13 Weeks of Wandering – Sa Pa: Beauty & Calamity

Bangkok | Cambodia | Vietnam | Laos
New York >> Miami | Portland >> Vancouver

Where To? Vietnam
How long? 3 Weeks
Thoughts: In the end, the bus dropping me in the middle of nowhere was the best thing that had happened.

Like a Local 

SaPa 0

Rain pounded down on the house of wood and showed no sign of easing up. Mama May had been cooking and I could already smell the sweet aroma of pancakes when I forced my stiff muscles to move me out of bed. A hot shower did the world of good. *Grunt Grunt* The pigs were still curiously pressed up against the glass door whilst I did my morning routine. I couldn’t help but laugh at the bizarre scene.

The mother in law took the opportunity, whilst I was scoffing pancakes with condensed milk and bananas, to pull out her hand made selection of pillow covers, bags, purses, headbands, bracelets and the like. They did not come cheap (by Vietnamese standards) and I knew full well that I could get better quality items in the town for a cheaper price. I still bought. They were a family doing their best to make a living in any way that they could, how could I not support that?! So although I was certain the price had been majorly inflated for me, I didn’t drive a hard bargain as I chose some beautifully embroidered purses.

SaPa 1

Outside the girls, young and old, all sat around on the veranda sewing their own traditional garments. Each stitch took time and they weren’t afraid to un-stitch and re-stitch for perfection.  Mama May brought out her clothes, “would you like to try these on?” Would I? I couldn’t have been more excited to put on those snug fitting garments as she taught me how to wrap each layer. The children giggled as we stood next to each other and posed for photos. I looked like a local girl, they said.


The Delicate Wings of Butterflies 

Despite the persisting rain, a half day hike was in order and this time, Mama May had the bright idea of letting me hike in her traditional clothes so that I would look like a local. I obliged! I got a lot of compliments from people who thought I was local at first and then did a double take when they realised I wasn’t.

SaPa 2

Mama May started to talk about setting me up with a local man, and was all too quick to inform me (upon realising I was 25) that I was a bit old to be unmarried. By that age her daughters were already married with children. You see, in Sa Pa, they marry very young, most girls will have found a life partner by 17 or 18.

Trying to describe the views that I saw on my half day tour is futile. Here are a few words I would use; breathtaking, awesome, stunning, incredible. Aside from squeezing past even more buffalo, I witnessed the famous layered rice fields of Sa Pa, passed through colourful tribal villages, inviting corn fields, and awe-inspiring waterfalls. The wellingtons I borrowed from Mama May’s husband certainly served me better than the flimsy plimsolls now so spoiled that I had to throw away. I was grateful for these in the parts so slippery that I very nearly fell.

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A magical moment happened when we walked past a butterfly on the ground beaten down by the rain. At first I thought the beautiful creature was dead but I took a closer look. Her wings were soaked and the large drops of rain were beating down heavily on the butterfly. I knew it was only a matter of time before she drowned or was trampled over.

Using a twig, I let her hold on tightly whilst I moved her to safety by a nearby plant. She would be safe there, she could wait out the rain and fly again when her wings dried.
I didn’t realise at the time when we were crossing bridges and rescuing wet-winged butterflies whilst attempting to shield ourselves from the rain, that we plodded along with a new friend hitching a ride on our umbrella.


Much More Beautiful Than This

I was grateful when we could finally stop hiking and start eating! Guess what I had for lunch? Yep, you got it- noodles! Eating and chatting with the locals (whilst warding off the children selling bracelets), I returned Mama May’s garments and thanked her for the whole experience. It had truly been one of a kind, but it didn’t stop there.
Soon her husband came to get me on the back of his motorbike to return me to Sa Pa town.

SaPa 6

As I rode on the back of the motorbike through the Sa Pa mountains, the wind blowing through my hair, the raindrops stinging my cheeks, the cliff side overlooking rows and rows of bright green rice plants, I thought “it can’t get any more beautiful than this”. But it did.

Rounding a corner of the mountain face we spotted a small crowd of people around a bleeding woman. At first we thought there had been an accident and Mama May’s husband immediately stopped to help.

SaPa 25

We realised, she had just given birth to a beautiful baby. She brought a new life into the world, right here, on this road, by the edge of this cliff, overlooking the stunning valley of colourful rice fields. And I had been lucky enough to share a small part in her joy. I was in awe. Yes it did get so much more beautiful.

I shed a small tear.


The Calm before the Storm

I sat in the hotel lobby waiting for my bus to Laos, fully satisfied that I had experienced everything of Sa Pa that I needed to.

My Vietnamese Dong was running low but that didn’t matter because I wouldn’t need it any more crossing over to Laos. Realising the hotel didn’t accept card payments, I sighed, I guess I’d have to take some money out after all. I headed to the nearby ATM, unaware of the huge system issues my pre-paid master card had been having at that very same time and I punched in my pin.

I waited for my money to come out, but it didn’t, instead an error came up. I cancelled the transaction and waited for my card to be spat out, but it didn’t come out. The machine went back to the welcome screen as it waited for it’s next victim to put their card in and I stared, mouth wide open, in utter disbelief! It took a minute for panic to set in and I frantically looked for an entrance to the bank that owned the machine- closed! It was 6pm and the bank was closed. In 15 minutes, my bus would arrive to take me to Laos and my card, my lifeline, was stuck in this machine!

