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Ta Phin

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At Home in Ta Phin

Good morning again, Sapa! After getting terrorised by bugs the previous night, I woke up in a very blissful holiday mood, and was gloating over the fact that we still had 2 full days amongst these beautiful mountains. The day before, we zipped past massive trucks and lumbering cattle on our bikes to chase waterfalls, and today we were going to hop on the bikes again, and ride to a little village to stay a night with a local family.

The view from our porch.

We had a bit of time before we headed out of Sapa town, so we explored the area and discovered more quaint cafes and a local wet market off the main road.

The kind of wet market I grew up with.
Had breakfast at a casual eatery at the end of the wet market.
Mel and Peishan with a loquacious local who used to be a tour guide, and knew enough english to help us place orders.
Mel and Peishan with a loquacious local (extreme right) who used to be a tour guide, and knew enough English to help us figure out what to order.
My strangest meal in Vietnam consists of rice noodles, to be dipped in a soup that was at room temperature, and extremely sweet.
My strangest meal in Vietnam cost USD1.4 and consists of rice noodles, to be dipped in a soup that was at room temperature and extremely sweet.
Parisian-inspired cafes were everywhere.
Parisian-inspired cafes were everywhere, and we took a quick post-breakfast drink before heading to our bikes.

The plan now was to follow Vuong, the same tour guide we had the day before, to a village called Ta Phin, which was about an hour on bike from Sapa town.

Elated to be back on a bike.
Obligatory shot with my ride.
First scenic stop of the day.
First scenic stop of the day.
One of the villagers trying to get her cattle off the road. She was shouting and even threw a rock at it. Eventually Vuong helped her out and the stray cattle submitted.
One of the villagers trying to get her cattle off the road. She was shouting angrily and even threw a rock at it. Vuong helped her out eventually.

I always thought hopping on and off tour buses for scenic stops was a tiring affair. Getting on and off a bike is so much better.
I always thought hopping in and out of cars or tour buses for scenic stops was a tiring affair. Touring with bikes are so much easier.

The best memories of riding around Sapa has got to be having the view unfold at each bend, and seeing Vuong, Peishan, and Rachel riding the winding roads in a line in front of me. We had to go off road for a while, and riding over the rocky, pothole-ridden dirt paths with bikes that have close to zero suspension was rather painful. It rattled my bones and I’m glad I didn’t fall off the bike.

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Vuong then showed us this pretty cool ruin of a church that was built by the French and destroyed by the Chinese when they bombed the area.
Wedding photoshoot potential.
Got wedding photoshoot potential right?
Puppies everywhere!
One of the many sleepy puppies we came across.
Us, bikes, and nature.
Happiness is having a bike in a place with such gorgeous views.
Approaching Ta Phin!
The road into Ta Phin village, home to the Dzao and H’mong tribes.
First of the many, many gorgeous views this village presented us.
First of the many, many gorgeous views this village presented us.
The hut on the right was our home for the night.
The hut on the right would be our home for the night.

Vuong left us with our host, Ta May, the lady of the house. Homestays are a common tourist thing to do, and we paid USD50 in all for our stay, including the bike rentals. Food was also provided by the hosts. We arrived around noon, so while Ta May prepared the food, we headed out again to explore the idyllic town. Its stillness was a drastic contrast to Hanoi’s chaos, and I found myself subconsciously moving a little slower to align my own tempo with this lazy village.

I’ve watched many documentaries of places like these, and it was quite surreal to experience it first hand. I felt like I was either on a voluntary mission, or part of a documentary crew who have come here to do some research on the locals. There were many kids running around without pants, clusters of women sitting around small shacks that sold groceries, and old ladies wearing traditional tribal costumes wandering around carrying both an infant and a basket of handicrafts. Even though we were the only tourists around, they weren’t too persistent in selling those souvenirs. Lucky us.

A mischievous kid and a nonchalant calf.
This calf remained completely nonchalant even as the kid yanked its tail with brute force.

Out of curiousity, we decided to explore Ta Phin Cavern. We took our bikes because we didn’t want to be late for lunch. When we approached, one of the guys said that there was no charge to enter the cavern, but we had to pay him a fee to look after our bikes. Fine. Then another old lady approached and said we needed torches for the cavern too. Fine. So we rented one from her and another from the bike caretaker. USD1.9 for two torches between the four of us. I was already very annoyed at the way they surprise us with fees, so I was quite insistent that the old lady not follow us in, lest she insists that we pay her later.

As we took the first few steps down into the cave, it became apparent that this was not going to be quite the walk in the park we expected. The entrance led down quite quickly into a cold, dark, and slippery pathway, and Rachel decided to sit this one out as it was quite claustrophobic. The old lady, however, just kept on following us even though I told her not to. “No pay, follow, no pay,” she insisted.

After a few minutes though, I’m glad she followed us. HAHAHA. How arrogant we were. It was pitch black inside, and we would have no idea how to navigate it if not for her directions. It was a pretty damn treacherous route too. We had to cross a path that was no wider than the width of my foot, and while it was solid rock on one side, the other side was a drop into a dark 2m hole. We had to climb up and down small ladders, duck walk through some passages, and curved our bodies to fit through certain openings, with nothing but the light from 2 torches and the old lady’s weak handphone light. We nicknamed her Gollum because she was really small and leathery-looking. She also walked barefoot and navigated the place with such agility and nimble manoeuvres. Every time we looked to her for directions I half-expected her to give us a riddle to solve.

