In the evening, we arrived at Hanoi Railway Station where we were about to get on an overnight train to Lao Cai. Initially, we struggled a bit with finding a stall where we had to pick up our tickets and then couldn’t find a right platform, but eventually, we achieved both.
The train to Lao Cai looked like the Oriental Express. A compartment with two bunk beds was decorated with wood and lighted with little old fashioned lamps. Water and little snacks were also included. The only sign of modern technology were speakers crackling terribly.
The night on moving train was a quite comfortable and in the morning, when we got off in Lao Cai, we were fairly fresh. Our guide, who was by the way in the 39th week of her pregnancy, picked us up and after a quick breakfast in an adjacent restaurant we set off to Bac Ho.
Bac Ho was a small town and we chose to stay in a homestay which was run by a local family. We were keen to try this style of accommodation to get some authentic experience and have a closer insight into the lifestyle. Our homestay had a higher standard than a typical local house but it was still interesting to sit with the family around a fire pit, drink tea and crunch pumpkin seeds.
In the afternoon, we went for a walk around town. We strolled to a large mansion which served as a residence for a local governor in old the days. Nowadays, there is a souvenir shop and rice wine cooking stalls at the back of the property.
From there, we moved further to the lake, passed a local school full of kids and walked the little streets where pigs and chickens ran in front of the houses. It was a chilly winter day and a whole town was wrapped into the smell of burned firewood.
Later, a friend of our host family took us for a trip to a near village where a Hmong minority lived. At first, we had to climb up through rice terraces. Unfortunately, at that time of the year, there were nothing but hollow muddy fields instead of beautiful colourful beds. In past few days it had also rained a lot, so all the paths were slippery and our 7kg carry on luggage didn’t allow for much of spare clothes.
At one point our guide met a friend of his. Together we started to climb through the mud somewhere in the middle of nowhere and when we protested because of the lack of gumboots they totally ignored us. I started to be nervous that we would never get back again.
Luckily, after a few hundred meters, we finally got to a little settlement with few houses where kids and domestic animals played together in a muddy open area. Locals looked quite excited when they saw foreign faces. In spare time, when our guide went for a quick welcome drink with his friend, we shyly looked around before we headed back to the homestay.
In the evening, we were all invited to dinner to the house of our host family friend. When we arrived, there was a gathering of 10 family members and friends. They had cooked all different kinds of dishes and washed it down with a proper amount of house rice wine. Seeing our driver drinking shots one after another we had doubts about our way home but in spite of that, a couple of hours later we got safely to our beds.
Early next day we set off to a village market. However, it was not an ordinary local market with a few types of veggies and fruits. Every Sunday people from surrounding villages come to sell and buy (or exchange) everything from food, cookware, clothes but also animals.
As we walked through the market, we passed tables displaying all kinds of meat, bowls full of eggs or boxes with spices smelling nice. However, the most interesting was an area where animals were traded.
On the way to the market, we had met a woman carrying a pig in a bag on her back. We had thought it was dead but when we got to the animal trade area we realized that it is just the way people got their goods there. In boxes we saw little puppies and kittens, in cages, there were hens and roosters. Donkeys and little horses were kept separately.
We climbed the steps to the top of a small mound. There was a square dedicated to the trade of buffaloes. Our guide told us that a buffalo could be sold for about 40 million dongs which was the equivalent of our second-hand car in New Zealand. Although, our Caldina provides a much more comfortable ride.
We left the place just in time because two big buffaloes got a bit nervous and started to fight against each other which made it difficult for tiny owners to calm them down.
At last, we wrapped our staying with a ride on horse wagon around the town hills. It provided great views of rice terraces and the town itself, however, we couldn’t help but feel really sorry for a poor horse because at some parts of the track it struggled a lot.
The end! Later in the afternoon, we drove over to foggy and cold Sapa which was our next stop for the next two days.