Day 68 | Between two sleeper trains, a short visit to Sapa

Day 68 | Between two sleeper trains, a short visit to Sapa

Today was a super quick visit to Sapa, a small town famous for its landscape full of rice terraces as well as its ethnic minorities. Together with our friends Amandine and Laurent, we explored Cat Cat Village and hiked around Ham Rong Resort. We then parted ways as we took a sleeper train back to Hanoi while they stayed in Sapa for an extra day.

The four of us woke up when one of the train agents knocked on the cabin’s door, announcing that we had arrived at Lao Cai, a city close to the border between Vietnam and China and the terminus of our train. We had a good night of sleep despite the train’s movement and noise.

In front of the train in Lao Cai railway station

Before leaving the train, we had purchased transfer tickets to Sapa by shuttle from a lady selling them on the train. We knew this was not a scam and that the price was good because Mimi had researched it online before the trip. We boarded a minivan just minutes after leaving the small train station. It was full of tourists.

The road to Sapa was very winding, going through beautiful hills that make this region of North Vietnam such a popular tourism destination. On the way we saw plenty of rice paddies though the visibility was disappointingly bad due to the foggy air.

The ride lasted for a bit more than an hour. We arrived in Sapa and got dropped at Quang Truong Square, a large pedestrian place popular with local and tourists alike. As soon as we came out of the minivan, a group of six local women started selling us various items and asked us if we needed a place to stay for the night. Fortunately they were not nearly as persistent as what we had feared after reading about Sapa scams online. We declined and they did not follow us. We kept walking along the square.

Lucky Laurent

Our priority was to find a place to have breakfast. Laurent was unanimously designated as our tour guide for the day and brought us to The Hill Station cafe.

The Hill Station

After ordering food, Amandine and Laurent looked up hotels for the night as they were not coming back to Hanoi with us on that same day. For us it was convenient since it meant we would be able to drop off some of our stuff we did not need at their hotel. Not that we were carrying heavy backpacks that day, but it’s always nice to hike without excess weight on our shoulders.

The cafe was almost empty but we thought breakfast there was very good and took our time eating and planning what we wanted to see.

Breakfast at The Hill Station

We then walked in town to find the hotel they had booked. On our way there we passed by an elementary school with many kids playing in the playground. At their hotel, the receptionist gave us and them a dirty look when we said we wanted to use the room to drop some stuff. Apparently they were concerned we would all sleep in a room normally provisioned for two adults only. They said it was too early in the morning and claimed they did not have a room ready yet so we had to put our bags in a corner of the common space.

Then we went to Cat Cat village. The view from the road to get there was beautiful despite the sky still being very foggy. We stopped many times to take pictures of the incredible landscape surrounding us.

Hills surrounding Sapa

Rays of sun hitting the rice paddies terraces on a Sapa hill

Rice paddies terraces

We arrived at the entrance of Cat Cat Tourism Area.

In front of Cat Cat Tourism Area entrance

To go further we had to pay the entrance fees. We then walked all the way down to the small river that flows in the valley separating two groups of hills. The hike down was pleasant and we passed by some farm animals including little piglets that Mimi went crazy for.

Piglets in Cat Cat Tourism Area

We walked on a bridge over the small river with a view on water wheels. A manmade waterfall created a nice visual contrast between the slow and fast moving water.

View over the river flowing through Cat Cat village from the bridge

After crossing the river, we stopped at a view point looking at another waterfall – natural this one – directly feeding into the river from the opposite side we came from. The four of us took couple pictures there, starting with us.

Yolomimo in front of a small waterfall

And then following with one of Amandine and Laurent.

Yoloamlo in front of the same waterfall

I also had some fun with our DSLR’s high burst mode to capture the waterfall in action. Somehow I developed a renewed interest to animated GIFs, an ancient “Web 1.0” technology that I found more user-friendly than YouTube videos in some situations.

Waterfall from the view point

We kept walking up and got to see the water wheels from closer.