Desperately, I tried calling every number displayed on the foreign signs within the ATM but with no luck, the phone must have been out of minutes. No options left, I ran back to the hotel and urgently tried to communicate with the manager. Speaking minimal English, he had no idea what I was saying only that something was obviously wrong.
I burst into tears and tried, between sobs, to use my most basic English combined with dramatic hand gestures. But it still took me dragging him to the ATM before he realised what had happened. A woman was happily collecting her own money from the machine when we arrived, “ask her if she’s seen a card!” I frantically gesticulated. He obliged. Nope, she had not. My sobs resumed. He did not know what to do. Wanting to help, he took it upon himself to get in contact with the ATM provider as the bank was closed.


A good hour after missing the bus, it was clear that I would have to wait until the next day to retrieve my card from the bank. In a final attempt to calm me down, the manager offered a room to me at a discounted rate and refunded the money for the shower I’d taken earlier. He also called the bus company and rearranged for a the bus to pick me up the next day instead. I will always be grateful for his assistance, and I recommend you visit the Anh Nhi Hotel if you ever go to Sa Pa!

SaPa 13

It was good to have a normal comfortable bed to snuggle into that night and have some luxuries that I’d been missing the past few weeks, even month. Like a TV, with movies playing! I couldn’t remember the last time I watched a movie. And a hairdryer, free hotel toiletries etc. I decided I would make the most of it…
I had a hot shower, washed my hair, blow dried it into a slightly straighter, slightly less frizzy mop and then got snug and painted my nails. The hairdryer doubled up as a source of heat when my limbs started to get cold. And I enjoyed a film dubbed over in Vietnamese.

This can’t be the worst situation, I thought before I closed my eyes.

The Storm Before the Calm

The next day I was out as soon as the banks were opened. I packed up, left everything in the lobby and went to collect my card. With minimal trouble I eventually got it back, then did some obligatory sight seeing in the unceasing rain.

SaPa 14

Again, I waited and waited… and waited in the cold lobby with my bags packed. This time, the hotel manager received a call. The bus was not coming! Again, I burst into tears. And again, the hotel manager did not know what to do. So he put my sobbing self on the phone to the bus people who also did not know what to do. “Sorry…” They offered, but the sobs kept coming. I was on a tight schedule with a flight to catch in Thailand- I could not afford these delays. I was also tight on money and certainly could not afford yet another night in the hotel. “Please stop crying” the man on the phone practically begged me, “I’ll pay for your night in the hotel and for your breakfast!” My crying began to subside, “and I will refund you half of your ticket!” He pleaded with me. I managed to pull myself together enough to thank him. I could almost hear the sigh of relief the other end.

So I was back in my room, with the hairdryer warming my feet, watching dubbed over movies. But the drama was only just beginning. It seemed a very strange creature had made it into the room with me and was up for a bit of a fight! The strange looking large flying insect made a dart towards my face and I used a pillow to shield. Scared out of my wits, I jumped into a wing chun stance with the pillow in hand waiting for the next dart. It must have looked like a hilarious pillow/sword fight with an invisible person from the outside my window as I dodged and floundered my arms in the air. But the insect was scary AF and my heart was pounding out of my chest! When it finally landed in one corner of the room, I dove to the opposite corner which was thankfully by the door and pathetically threw a shoe at it. I ran out of the room before it had a chance to retaliate and sought out a big strong man to deal with it.

The hotel manager had done enough for me, he really didn’t owe me any favours! But I was desperate and afraid so I still sought him out. Instead I got a younger waiter who was the only man around, and he didn’t speak any English. It must have looked strange as I dragged him to my room, but he soon understood as I cowered in the corner and pointed across the room. He laughed at me as if to say, “are you f-ing serious”?! But he obliged and removed the insect from the room. I had the audacity to ask if he would do a scan of the room to ensure none of the insect’s friends and family remained and he also obliged. I thanked him in every hand sign possible and he left.

Let’s just say, I slept with the covers pulled over my head that night.


A Final Mountain to Climb

There was hope in the air that morning, maybe today was the day I would finally make it out of Sa Pa! It was still raining.

Making the most of Sapa, I went on a thorough exploration despite the drenching rain wearing the only shoes that were sort of waterproof… flip flips!

I went inside the Mau Son temple and I explored the street markets that hadn’t been there before. I was after some cheap street food as money was low, so I followed my nose up some steps which lead me to grilled corn on the cob. I fancied something else, so I kept following the steps onwards and upwards. I was distracted at first by stalls along the side of the steps, but the steps just kept going.

I reached a barricade that didn’t seem to have anyone manning them so I went through, this time curious as to where these steps would lead. They kept going, and going, getting steeper and more slippery as my flip flops started to slide on and off my feet. I didn’t stop.

There were beautiful gardens, and then tourists who seemed desperate to get a photo by a flower bed that spelled “Sa Pa”. But there were still more steps! So I went on.

SaPa 21

I’m not sure how long it took or how high I was but when the steps finally ended, I realised I was on top of a mountain! The Hàm Rồng mountain to be exact!

I laughed and took in the, albeit cloudy, view. In the end, I realised, the bus dropping me in the middle of nowhere was the best thing that had happened to me.

Next stop: Laos!


2 thoughts on “13 Weeks of Wandering – Sa Pa: Beauty & Calamity

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