We were totally not prepared for this adventure at all, but it was damn fun. We had the option to carry on walking deeper into the cave (it seem to stretch on quite a bit further), but with muddy butts, hands, and piping hot lunch awaiting, we headed back. And because we emerged unscathed, we felt obliged to buy one of her souvenirs (bought the bag that’s hanging around Peishan’s neck in the photo below) to thank her.

Us and Gollum.
Us and Gollum.

And now for lunch in the comfort of our “home”.

Ta May's in her open concept kitchen.
Ta May in her open concept kitchen.
The Vietnamese love their veggies.
I really enjoyed this meal. It reminded me of my mum’s dishes.
Before we promptly wiped out the food.
Before we promptly wiped out the food.

With our stomachs full, we headed out again to explore the rest of Ta Phin village. Get ready for a photo spam!!!

Green greed rice of home.
Green green grass of home.
Felt guilty being an intrusive tourist, snapping pictures of everything, so I kindly asked these ladies for a shot and they gladly obliged.
Felt guilty for being an intrusive tourist, snapping pictures of everything. So I kindly asked these ladies for a shot and they gladly obliged.
Trespassed the school to enjoy this adorable performance.
Trespassed the school to sit in on this adorable performance.
Are we in Canada???
Are we in Canada???
We walked over to the next village and I fell in love with this fella.
We walked over to the next village, where I met and fell in love with this fella.

Bottomless kids.
Peishan didn’t get the bottomless memo.
Perfect colours.
Sigh… What an amazing place.

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Reached this patch that was perfect for jumping shots just in time to catch the golden evening sun light.
Reached this patch of grass that had a perfect backdrop for jumping shots.

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Exhausted from all the jumping.
Exhausted from all the jumping.

I really, really enjoyed doing absolutely nothing in this village that had absolutely nothing for you to do but soak up the beauty of the majestic mountains that enveloped the village. This is what I travel for. To find peace, away from everything that would remind me of Singapore — shopping, crowds, and cities. The grass is really greener here.

We got home as the sun was setting, and took our showers before settling down for dinner. Ta May’s home, although not modern, had a super clean toilet that looked out of place with the rest of the home (in terms of aesthetics, not cleanliness). It was clean, odourless, fitted with a heated shower and toilet bowl. It’s great because even though I want to experience what it feels like to stay in a village, I’m quite particular about toilet hygiene. I’m sure the non-homestay homes around the village weren’t installed with a toilet like hers.

Dinner was a very indulgent spread made up of chicken, pork, long beans, tofu, and potatoes, shared between the four of us: Ta May, her husband, and son (he was such a looker). Before we dug in, her husband, who couldn’t speak English, poured us all tea cup servings of rice wine and gestured us to drink up. I took only a sip because it was NASTY. Peishan said it tasted like Tequila. It tasted like fiery poison to me. Throughout the meal, we watched incredulously as Ta May’s mister shove down about 5 bowls of rice, and about a dozen shots of the wine. He was pretty dazed towards the end of the meal. The food was really good, and Ta May and her family picked very little from the dishes and ate lots of rice instead. Felt a bit pai seh, but showed my appreciation by eating 2 bowls of rice and eating twice the amount I usually do.

We were done by about 9pm or so, and there was no other entertainment… So we went to bed. I’m still very amused by our sleeping area, because it resembles a bangla quarter. A very clean one. I’ve never slept in a place like this, but somehow I didn’t feel out of place at all. I think it has to do with the fact that everything felt clean. It even felt cleaner than our rooms in Tulip Hotel in Sapa.

Fit for tourists.
Our luxury Bangla suite.

I slept fairly well that night, up till about 5am when the roosters started crowing… and crowing… and crowing. They wouldn’t stop, and by then the pigs (the sty was about 4m away from our sleeping quarters) awoke and snorted and grunted to add to the whole cacophony.

We had to head back to Sapa town in the morning with Vuong, so we just whiled around and drank tea while we waited for him. I was already missing Sapa by then.

The washing area.
The washing area.
Just like a museum.
The kitchen. It was like walking into a museum.
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Us with Ta May (in red).

Sped out of Sapa with a heavy heart, and on our way back, Vuong told us a dodgy story about the police charging him taxes for bringing us in, and that we had to fork out USD1.4 each to pay him back. It’s not a lot of money, but I just hate the way they go about doing it. He might be telling the truth because he has been good to us so far. But I was still suspicious and not very happy.

The way back to Sapa town felt a lot faster. After a quick shower in the hotel, we were on our way again towards the train station (to head back to hectic Hanoi). On the winding way down from Sapa town to the station in Lao Cai, we got views that were much more magnificent than the ones we got on our way up because this time, we were facing the mountains of China, and they just blew my mind. There was no start or end to that range of peaks, and it went on into the horizon forever. Too bad the Chinese aren’t the most pleasant people. If not China would definitely be on my travel to do list for its epic mountains.

And this is the end of my week-long North Vietnam trip! I spent about SGD800 including the air ticket, which I think is pretty decent for 7 days of adventure. Despite Hanoi’s nasty traffic and the dodgy Viets all around, Sapa made it all worth it. We had a great time thanks to the few nice ones we came to know, and I’m so glad I finally got to experience Vietnam, after pining for it for almost a year.

Hope you guys enjoyed reading about it too!

 

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