Through the generosity of Simon who we travelled with from Bangkok to Hanoi we have acquired a new torch. Due to a logistical error Helen's didn't get packed.
"Simon's torch" is a Maglite and resembles a small truncheon,we think this could become quite useful later in the trip.
As a thank you to Simon there will be further comment and pictures of "Simon's torch" in various locations throughout our trip
We said goodbye to the "Good morning Vietnam" group (photo) and the five of us climbed aboard a top of the range Ford transit minibus for our four hour trip to Pam Coong village.
We are now Lesley, Scott, Richard and ourselves (the famous five go to the hill tribes?)
We headed out of Hanoi in a north westerly direction towards the Laos border, the initial road was an excellent motorway that would put the M6 to shame but later this changed to potholes and dirt track.
We arrived at the home stay which was a group of buildings on stilts in a very fertile valley full of paddy fields and we settled in.
Our new guide Mr Hung has perfect English and gave a full commentary of what to expect in the days to come and later he gave a potted history of how Vietnam came to be in existence.
It could be said that Britain and Vietnam have evolved in similar ways with various factions uniting after long periods of war.
We had a guided afternoon stroll around the local villages where among the activities we saw rice being harvested and Water buffalo at work ploughing.
The meals provided were a little more rustic but exceptional quality with mountains of food and we struggled to finish them.
There was some traditional dancing as evening entertainment provided by the villagers who were dressed in costume and accompanied by a drum, gongs and an accordion player who I think had drunk too much rice wine. There was a little audience participation (photo) and we were all in bed by 9pm.
We had a good nights sleep on mattresses on the floor of a large dormitory type room with mosquito nets covering us. The bathroom facilities were surprisingly good with hot showers and western loo's.
The whole set up was quite commercial with several groups staying in a group of buildings.
In the morning we had a breakfast of banana pancakes, coffee and the usual fare.
We then went on a day hike of about 15km through farm land and bamboo forest in very humid conditions. We finished with a beer and our first card game of the trip, diminishing whist. We were in bed by 9pm again!
The following morning after a breakfast of more banana pancakes we took a guided bike ride for about 2 hours around our picturesque valley. To our delight and surprise a delivery of brand new mountain bikes had recently arrived and we were some of the first guests at the home stay to use them. (Photo). Lesley and Helen were wishing that they had gel saddles on the bikes by the end of the ride.
We both agreed this was a highlight of our new trip in the hills and the most exercise in three days we had had in the last three weeks. On our return we climbed aboard the mini bus and drove back to Hanoi to clean up,have dinner in the old quarter of the city and then catch the sleeper train north to Sapa. On this journey we had soft beds which was a bonus but the movement of the train caused us to occasionally leap into the air and bounce back onto the mattress, not the best way to get some sleep.
We arrived at about 6am to a cooler temperature and a misty morning and took a public minibus to Sapa from the train station. There were spare seats which were gradually filled by locals needing a lift including a government official and a school teacher. We learnt that it was Sapa's 110 year anniversary during our visit - what luck!
We climbed out of the valley mist on a road gradually zig zagging into the mountains.
We had breakfast shortly after booking into our umpteenth hotel and then a short orientation walk where we watched some children practicing their dances for the anniversary celebrations. We found a laundry, Nigel bought another pair of trousers (!) which he claims were a bargain, they have a North Face logo and cost £14 so they must be good?
We walked to a nearby viewpoint called "The dragons jaw" and also passed through a display of oversized model cartoon characters which seemed totally out of place. Nigel found a Scooby Doo ( Photo).
We all had dinner together at a restaurant we stumbled upon, good food enormous portions and very cheap, who could ask for more?
The following morning we commenced our two day trek, we drove from Sapa to a trail head about 15km away. On arrival we were met by a swarm of ladies dressed in traditional costume and eager to sell their wares, we declined their goods but as we began the walk descending into a valley we we're surprised that the ladies joined us and must have followed us for at least a mile before realising that we had no intentions of purchasing anything. We had to carry and drink a lot of water as the temperature and humidity were very high. (32 degrees at least). We all began to perspire heavily which resulted in any suntan cream being washed off but we managed to avoid getting burnt. Half way through the first day we stopped for a lunch of beef and noodles and after a good rest continued our trek though paddy fields and ascending steep slopes through jungle to our home stay. This was someones home rather than buildings that had been reserved for sleeping. We settled in and climbed a makeshift ladder onto a woodworm eaten platform where mattresses, mosquito nets and sleeping bags were waiting for us. There was a problem which several of us discovered, a low beam which Nigel nearly knocked himself out on.
Richard and Scott got the first showers as a birthday treat. The evening meal involved real home cooking, spring rolls, beef,chicken and vegetable dishes, There was also a mountain of Tofu which none of us liked but we politely damaged. Tofu is a strange food that I think was dreamed up by a committee of vegetarians, their brief being to invent a food that is tasteless,neither a liquid or a solid and resembles soft rubber.
Here we had a well deserved beer and celebrated Scott and Richard's birthday with a mixture of rice wine,vodka,rum and coke.
Whilst drinking this rather potent cocktail we decided to play Diminishing whist which became rather difficult as each of fell under the effects of the alcohol. Through fits of giggles Helen managed to win. Hurrah!
We woke the next morning to the sounds of dogs, cats, pigs (pot belly) and cockerels doing what they do best. Quite surprisingly none of us had sore heads and after a breakfast of bananas, pancakes and honey we carried on trekking. It was another cloudless sky and after balancing on narrow paddy field walls that a gymnast would have been proud of we concluded the trek at a restaurant at around lunch time.
We got a minibus back to the hotel in Sapa, for an evening meal and to watch the anniversary celebrations.
Tomorrow (Sunday) we will be taking a minibus back to the train station and a sleeper train back to Hanoi where we will say goodbye to Lesley, Scott and Richard as they head back to the UK and we have three nights before heading to Singapore.