Water wheels on the river flowing through Cat Cat Village

Climbing back up was a bit of a struggle and the temperature was getting hotter. We passed by many arts and crafts stands. Cat Cat Village is home to many ethnic minorities in Vietnam and selling handmade goods locally made to tourists represents a big part of their economy.

Walking in Cat Cat Village

We crossed the river again using another bridge. It was my turn to get a picture with the ladies.

Me and the ladies

The air cleared out a little bit so it was easier to see the rice terraces.

Rice terraces

As we got back to Sapa town proper, we first stopped by the hotel Amandine and Laurent booked for the night, named Boutique Sapa Hotel. The room was ready now so we asked yoloamlo to give us a quick walkthrough of their room for the readers of yolomimo. Of course they had no choice but to accept.

After that we went for lunch at Little Sapa. We had good Vietnamese food there and ended with Vietnamese iced coffee.

Vietnamese iced coffee

After that we wanted to do a second hike to the radio tower hill that is recommended for its view points. It took us a while to find the correct path to get there. We had to pay another fee to enter the area where the radio tower is located. The fee gave us access to the entire Ham Rong Resort.

It was well worth it. We hiked uphill for a while until our path was blocked by a closed gate. There were other trails and we kept going. We passed by a small cave named Love Cave so of course we took a cheesy picture in front of it.

Love Cave

We also passed by a giant swing.

Having fun on the giant swing

Yoloamlo looking all serious all of a sudden.

Yoloamlo being all serious

Although we were not able to go to the radio tower, we found a trail leading to a pretty amazing view point over Sapa.

View of Sapa

The clouds were hiding the sun.

Clouds hiding the sun

We saw the radio tower from up there too.

Radio tower

A cool guy from Sweden who also gave us travel tips about Sapa took pictures of the four of us posing.

Yoloamlo and yolomimo

After taking pictures from the view point, we exited the park through flower gardens where tourists were renting traditional costumes of ethnic minorities to take pictures.

Flowers at Ham Rong Resort

On our way back to yoloamlo’s hotel, we saw several 7-8 year old girls carrying their little toddler-age brothers/sisters on their back and selling handmade jewelry. Not only were these kids not attending school but their parents were also forcing them to look more desperate by carrying their little siblings on their shoulders. We were appalled.

Back to the hotel we picked up our bags then Laurent and Amandine walked us back to the church where taxis and buses load up with tourists going back to Lao Cai. It was almost time to say goodbye to them, for the second time of our trip.

Street in Sapa

Laurent managed to get us two seats in a minibus that was just about to leave. Concerned about scams, we made sure to agree on the price with the driver before getting in. 40,000 VND per person we said, and he replied OK.

The guy drove recklessly, honking at motorbikes, other buses, people crossing the road and even got dangerously close to hitting a small dog. An hour later we were dropped at the Lao Cai train station. The driver tried to scam us by pretending the price was 100,000 VND. Despite our previous agreement, the price had magically increased. It was the second time a driver tried this trick on us and since we didn’t fall for it the first time in Hue, we were not going to fall for it here. We remained calm and refused to comply with his demand. He eventually played the classic “I don’t want any of your money” trick on us, which of course we had already seen before and did not work. He didn’t speak a word of English and even called a young Vietnamese guy that was at a nearby cafe to come act as a translator. That didn’t change anything for us. We just gave him 80,000 VND and left.

We had a quick dinner at Terminus Restaurant, a restaurant right in front of the train station. The food there was mediocre despite being the number one restaurant in Lao Cai on TripAdvisor. The staff was very friendly however.

We got to the train early enough to finally be able to record a video of the sleeper cabin. This was our third sleeper train in Vietnam in just five days, after the Hue to Hanoi one and the Hanoi to Lao Cai one just yesterday. The other cabins looked very similar.

A couple of Australian retirees showed up minutes before the train departed. They came from a more luxurious cabin, the AC wasn’t working and the train attendant moved them into our cabin, which otherwise would have been empty except for us. They were both divorced and remarried and were on a four week trip to Vietnam. We agreed to swap out bottom beds with them since they could not climb to the upper level. We chatted with them for some time (the guy knew a bit of French) before going to sleep.

