The knock at the door wrenched my eyes open at an alarming speed. I let out a grunt in disgust and rolled over to check the time. 7.00am – completely unacceptable. The knock increased in volume, as I rolled out of bed – staggered backwards and forth putting on my trousers, and made my way to the door.
I opened it cautiously – but I knew who it was. Lien stood, looking irritatingly awake, in the door way
“Morning” she announced far too brightly for my liking. It’s a dangerous thing to be drawn into a conversation immediately after waking. The throat is not yet warmed up or indeed even tested. My response resembled something between a transvestite with the flu and horse.
“Morning” I mumbled, croaked and squeaked all in two syllables. She giggled.
“So you come back to my house today?” she said beaming. I spent the next few moments making those unnatural throat grunts that are needed to feel confident that you are not going to sound inhuman the next time you speak
“No” everything had now settled into a deep croak and any form of conversational tact seemed to have deserted me. This had been gone over last night so should not have been a complete surprise. She looked disappointed – I mumbled a few sentences that may or may not have made any sense. She quickly gave up on me.
“Are the other two up” she poked her head in. I waved her nonchalantly into the room and sat down on my bed; as she began to harass Liz and Scott, who then took over the apologies process. I felt opening the door had been the hardest and most dangerous part.
Half an hour later some of her family came to the door to say goodbye. Lien’s sister, who could well have been fifty, and who had awkwardly linked arms with me the previous night asked for my phone number. For the briefest of moments I considered slamming the door shut. Common sense did prevail – instead I ambled slowly over to my phone and read out the number in the flattest, most unappealing tone I could manage
“Don’t call me” I screamed repeatedly – in my head – and did the best to convey the message telepathically. She never did call.
That morning we ate breakfast in a very distinguished and completely deserted hotel restaurant. Abba’s ‘Happy New Year’ had now been tormenting our ears for the past thirty-six hours. I was on the brink of madness. The restaurant finally relinquished and replaced it with some other shoot yourself in the face pop music instead. It was actually quite a relief.
Lao Cai was both simultaneously incredibly busy and empty. The streets were filled with families arriving to pay their New Years respect at different houses. Children would giggle and wave, some would squeal hello – the vast majority of businesses were shut. Sitting in the deserted railway station parking lot an hour later it occurred to us this might not be the best day to get a mini bus back up to Sapa. I walked over to the taxi box, only to find a man asleep inside. I knocked loudly on the window. After he got over the initial shock he waved me away with a look of absolute disdain, while grumbling something in Vietnamese – which I believe can be roughly translated to – Fuck Off. Eventually a bus arrived and we grudgingly paid three times the normal price for the trip back up to the mountains.
The next day we hired motorbikes and rode down into the valley to some of the tribal villages. Scott had his own bike, Liz was on the back of mine. Within minutes of leaving the warm sunshine of Sapa we had been plunged into thick, cold fog that consumed everything around us. This was the moment I discovered the lights on my bike didn’t work. Half way down it began to dissipate, but still hung over us ominously – creating an eerie cocoon of a world. We were greeted by the rice fields in every direction. The spring lushness was obviously still some way off as the paddies still clung to a wintery and wet dark green and brown.
We stopped for lunch in Ban Ha then continued on but the road quickly degenerated into an impressive combination of mud and water. A German tourist further along the road stood staring open mouthed at my efforts to control the motorbike – as it slid violently with a mind of its own in the mud, generally going sideways rather than forward. We dismounted and I announced solemnly that we definitely couldn’t go on with two people on the bike. We would have to walk. A few minutes later two motorbikes skipped past us, both carrying two passengers. I chose to ignore this.
The road we sloshed along clung tightly to the side of the mountainside and dropped steeply on the other side into the valley. Culminating in a small river at the bottom. Almost without a break mountains then rose steeply from the other side. The valley was was crisscrossed with roads and paths, leading down to a small town at the bottom.
As we turned a corner near the top we suddenly we confronted by a horde of women from the Red Dzao tribe. They were seated inside a series of huts that ran alongside the road. For the briefest of moments they didn’t move – then almost as one giant wave they stood and ran towards us, armed with as many souvenirs as they could carry. Some sprinted past us thinking there were more to come. Before we knew it, each of us were surrounded by three women who trotted along next to us for the next 15 minutes. Giving out helpful snippets of information about where and where not to step. Their clothes were wonderfully patterned with a mixture of white, black and a burning red. The wild head dress extended up then cascaded down in bunches that hung around their shoulders. Each carried a basket on their backs and an umbrella. There flimsy plastic shoes made an absolute mockery of my hiking boots as the skipped nimbly through the muddy quagmire. We on the other hand stumbled and slid in various directions at once like drunk elephants.
Their English was broken but obviously well rehearsed; the questions came thick and fast.
“Where you from, you married, where you live…”. Eventually one sidled over to be me and quietly got down to business.
“Later, you buy something from me” she said in a hushed conspiratory tone. I felt like I had been involved in some Vietnamese espionage plot.
“If the merchandise is up to scratch” I nodded knowingly, which of course flew straight over her head. The process was repeated by the other women. This of course had been expected. When we finally attempted to break away from them the sale pitch began like a feeding frenzy. It was savage and blood thirsty. I’m pretty sure I saw them devour a new women that dared to approach us. There was obviously a strict etiquette. We bought the odd things and left the women hurdled by the side of the road.
Our tranquil walk had been well and truly shattered but I was left with mixed feelings. It was fascinating to meet such people and yet irritating to the extreme to be harassed with such vigor. I felt quite sad for them in many ways. Who knows how many times they will repeat this process in their life time. I tried to put the annoyance out of my mind. If I am lucky enough to travel around the world and every so often be approached in this manner by people who will never have anything resembling those opportunities – then so be it. They obviously can provide a better life for themselves in this way.
We made our way back up through the foggy ceiling of the world and reappeared in the sunshine of Sapa.
The next day we would turn our sights to Vietnam’s highest mountain. Fansipan.