Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sapa Weather




Rain. Rain. Rain. It was cold and damp when my friend Nicki and I arrived in Sa-Pa from Hanoi on the gruesome overnight train ride in third class and the best room we could find our first night was a moldy foxhole with damp beds and sticky blankets, though it had a great view of the city below. Sapa VietnamThe next morning we moved to the Giac Mo Hong Hotel (Pink Dream Hotel), and as the name implies, everything was pink - the sheets, the blankets, the rugs, the drapes, the shower curtains - even the cockroach that ran under my bed was more pink than red.

After the third day, there was a lull in the deluge from the skies and we rented a scooter, a brand new little number from a fellow who had approached us on the street and had asked if we needed 'transport.' It was a joy to drive. We putted around town and then out to some hill tribe villages, but the mud that covered the road was as slippery as black ice, and there were watery potholes everywhere. Some parts of the road were gone completely. At one point I had to drive over large rocks covered in one foot of water, which then surged over a cliff, and I thought I would get pushed over the cliff to the canyon below by the rushing water, but I had no choice but to cross it. Nevertheless, after it had cleared and dried up a bit, Nicki and I decided to go up another mountain road which lead to a foot path to a spectacular waterfall.

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It was worth it. A wooden staircase spun visitors up to the summit of the falls. We took pictures, walked under the falls, sat around for a while, then turned around and took the long descent down. The roads were still muddy and wet. Nicki and I were talking as we drove back down the mountain and I suppose I was a little careless because all of a sudden I was on a wet patch and I drew the brake up too quickly. We skidded and pitched over on our left side and crash landed into a work site where some men had been fixing the road but who were now taking a smoke break. Luckily, we didn't slide the opposite way towards the embankment and into a deep canyon below. As I lay there on the ground stunned and wondering if I would live and how many bones were broken, the workers rushed over to where we were and picked up the bike. I slowly sat up and looked at the bent parts and cursed my bad luck. What about dude I had rented it from?

We had hit the ground hard, me harder than Nicki because I couldn't move without yelping in pain. Nicki had a large scrape on her knee but was standing and mobile, but we were both covered in mud down our left flanks. The guys went to yank me up off the ground but I put up my hand 'Dude! Not so fast! I'm a hurtin' unit here.' I got up v-e-r-y slowly, and when I could finally ratch my back to straight and catch my breath, I looked down at the twisted bike and whistled. 'Do you have any tools?'

A fella went to work straightening out the bent foot rest, the twisted side mirror and the crooked handle bars - everything was cocked in different directions. We put the bike right and I breathed a sigh of relief when it started up at the first crank. By the time we were ready to go, it kind of looked okay. Except for the gashes in the chrome, a bloody big scrape on the side of the gas tank and the dripping mud, it could still pass for new. But what would I tell the guy who had rented me this thing?

Back in town I bought some bandages and anti-biotic cream and took a shower to wash the mud out of my hair and the grit out of my cuts. My left side was painfully bruised and I had a pulled groin muscle. I had two fractured ribs (or broken), a cut on my ankle and a wicked scrape on my elbow. Nicki wanted me to go to the hospital, but I was more concerned about the bike because I had no license and I didn't want any trouble.

When the guy came the next morning to pick up his bike I didn't say anything about the accident, but he would have had to have been blind not to notice the scrape on the gas tank because it stood out like a pimple on prom night. I explained to him what had happened on the muddy road and then tucked $50 American into his hand and apologized profusedly. I also wanted to be practical, so I gave him a piece of paper to sign that explained the accident and which further said he was not interested in seeing my ass ever again. I asked him to sign it and he did. He then shook my hand and drove off and I breathed a sigh of relief. In Vietnam, fifty dollars was more than enough to pay for the repaint.

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I didn't go to a hospital to check out my injuries because basically, I feel my chances of survival are always better if I avoid them. I stayed in bed because I was so stiff, and Nicki moved into my room. That night I woke up and asked her to help me sit up because I couldn't breath. I imagined a collapsed lung, or a hole in my lung, or blood in my lungs, or a clot in my lungs, whatever - give it up for my imagination. But when I thought for sure I was reaching the dark side, I was actually quite calm, I didn't panic, in fact I was pretty happy about the whole idea. At least I wouldn't have to worry anymore about planning the rest of my life. I'm kind of like that when I think I'm going to die.

For the next few days, as I watched the rain pool around the windows and the mold spores proliferate on the pink ceiling above my bed, I felt we were doomed. The rain was turning into a never-ending storm. I said to Nicki that we had to get out of there because the mountains were solid clay, not solid rock, and that they wouldn't hold back this deluge much longer. When the rain abated somewhat, and Nicki was off getting us food, I trudged to town and purchased two train tickets for the Friday night's voyage back to Hanoi.

On Friday night, after tucking my ribs up in my new scarf, and with poor Nicki dragging my suitcase along with hers, we took the mini bus to the train station and waited with hundreds of others for the overnighter to Hanoi. The rain raced down the streets and over the sidewalks and our shoes, pooling everywhere and soaking our feet. Luckily, the train left on time and we breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled out of the station, snuggling up in our first-class bunks for the cozy ride to Hanoi. I was so relieved to get out of there.

A day later, from our safe room in Hanoi, we heard that the Saturday night train, the next train after ours from Sa-Pa, had been washed off the track due to a mudslide, and over one hundred people were dead or missing, including tourists, with hundreds of others stuck in Hmong rice terraces awaiting help. The conductor had been seriously injured as his and five other cars had completely overturned, and now the trains would be halted indefinitely. For the next three days government helicopters flew in food and water to the stranded travelers, while a few tourists, who were able to cough up one thousand dollars, were taken out by private helicopter. Nicki and I shook our heads and breathed a sigh of relief. We got out just in time.

Things, however, started to go from bad to worse for us in Hanoi (the city that I think is greater than the sum of its parts) when we got stuck in our horrible hotel in the Old Quarter on account of the train wreck. There weren't any choices - all the hotels were full. Nobody in Hanoi was leaving for any tour, and tours to Halong Bay were also canceled - all travel for northern parts was in chaos until the rain stopped and the accident on the track could be cleared up. Our hotel room was tiny, with two beds, windows that wouldn't open, a mattress as soft as a bench at a bus stop, a shower head that spat water, and a bright pink television screen.

I didn't venture out in my weakened state because traffic in the Old Quarter was difficult enough to negotiate. After a week, life got back to normal and the rain finally stopped, but I had to give in and go see a doctor when my festering ankle started to swell and bubble up like a green lava pool. The doctor shook his head and said no, I wouldn't die of blood poisoning afterall.

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This was about two days before we left Sa-Pa. It was just too rainy.


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The hill tribes come in from the outlying areas everyday to sell blankets, hats, coats, dresses, sweaters, jewelery, and trinkets. They're on the streets selling all day and night. It's better to buy things from them rather than the shopkeepers.


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The outlying areas where the hill tribes live. We drove all over here.
See the swollen stream rushing through. Water was pouring off the cliffs.


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Kids on their buffaloes in hill tribe territory.


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Going up beside the waterfall. A l-o-o-o-o-ng way up. It had stopped raining!


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Nicki and I.

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Nic and I went for a walk and came upon this scene. A shocker for us. A fellow cutting up a dog to sell to the local restaurants. He's working on the head. It was also quite shocking to see when you consider that this could have been Lassie, had he lived in Vietnam.

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