Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Sickness in Sapa

We arrived in Lao Cai from our overnight train journey from Hanoi. The journey was smooth, I slept just fine in my four-berth cabin with a Danish family. We eventually left Lao Cai in a mini van and for an hours winding journey up to the mountain village of Sapa. It was covered in mist and cloud, and I expect that the view from the hotel would have been spectacular had it not been for the extensive mist, which has still not lifted. It was also pouring with rain. We ate breakfast, bought some heavy duty rain ponchos for about $3, and took off on our trek to the minority villages of the Dzao and H'mong with our guide Khan, who is from the Dzao minority.

As we exited the hotel we were followed by a group of women in traditional dress. They began asking us questions... "What your name?", "Where you from", "How old are you", "Ah, you very young!". Little did we know they would follow us for our entire journey, like an uninvited shadow.
[Sapa in the clouds]


Before we'd left the hotel, Claire began feeling some gut pain. As we headed down from the road and into the villages, the rain stopped and I was overwhelmed by waves of nausea. We sat down for lunch, I couldn't eat a thing, and was very ill, not even making it to the loo. That was not fun. We changed our plans to stay the night at a homestay nearby for the night. By the time I got there, I was very sick, dizzy, nauseous... I spent some time at the loo and took myself to bed and slept for 13 hours. By this time, Claire was also nauseous and slept a lot as well. The others spent the night drinking beer, enjoying the freshly made food the family we were staying with had prepared, and engaging in cultural exchange.

[the rice padies being plowed, preparing to plant this year's crop]
Waking up in the morning I felt much better, and had a few pancakes with honey for breakfast. Claire was feeling about the same. That morning we trekked along incredibly muddy steep paths through the valley, with stunning scenes of rice paddies, children playing, buffalo, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats and pigs scavenging for food. My shoes were so slippery, but those women were still with us, and helped me get along the path without falling (although I almost fell so many times). We stopped to rest and they mobbed us trying to get us to buy their handicrafts. We'd bought the afternoon before for inflated prices and were certainly not going to be ripped off again. Eventually they got the message that we were not buying anything else and left us alone, finally to soak up our journey.

[Me feeling a better, with one of the minority women who had followed us behind me]
That afternoon we returned to the hotel to take hot showers and rest in warm beds. That was just delightful. Kahn took us for a dinner of Vietnamese Hot Pot. It wasn't exactly what we were hoping to eat, all being rather wary of food due to the illness going around, but attempted to make a dent in the the huge plate of raw meat presented by boiling it in the soup on the burner on the table. Kahn said we must try the black chicken... Black Chicken? none of us had ever heard of it. But guess what, it tasted like chicken! We ended the night with a chocolate tart at a bakery that was rather tasty and normal for a change.
Awaking the next morning, Cat and Mat had come down with head colds and stayed in bed. Claire, Sam and I went on another trek to Cat Cat village - this trek had paved paths the whole way, and it wasn't raining. Word had got round all the hundreds of women trying to peddle their crafts that we weren't in the habit of buying now, so it was some relief not having them following us. We walked to the bottom of the valley, and Sam became very ill. He got a ride on the back of a motor bike back up the hill to the hotel.

Claire and I got back to the hotel about 20mins later, and we decided to change our plans to return to Hanoi via the night train that night. We postponed our train journey, and the Ha Long Bay tour we were supposed to join the next morning by a day. Just as well we did because by 4pm Mat had also come down with the illness. Now Claire and I were mostly fine, the two men were in bed, and Cat is the last man standing so to speak, with only a head cold.

[Cat with some medicine - a bottle filled with snakes and scorpions]
With the men in bed, Claire, Cat and I wandered around the town of Sapa. It could almost be a mountain village in Europe, except for the minority women on the street trying to sell you handicrafts. We became experts at ignoring them - no eye contact and turning your head the other way gets them leaving you alone pretty quick smart. We saw street vendors selling every kind of meat on sticks - pork, chicken, baby bird and even black chicken again on sticks, with eggs roasting on their charcoal fires. We saw bags and bags of traditional medicine with bizarre ingredients like starfish, lizards and snakes. There were markets filled with local handicrafts and silver from Thailand and pashminas from India. And there were the smells - every few seconds a new smell would waft past your nose, ranging from mildly odd to down right disgusting. We've decided that Vietnam in a plain stinky country really. Cat and Mat are masking the smell with tiger balm on their necks, which is a bloody good idea really. I'm digging into my pot of vicks.


[Cat and me enjoying being dry and warm with espressos]
It's raining again outside. It is so damp and cold in Sapa, I've borrowed Claire's thermal because I'm chilled to the bone. They're not big on heating the buildings here. I keep expecting to walk into a restaurant and being all cosy and warm, but it just isn't. We're spending the day here and taking the night train back to Hanoi, arriving at 5am, and beginning our tour of Ha Long Bay at 8am. Hopefully the men are improving today, and like me their sickness only lasts 24hours. They say in the lonely planet that 20 to 50% of travellers to Vietnam get sick within 2 weeks of their stay. So far we're at 80%.

After a night on a luxury junk (an oxymoron? we'll soon find out), we're back to Hanoi for a night, and then off to Hoi An. We'll relax there, get some clothes made, check out some ruins, go to the beach, lounge by the pool, before heading on our next Vietnamese adventure.

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