Day 47 | Chasing waterfalls and dolphins on Don Khon Island

Day 47 | Chasing waterfalls and dolphins on Don Khon Island

On our full day on Don Khon island, we rode bikes to see the Irrawaddy dolphins, swim in a sandy beach on the Mekong and see the famous Somphamit waterfalls.

We had breakfast at Pan’s Restaurant just across the street from where we were staying, Pan’s Guesthouse. It was pretty basic: eggs, baguettes and fresh fruit.

Breakfast at Pan's Guesthouse

We rented bikes from a shop next to our guesthouse. With a rudimentary map of the 4 km wide Don Khon island, we forged west out of the main street and then south towards the old French Port where motorboats take tourists out to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins who congregate in the Mekong between Laos and Cambodia.

Riding bikes on Don Khon

It was another 100+ degree Fahrenheit day and we biked through dried rice paddies and forests.

The old French Port is a very dominating structure in an otherwise low key, sparsely populated area. It was used to accommodate large steamer ships transporting goods up the Mekong River. Nowadays it only serves small motorboats.

Old french port

We paid a young boat driver to take us out to see the Irrawaddy dolphins.

We stayed in the middle of the particular section of the Mekong River for about 20 minutes. We saw at two separate times, a dolphin as it emerged out of the water to breathe. We heard the sounds of their blowholes expunging water. We were happy to see dolphins at all, however, each time was quite far away and we only saw their fins and half of their bodies for a couple seconds each.

We then headed back through the small islands back to Don Khon’s port.

Si Phan Don islands

We relaxed and had fruit shakes at a café above the port overlooking the river. The café had a sign noting this was the southernmost point in Laos.

Don Khon and Don Det islands used to have a railway connecting them to mainland Laos. French ships were unable to navigate up through the treacherous Somphamit waterfalls section of the river, therefore the French colonists had to build the railway to bypass the waterfalls and then reload the goods onto other ships waiting north of these islands. We took a picture in front of an old train engine left over from those colonial days.

Steam engine

Riding our bikes back north, we passed by a tiny village with a schoolhouse on stilts.

Village school on Don Khon

We then turned onto a westward road to reach a sandy beach. We walked a few steps through a rocky section and plunged into the water with our T-shirts on. Although the water was warm, it was heaven to our sweat-drenched sun-parched skin.

Sand beach on the Mekong

We relaxed in the natural fish spa as little fish started nibbling at our skin.

Mekong fish spa

We swam across the river and back again. The current was very strong and we would end up on the other side of the river several meters downriver from where we started.

Then we relaxed in a yet another restaurant with fresh coconuts. The restaurant is run by a family: the mother lured us in and prepared the coconut, her young daughter served us, the father was napping on a platform near us and their toddler son provided us with entertainment. The little boy was interested in my mosquito repellent wristband and my sunglasses case. I then showed him my cell phone and nothing else mattered of course. He took about 40 selfies in a row of just his forehead on my phone.

Selfies in Laos

Then the little boy eyed my coconut. I scooped up coconut meat and fed it to him. He chewed on the coconut happily. After a few scoops of this, he decided to pay it forward and feed coconut to the dog, who was less enthusiastic.

I had a hard time getting my phone back from this boy as I introduced him to the game Two Dots. Here he is with his sister on a hammock. Their dad is still sleeping behind them.

Kids at the restaurant

The next stop on our bike tour was Somphamit waterfalls. The falls are also located on the west side of the island, on the north. We paid for admission tickets and walked into the large park. We saw a pack of the largest turkeys I have ever seen. Some of them were quite beautiful (for turkeys).

Wild turkeys at the falls

The waterfalls were impressive. They came rushing off of rocks in all directions, converging into the wide flow at the base.

