Mario decided at the last minute to join me for the trip to Sapa, so the good times from the Tamarind Cafe continued. After making it to the overnight train with a few minutes to spare, we had to just enough time to negotiate turning the ticket voucher into actual tickets before take-off. On boarding we were met by a silently hostile European man in our tiny 4-bunk cabin. It was awkward trying to enjoy the adventure in such close quarters with someone who was determined not to, so we moved the party to the bar car for a while. The train lurched and swayed like it was going off the tracks, not quite soothing enough to put me to sleep. Nine sweaty sleepless hours and 300km later, we made it to Lao Cai, the closest stop to Sapa.
After a few hours the tour bus arrived to take us to the Bac Ha Sunday market, one of the largest ethnic minority markets in the region, where colourfully-dressed women come to buy and sell. The market is divided into areas for birds, horses, pigs and water buffalo, and the handicrafts market, which dominates all the rest. The animal markets were largely painful to see – captive songbirds in tiny cages being weighed up like little trophies, the water buffalo with a look of quiet suffering, the tired bony horses.
The handicraft market was more uplifting, with so much stuff to buy! H'Mong women were walking around flogging the same embroidered bags for sale and the same sales pitch that has followed me through the streets of Sapa – “Hello. Where you from? Shopping? Buy from me”.
After a hurried lunch at the market we headed to a nearby village to follow the other busloads of tourists parading through the small array of houses. Mario declined to participate on the grounds that it amounted to poverty voyeurism. I followed our guide through the village and learned about the still practiced tradition of bride kidnapping by the H'Mong people, along with a long story about how our (H'Mong) guide married her husband to get back at her previous boyfriend. They were both interesting accounts, and listening to her the kidnapping sounded like a relatively friendly kind of practice – the women were teenagers, but they had the option of saying no and returning to their parents house if they didn't want to marry the boy (their kidnapper) after spending three days in his house. I've since learned a lot more about this practice and its unromantic realities. More on that to come.
The next stop after the village was the Bridge to China (Yunnan province) from Lao Cai. Despite having flown through China on the way to Vietnam (and spending hours sitting on planes at two different Chinese airports) I was still surprised to find China right next door. I guess I really am a long way from home. Here, you really could dig a tunnel to China…