She definitely looked a little crazy, but probably not a killer. She also turned out to be Lien, and not Kim. In the minibus there were three Australians. Her husband Steve, and Viv and Dave, friends from Australia. The fear of being in a cooking pot by lunch time began to dissipate.

At the house we were ushered into a room where a gigantic feast had been laid out on the floor. If were going to be eaten, I guess they want us plump – and judging by the enormous bottle of brandy that was being passed around – well watered too. Not a bad way to go really. Each male in turn insisted on a shot with all of the foreigners, a sign of luck for welcoming the New Year. There were a lot of males. One man in particular turned a simply magnificent scarlet color after a few brandy’s.

Things got merry, as large quantities of Brandy at 2pm often does. Suddenly it was time ‘to go and see grandma’.Shit I thought, surely the heavy booze needs to come after the grandparents visit. I began to try and make myself look a little more respectable. It turns out grandma was dead. As we stood next to the grandparents grave I felt a little awkward at first that we were intruding. But they were incredible welcoming and friendly towards us. It was a touching moment to be involved in.

We were driven back to Lau Cai and checked into a hotel which over looked the Chinese border. A bridge that connected the two nations, each attempting to outdo the other with their arches, naturally.


We were given couple of hours off before we were again driven to a house. The process again unfolded. Enough food to fill an army and unspeakable quantities of a mysterious clear alcohol that seemed to magically find its way into our glasses at a staggeringly frequent pace.

“He wants to get you drunk” Lien giggled as one man changed places to sit next to me. He sat down; we nodded solemnly at each other like ancient Samurais. He poured some shots.


Another women opposite us also seemed in on it. The rules of drinking became complex. At one point I made some kind of social faux par. I think it involved putting the glass down when I wasn’t supposed to. It was greeted with laughing and shakes of the head in disapproval. My punishment was three shots. Then the women opposite me stuck her middle finger up at me. I’d had enough to drink that I seriously considered doing it straight back. But thought it better to seek clarification. She had indeed meant the number 1, rather than, fuck you. I demanded justice anyway. After a quick conference the court ruled in my favor. She was made to do three shots.

Before we knew it, it was over. We had survived another round. Back at the hotel we gathered on the roof of the hotel to watch China begin to sizzle. Small fireworks were going off all over the city, across the mountains the sky was lit by what was either an enormous fireworks display or a bombing campaign.

At 11pm, China erupted . I may have seen bigger and better fireworks than in this little Chinese town but in terms of memorable moments, it may never be beaten. They cascaded from all directions, some hit building, some hit the water. Wonderful chaos.  Absolutely dazzling.

The after party was in room 201. More beer, more food, as we watched the fireworks from Hanoi and Saigon. On the bed was spread out a series of red envelopes with lucky money in.  We were told they ranged from VND 500,000 ($25) to VND1,000 (something incredibly small).  I was the first to choose, and was so sure it was onto a winner. It was not. VND 2,000.

“Ok, now we go to my sister in laws house” Lien cried, it was creeping towards 1am. I had assumed this was a joke earlier. Half an hour later Scott and I were standing outside another house. Lien and a few of us sisters were hiding around the corner. We had one line to remember.

“Chung Mung Nam Moi” we repeated over and over to ourselves as we waited for the door to open. It never did. She arrived ten minutes later with her family. It was the middle finger women I had done battle with earlier in the night. I was told that she had recently been divorced and I was given the honor of giving her a special red envelope, with a selected large bill inside.

“Ok, my brothers house” Lien announced.

It seemed everything else had been drunk at the brothers house because we were greeted with shots of red wine. I then had the conspicuous feeling they were bringing out more food

“Just a little soup” Lien promised. The quantity of food was only slightly less than the feast that had been laid out at lunch time. An impressive effort at 2.30am.

We were driven back to the hotel at 3am. I had the feeling Scott was desperately attempting to scream ‘Donkey’ at me but Lien sitting on his lap prevented him from doing so. At the hotel I weaved my way merrily into the reception; visualizing my face flat down on a pillow when I was greeted by the friendly receptionist.

“Please, please” he waved me over to a nearby table – there sat an open bottle of brandy with several glasses.

The are insistence’s where it’s just rude not too – we sat down.


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