Waterfalls 1

Waterfalls 2

Waterfalls 3

Waterfalls 4

We walked along the rapids until we arrived at the Oasis Restaurant and “beach bar.” We finally got lunch and more fruit shakes! There were hardly anyone there so we occupied this entire bungalow overlooking the rapids. We vegetated here for more than an hour, too hot to move.

Oasis Restaurant at the falls

We had a long walk to the sandy beach since it is dry season and the waterline receded a lot. Here Maurice is standing at a shallow pool with the river behind.

Beach after the falls

We could not wait to jump into the water again since it was too hot for us to function on land. The current was much stronger here than at the previous beach since we were immediately downstream from the Somphamit waterfalls. Maurice demonstrates his Olympian swimming skills on the river. Michael Phelps who?

We showered off at the beach bar’s outdoor shower after swimming. Then we biked through the farms back to town.

Afternoon light on Don Khon

A herd of cows grazed on the dry grass.

Cows grazing on dry grass

On the way back to town, there was loud music emanating from the local Buddhist temple Wat Khon Tai. We walked in to explore.

Entry to Wat Khon Tai

There seemed to be a festival going on. Monks were blessing people on the left. People were eating barbecue on the right. Loud music blared from three separate areas. All were playing different songs, of course.

In front of Wat Khon Tai

We enjoyed another sunset on the Mekong.

Sunset on the Mekong

The main stretch of Don Khon does not have many restaurants. We liked Lao Long restaurant where we ate lunch and dinner yesterday and decided to go there for dinner again. Maurice got the noodle soup in a bowl so big you can wash your face in it.

Noodles in the kitchen sink

Day 45 | Started from the bottom now we’re… at the top of the waterfall

Day 45 | Started from the bottom now we’re… at the top of the waterfall

It was our last day in the treehouse in the jungle. We had a challenging day ahead of us of more ziplining, hiking and rock climbing (using via ferrata) up to the top of the waterfall and then hiking out of the jungle through the countryside back to Pakse.

We woke up again with the sunrise. Now that we were empowered to zipline on our own, we did not need to wait for our guides to escort us out of the treehouse. So we spent an hour zipping back and forth from our treehouse, until we got bored from the repetition. Maurice tried to zipline in the opposite direction and would end up sliding to the middle of the cable, from where he had to use his arms to pull himself back to where he started.

We packed our bags and ziplined out of the treehouse for the last time. Then walked back to basecamp where we were surprised to see that by 8 AM we were the first guests to arrive. Lee, our head guide told us we could take it easy and come to breakfast by 9:30 AM so we could depart on our day’s activities by 10 AM. The other group of five who started their condensed 2 day / 1 night tour yesterday had to start hiking today by 8:30 AM. We were hungry and excited to get our big breakfasts early. This morning, Lee explained, we had cheese with our baguettes!

Breakfast on our last day with cheese

We relaxed a bit after breakfast, then we hiked in a different direction from base camp than we were used to. We hiked uphill then across another funny bridge. This one was a suspended tightrope with ropes for guardrails. Looks impressive but was easier to walk on this one than yesterday’s funny bridge that was a horizontal rope ladder of sorts. LINKLINKLINK

Perfect balance

Here I tried to balance like a circus performer.

Maurice was in the front of the pack. As usual, I shook the bridge to throw him off balance. The guides behind me laughed and joined in.

Rock the tightrope

We continued to hike up the steep rock-lined path until we reached a clearing to see the waterfall from another angle.

Mimo at the waterfall

Here is yet another photo of the same waterfall we keep featuring in our posts.

Another waterfall shot

We continued to hike for what seemed like way too long. Our guides were very nice as they offered to take our backpacks from us as we hiked this particularly steep stretch. Then we reached our favorite zipline, though not the longest, it takes you across the waterfall. Maurice ziplined across.

Then I did.

From the other side of the zipline now, we hiked up the steep rock-lined path for twenty minutes again in order to zipline across the waterfall one more time. This time our head guide Lee went before us. Another guide decided we should zip across in tandem, and so we did. Lee was very surprised to see both of our bodies pummeling fast towards him.

