I had a hard time leaving Sapa. One of my travel challenges is deciding how long to stay somewhere – the other hard parts being where to go and what to do. I'm always torn between trying to check off more places on my travel list and the temptation to stay in bed and start the day around 11, with a nice brunch. While those options may not seem so challenging to some, they get me stressed. The pressure to put a whole year off to good use has been daunting. What if, unlike Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) I am not hitting all the high notes – not ecstatic over the last meal, in Vietnam almost always fried tofu and tomato – or instead of achieving spiritual resolution on a rooftop under the starlit night sky, I am busy agonizing over what other cheap North Face gear I should buy to ship home.
I had no pressing need to leave Sapa, besides the goal of seeing the rest of Vietnam and about 5 other countries before the end of the year. But I had no drastically compelling reason to stay either – given that I wasn't actually qualified to teach English and there was a steady of stream of volunteers coming to fill in, I didn't feel my help was indispensable at the school. Despite somewhat itchy feet I was still dragging my heels and waxing sentimental when the time came closer to taking the bus out of town.
I felt attached to the girls, my new friends, the big green mountains, the moody fog – I was going to miss that fog. To be fair, I was sure I would miss the view of the mountains more than the fog, but most of all I would miss the weather. Because if there was one thing that had me most reluctant to head back south, it was a fear of the heat. The weather's been on my mind since I decided to come to South East Asia at the start of the summer months. From my little research I learned that it's hot, pretty much everywhere, give or take for the whole season. Sapa, it seems, was the exception – the temperature was perfect. Warm with a light cool breeze most days, occasionally sweatier under a bright sun, but most often it felt just right. I knew saying goodbye to Sapa would be the end of spending my days without having to change shirts. More laundry, more sweat and more aggravation lay ahead, along with crowds, noise and traffic in the return through Hanoi.
Blocked by the stress, fear and sentimentality, I wasn't doing a great job of getting around to leaving. I postponed my departure to bring my stay to almost a full month in Sapa, and I hesitated to spread the word that I was really going. The other volunteers at the school put together a goodbye evening for me all the same – dinner and a night of karaoke. I was touched – there was no holding back in the singing, resulting in a deafening shouting match that left everyone hoarse at the end of the night. John's shouting of “You Ain't Nothing but a Hound Dog” was one rendition that I won't soon forget. The videos were likewise discordant with the music – one Madonna song showed someone in a white tracksuit exercising in a park, while the background to “Night Fever” was shots of the Parliament and buildings in downtown Ottawa. I was trying to point out what they all were, but it was hard to be heard over all the yelling that was going on. We all had trouble hitting the high notes, but the low notes made up for it, and won out.
On my last day the girls all returned to Sapa to help out with a tennis tournament fundraiser at the fancy hotel in town. Saying a real goodbye was harder than I was ready for, and it was almost enough to make me want to change plans all over again. The fog settled in to hide my favourite view of the mountains, preventing a last look. The time had still come, and I took the bus out of town with three Quebecois guys who were filming our driver as he tried to pass every other vehicle on hairpin turns, racing down through the mountains – a memorial to the last moments, in case we didn't survive the journey. When we made it to Lao Cai in record time that evening to catch the night train, the weather was already noticeably hotter than what we left behind in Sapa.