I fall off the bus in a daze, it’s dark and freezing, did I even sleep last night? Probably but not enough.
I am shivering, the mini shorts seemed like a great idea when I was sweating in Hanoi. The Vietnamese kids I met did warn me, “sapa has 4 seasons every day.”
I am in the middle of winter.
A man appeared out of the crowd with a sign bearing my name. We piled ourselves, along with all my luggage, onto his motorbike. He had a spare jacket he leant me for the ride. We rode through the town and soon left it behind, the sun slowly crept out of the horizon and leapt into the valley, painting the sky, lighting up the river and abundant rice fields.
At the home stay I’d booked were a few fellow travellers also just off the night bus. There were puppies and children running around while we slumped over the table. We ate nearly in silence and inhaled a few coffees. One girl, Lin, is from Hoi An in the middle of Vietnam and she was keen to go hiking. Together we began the 8km back to sapa, stopping along the way to eat mandarins and chew on sugar cane. I’d never done this before, Lin shows me which bits to eat, how you suck out the juice and spit out the pulp. There we sit on palm leaves on the side of the rode, chatting, chewing, spitting.
She told me a lot. About her childhood of school in the morning and tending to buffalo in the afternoon (I was returning home from the river the next day and Lin found me tryin to walk through fields. “What are you doing Thalia?” “I’m scared of the buffalo!” She laughed, “come on girl!” And took me by the arm. “They just want to be friendly.”) she told me how her town of Hoi An has become over priced and over run with tourists so much that she doesn’t like it any more. She showed me new foods, which fruit to buy, a few phrases to use.
We met her sister in the town and hired bikes, we rode to a waterfall in the mountains and ran around posing for photos (‘do something Thalia!’ They’d say, pulling me into ‘model’ poses).
Riding back was the most incredible sunset, one side of the mountains burning orange and the other cool blues and pinks and the valley filled up with fog. The heat of the day was gone when we returned and I cursed myself for the second time that day for wearing too little.
We ate barbecue for dinner: rice rolls, corn and sweet potato. Followed by raw peanuts and sesame snaps.
The next day began with petting puppies and watching children pay. Eventually we parted from the ever relaxing breakfast table to wander to the waterfall but quickly got side tracked as some kids joined us and lead us to a spot on the river.
This river is now one of my favourite places in the world.
Facing forward there’s children sitting on the grassy river bank, eating the snacks we gave them. Behind them the mountains stretch up to the sky, terraced rice fields, little houses and every so often a person wandering around, more often a buffalo. Behind me the same.
Left and right the river runs, icy water flowing over my skin so cold it burns. We splay ourselves out over rocks, the light in the valley is golden. Everything is glowing. We have this place all to ourselves.
I abandon showers and return the next morning to bathe again.
The home stay (Mikus’ chill house) exceeds my highest expectations. The children are adorable, running around wild. The combination of puppies, children and views onto the never ending rice fields from hammocks on the front porch add up to a kind of therapy.
I wake to the sun rise, sipping a coffee, reading a book (Shantaram by Gregory Davis Roberts- so far so good!) banana pancakes are close behind. The guests of all ages chat while petting puppies, we bathe in the river, we hike and come together for a family meal and a modest bed time of 9pm.
Hanoi and it’s traffic feel planets away. It seems crazy that the rush of the world can coexist with this little slice of paradise.
The atmosphere here makes my every muscle relax. A massage from the beauty, the pace of life.