We hiked some more (see a trend here), until we reached our next challenge: the via ferrata.

Via ferrata challenge

Neither of us had rock climbed before, this was a way for inexperienced rock climbers to climb up the bare face of a cliff wall using only zipline equipment. Via ferrata is Italian for “iron road.” The iron road in question is a steel bar that ascends alongside the footholds nailed into the cliff. We attach our two safety cables, one at a time, to the steel bar which is nailed into the cliff every 1-2 meters. The worse that can happen if you slip is that you will fall 2 meters down, in which case, you can still get scratched up pretty bad, but no big problems.

At the base of this cliff wall, two women waited there with backpacks and limited safety gear (no helmets, brakes or zipline pulleys). They were two of the cooks in the Jungle Hotel’s kitchen. These ladies came from the village as well and would accompany us in climbing up the via ferrata and hike back to the village.

Maurice is here psyching himself up to climb.

Take a last deep breath

The climb started off quite difficult, I had to use my (limited) upper body strength to pull myself onto each foothold. Some parts of the cliff were even sloped the wrong way i.e. my head was uncomfortable dangling away from my feet. We eventually got to the easier part of the climb and took some pictures.

Hanging off the cliff wall

Maurice and one of our guides ahead of us.

Climbing up and up

We were starting to get the hang of it.

Mission impossible

We even paused to appreciate the beautiful view of the valley. We could see the roofs of basecamp way below us.

Enjoying the breathtaking views

Look ma, no hands!

Flying away

We finally arrived at the top of the large photogenic waterfall. Lush green hills in this rainforest microclimate were so different from the dusty dry plants covering Pakse and surrounding southern Laos countryside.

View from the top of the waterfall

The water, which looks so serene here, flows down into the tall waterfall below us.

Our spot for lunch

We removed our gear and took a long break here to explore on our own and then have lunch.

Rock scrambling at the top

Maurice brought along his lifestraw, which we both bought and packed on our trip as an emergency source of fresh drinking water. We finally had the chance to use it in the rolling stream here. It was actually very difficult to use as you had to suck really hard to get clean water to flow through the many levels of filters into your mouth.

Trying out our lifestraw

We had lunch with our guides one last time. We had vegetable fried rice wrapped into banana leaves among other dishes.

Lunch is ready

I wanted to take a photo of the beautiful valley below us but unfortunately I lost my footing and slipped. My hands were still greasy from lunch and I could not grip on to the rock no matter how hard I tried.

Falling into the valley

Just kidding!

Then we continued hiking. This time we did not ascend much, it was relatively flat through the rest of the jungle and then some descents until we walked back on the endless dusty path to the village. We were sweaty, hot and exhausted. We left the shaded, cool weather of the highland rainforest back into regular 100+ degrees Fahrenheit lowland southern Laos.

Hiking back to the village through neverending dusty roads

We bought some cold sodas at the village and took a well deserved break as we waited for the 5 people taking the condensed tour to finish. They arrived 1.5 hours later. We all said goodbye to our local village guides and then loaded onto Green Discovery’s bus to drive us 1.5 hours back to Pakse.

We only stayed in Pakse’s Alisa Guesthouse for one night, the next morning we took a minivan to Si Phan Don (aka 4000 Islands), but we had to film the obligatory room walkthrough video.

We each had a nice shower with real plumbing. The water pressure was not as good as what we had the previous two days, of course!

We had dinner at Xuan Mai restaurant. The spring rolls were the best we’ve had on the trip although my noodle soup was very disappointing. Maurice liked his dish though. Unfortunately, we had very poor service, this is despite of the fact that they gave me a Laotian menu (Maurice got an English menu). Being an Asian American in Asia, I receive a lot of strange looks from locals, especially since I’m traveling with a Caucasian man.

Dinner at Pakse

On the way back to our hotel from the restaurant, I found a great place to rent motorbikes. Not expensive and these people will treat you right.

Wang Wang motorbikes, lucky money, not espensive

Kidding again!