J and I sat at the long, wooden table, set with chopsticks, chilli sauces and pieces of raw meat and bamboo shoots. I smiled at the H’mong tribeswoman sitting next to me, and she smiled back. To our right was the fruit and vegetable markets, trading piles of fresh produce beneath canopies of tin and tarpolean. To our left, and under the same roof as us, was the butcher, whole bullock legs and forests of chicken feet sticking comically in the air. But we were here for pho, Vietnam’s famous rice noodle soup, and this particular stall was the best in town.
We were in Sapa, our second day, a town high up in the mountains of Vietnam’s northwest. It felt like a seperate country to the Vietnam I had already seen. This was the off-season, for the reason that the views of the valleys and mountains were mostly obstructed by an eerie white mist, it’s cold ghostly fingers permeating even the rooms of our hostel. But to me, it contained a certain mystery. I knew that I was standing on a cliff, but what lay beyond?
J and I were caked with mud. We had rented scooters that morning to explore the surrounding areas of Sapa, and visit the villages of the local tribes of Vietnam. With engines running and wet weather gear on, we started down the long road through the Sapa province. A fine rain sprinkled down through the mist, covering the ground with a slippery film and stinging our eyes as we rode.
Not far from the town, the rain ceased and the fog lifted it’s porcelain veil to reveal the view from atop the winding mountain pass. Rice paddies in their hundreds decorated the valleys and the hills, each one a unique amoeba shape, stacked like bedroom drawers filled with grass. At the time, the road quality seemed poor; sealed asphalt acned with potholes and areas partially washed away by rivers and waterfalls. Past Black H’mong and Red Dao tribespeople, beautifully dressed in long dresses, bright multicoloured woven arm and headbands, and gumboots, the road began to grow muddier.
The scooters, (The Boss – J’s scooter, and Magnum – my one), were not suited for offroad, as their tiny wheels swerved and chewed through the sloppy mud tracks, mud-filled shoes required to steady ourselves.
After a beer stop at a small roadside bar, we picked up a passenger, a well-dressed Vietnamese girl in a casual black suit who needed a lift to Sapa. She rode on the back of J’s bike and played with her phone, but her tenure with us did not last long. After a particularly rough, muddy section of riding, J had a flat front tyre.
Through some uncanny cosmic luck, a mechanic was only a minute down the road, and whilst J’s damsel in distress hitched a new ride, our female mechanic, sporting a polka dot dress instead of the usual blue overalls, fixed a new inner tube. As the final section back to Sapa stretched out, we sped up, catching the beginnings of new rain, hungry for a hot bowl of pho.