When we were in Halong bay we got talking to our tour guide Ben, and he told me and Cody that he is a freelance tour guide and had been a guide for 4 years in Sapa. It just so happened that we were headed to Sapa the following day but were yet to book anything, so he was able to organise our trip and at less cost compared to other agencies. This was awesome news for us, but the problem was that nothing was in writing for what time we had to be where and we didn’t exactly know what we were doing a part from having a brief run down the day before leaving. All he gave us was an envelope to give to the man who picked us up from the hotel in Hanoi and one for the trekking tour guide who we were told was named May.
So at 9pm we waited outside our hotel like Ben had told us to.
Eventually a man came to pick us up requesting a Mr Cody Rudland.
We jumped in to the mini van with lots of other tourists and he dropped us on a random busy road with no sign that it was a bus stop.
We waited with the tourists and about 15 minutes later the sleeper bus came.
We got on, without a single request for identification to confirm who we were until well into the journey when they got us to write our names on a piece of paper and then we went to sleep. The sleeper bus was really fun at first and we thought it was cool and exciting but now we have been on them a few times, so we aren’t so fussed, but at the beginning we were wondering why everyone was hating on them. With red and blue lighting, making it look like a strange brothel on wheels, we made our way to Lao Cai which is on the Chinese border. We pulled over in the middle of nowhere and the bus driver woke Cody up to say this was our stop. we did know where we had to get off and we were thoroughly confused, especially because we were the only people getting off in the middle of nowhere (how did they know it was our stop).
By the time I got off the bus, Cody was already off the bus and on the phone to somebody. Cody didn’t have a phone at this point so my two questions were who are you on the phone to and who’s phone is that.
Apparently when Cody got off the bus a taxi driver showed Cody a text message with every word in Vietnamese except for Cody’s name, but he only had half a second to comprehend what he was looking at before the phone rang and the man passed the phone to Cody to answer. Confused and still half-asleep Cody answered, it was Ben the tour guide from Halong bay (mind you this is at 2am) “Hi, this Ben, you must be tired. Your going to go to a hotel now to sleep for a while, ok, then you wake up at 7am for breakfast.”
It was somewhat organised, albeit strangely. Confused, tired and laughing we got in the taxi and were dropped off at a little hotel where the taxi driver pointed to a very tired Vietnamese man who owned the hotel. The man took us to the room where we continued sleeping until morning.
At 7am we woke and went downstairs where the cafe was for breakfast. After breakfast Cody went exploring down the street when the hotel owner came up to me with his phone. “Hi this Ben. Now if you wait here until 9am the tour bus will pick you up for Bac Ha market.” Seriously, how does he have everyone’s number?
Seeing as we had a bit of time, we walked around while all the locals smiled and waved presumably not seeing white people very often.
At about 9 we were picked by a man with a mini bus and an apparent need of urgency. He pulled over and yelled at Cody “Bac Ha market! Let’s go!” so we happily obliged. It was a very busy bus with quite a lot of Vietnamese people already on it and piles of boxes and random things, like a sack of vegetables that a local elderly lady was using as her seat. We kept pulling over every 10 minutes in random places and having more locals get on. We ended up picking up 5 old ladies, part of the Hmong tribe and a bunch of others, eventually totalling 30 people crammed into the 9 seater van. We were all laughing about this together and Cody and I were thinking how cool it was that Ben organised a local bus ride for us to experience. When we were nearly at the market the man stopped the bus and got 5 dollars from everyone. I was wondering why we had to pay, because Ben said it was all covered, but Cody explained that there’s no way Ben could have given the money to this guy, which made sense, so I agreed and went with it.
When we got dropped off the man in the bus told us to be back at 1pm to go back to Lao Cai. We agreed but we’re confused because we thought that we were going to sapa for the homestay after the markets. Again we brushed it and began walking around the markets.
We got half way through the market when a short man in double denim came up to us and asked if we were “Mr Cody rudland” we said yes. He then explained he had been looking for us and that we got on the wrong bus this morning. Whhhhhaaaatt?
As it turns out, we were picked up by the public bus to Bac Ha market and must have been called into it before the tour guide bus arrived. And then of course the double denim man called Ben- because everyone has his number and knows him. Ben was panicked. “Hi this Ben. Why didn’t you get on the bus, I told you to wait at the hotel. How much did you have to pay. I’ll pay you back.” (We declined) “Well at least your there now.”
The double denim man showed us where to have lunch and where to meet at 1pm for the correct bus.
Bac Ha market was really cool but probably a vegetarians nightmare.
There was a section like a slaughter house, with blood all over the ground and de-gloved pig heads and skulls and different bits of meat for sale.
Up on the hill there were buffalos for sale where they tested there strength on each other, there were chickens in cages, pigs in heshen bags and little puppies for sale too (no, they don’t eat the puppies). There was also a veg market and handicraft stalls. It’s all run by the flower Hmong people and all the tribes go and get their purchases from there every Sunday.
At 1pm we got on a big tour bus that had loads of room but this time we were all tourists. We went and visited a flower Hmong home in the village and then drove to Lao Cai to drop some people off and see the Chinese border. Seeing china just over the river was a shock because at the time we didn’t realise how far north we were.
We continued on our drive to sapa and the double denim man said our trekking tour guide for the home stay will pick us up from the bus stop. When we got off a young black Hmong girl got in a taxi with us and said that she was doing the home stay with us at the red dzao tribe and that she would be our guide. “Are you May” we asked? Yes. Finally! We got rid of the second envelope.
We drove a fair way into the middle of nowhere on a bumpy road and walked up a really steep hill and found our way to the homestay. We got offered a herbal bath that was amazing and had a terrific time with others enjoying the homestay, May and the red dzao tribe. Once we got to May we didn’t have any more phonecalls from Ben and the special agent mission we felt like we were on had finished.
Sapa was definitely the biggest highlight of our trip, and whether you decide to do it the go-with-the-flow, wait for phone calls, special agent way or you decide to go through a normal, straight forward and organised tour I totally recommend it. 10/10