Monday, July 30
I started off toward the northeast on foot to see the last major section of the Sapa area. I had to go down a paved road full of vans shuttling tourists to and from Lao Cai. It was not a pleasant walk. The homes along the road were gated and bitter dogs snarled at me as I passed. It started to rain. My feet were burning with blisters. Motorbike drivers stopped to pick me up and looked confused when I declined.
I approached a woman in her home ostensibly to buy a six cent bag of crackers, but actually to find out how close I was to the side road I was seeking. I was naïve to expect much. She, like every other person I’d met in the area, was completely helpless with a map. She did, however, speak Vietnamese and invited me to drink tea. I sat there in the dim living room and eeked out a polite conversation with the woman and her shy son. She stared at me intensely, a 34-year-old housewife starved of excitement, and asked me to take a picture of them. After I snapped a few, I handed her the camera and invited her to take one of her son and I. Her eyes widened as she gingerly grasped the camera, squeezed the button and let off a flash. 20 years were removed from her face and she squealed with delight, like a young girl finding a kitten in a Christmas present. It was probably the first picture she’d ever taken.
I got on my way and decided to take a motorbike six miles up to Xa Xeng, a Dao village on my map that was supposedly home to some caves. On the way the guy’s motor bike conked out. He told me to wait there, ran up the road and reappeared fifteen minutes later on another newer motorbike. Where he got it is anyone’s guess.
Xa Xeng was a big village, by Sapa standards, where the dusty quiet was occasionally interrupted by Jeeps bringing tourists in to see the caves. I approached a group of old Dao women who were sitting in a circle embroidering handbags and they directed me to a “restaurant”, a tiny convenience store where the owner heated up some spring roles and bowls of rice for me, the only customer, to enjoy for just a dollar.
I set out searching for the Taphin Cave and ended up on the wrong path, walking with a small army of Dao women who spoke very good English. One girl astutely asked me if I lived near Hollywood and if I knew any celebrities. She was disappointed when I said that I didn’t count any celebrities as friends.
With her help, I got on the right path to the Taphin Cave. There was no entrance fee per se, but the family who ran the attraction charged 90 cents to turn the lights on. The fee included a complementary guide, a nine year boy named Li Lao who shimmied around the cave like a monkey. “Careful with yo head,” he constantly warned, saving me from many collisions with low lying stalactites. Had I been three inches taller or twenty heavier, I don’t think I could have made it through the tiny passages and dripping chambers.
I came out, tipped Li Lao and began a trek back to the Sapa-Lao Cai highway via a road that would take me through the small Hmong village of Ma Tra. Or so my discredited map claimed.
The route was extraordinary, beginning in a flat valley buttressed by mountains. The clouds hung so low that I was compelled to sit on a fence and watch them drift among the hills, wrapping themselves around the deep green slopes like ghosts. It was truly haunting, sitting there watching the clouds amidst the distant creeking of bamboo water pumps and the faint din of farm animals.
I continued on through the valley and the road took me up the western wall of the valley, affording me wonderful views of the whole area. It was a long, lonely walk up the side of the mountain, but I made it to the crest and began a descent into what I assumed would be Ma Tra. But there was no town in sight, just a scattering of farmhouses.
Confused, I began asking around. I asked a pair of teenage Hmong boys hauling huge loads of sticks up a hill where Ma Tra could be found. They looked puzzled and shrugged me off, peeking behind as after they passed me, trading a joke that I couldn’t understand. I approached a suspicious woman in front of her house, asked her about Ma Tra and got nothing but a blank stare. Exasperated, I sought out a group of children. Maybe they’ll know about a the flippin’ village that’s supposed to be right on their flippin’ road. I carefully pronounced Ma Tra but they just gaped at me, mouths open, unsure of what to do.
The area was beginning to creep me out. I was surrounded by sullen villagers, unfriendly by Vietnam standards, wandering somewhere quite different from where the map said I should be. I could not afford to be lost for hours. If I missed my bus, I’d miss my train. And if I missed my train, I’d miss my flight out of Vietnam.
I decided the best thing to do would be to find any village that was substantial enough to have motorbikes and people who had some geographical concept of where they lived. I spotted a hamlet, way in the distance, which had a brick building, something I hadn’t seen in hours. I headed toward it, hoping to be delivered from this very charming, but rather endless track of rustic wasteland.
I was in luck, because the supposed village I had sighted ended up being a way station on the Sapa road. I found a group of shifty idlers/motorbike drivers and bought a quick ride into Sapa, bringing to a close a three days of adventure in an extraordinary part of the world.