The Legend of Poo Sue

25 01 2011

Our train arrived early in the morning in Sapa; we met up with the boys on the platform and headed out of the station to find someone brandishing our names on bits of cardboard. I was pleasantly surprised by the weather. Ever since I’d started heading north the prevailing comments about Sapa on the backpacking circuit were that it was bloody freezing – “It’s SNOWING up there!” was something I heard a lot, mostly from people who hadn’t actually been. As is the way in the 21st century, I ignored the babble of the ignorant masses, followed the mantra of DYOR and JFGI’d it: the interwebz told me it was as warm as 12℃ and it didn’t drop below freezing even at night; snow did not seem very likely.

The sun was shining and there was no real wind: this trek is going to be fine, I thought to myself. How wrong could I be? What I failed to take into consideration was the hour-and-a-half bus ride from the train station along high winding roads to the actual town of Sapa. I’d love to be able to describe the mountain town of Sapa to you but I can’t: a dense bank of chilling fog shrouded everything; our visibility was less than a metre.

We clambered out of the bus into the meagre warmth of the tour operator’s office. The sliding doors were often left open and the small electric heater (commandeered by a mother cat and her two skittish kittens) did very little to alleviate the chill of the outside world. There were a few computers in the office; so, as is my wont when I’ve been deprived of Internet access for half a day, I quickly jumped online and updated my Facebook status. In the office we met Sophia, a French Canadian girl who was teaching in South Korea, she wasn’t going to be doing the trek with us; she’d opted to stay in a hotel instead of a home-stay so her route would be different. A few minutes in our charming company, however, and she changed her mind – she decided to join us on our trek instead. I’m sure she rues the day.

After breakfast up the hill in a little restaurant – we were lucky that our table was right next to the fire – we had the option to take a shower. Greta was first off the mark but when she came back and said the showers were freezing cold I decided to opt out. It was waaay too cold for a cold shower. Everyone decided to head over to the market to buy some warmer clothes. Our first mission was to actually find the market – we were told it was right next to the church, but we couldn’t see the church through the fog until we were right underneath it. I bought myself some gloves but apart from that I was relatively well kitted out for the climate – the advice from trekking in Patagonia still stood me in good stead “Be prepared for any weather conditions”. Then it was back to the office for a short bus ride to the start of our trek.

We’d been accompanied all morning by the local indigenous women and when we got to the start point a huge gaggle of them were waiting for us. Whether they were the same women who had been walking around town with us or another group I’m not sure. We set off down the steep hill and pretty soon the trail became a slippery, muddy quagmire. Mud began to cake our lower legs and it was hard to maintain your balance. Some of the women, who were now accompanying us on the trek, decided to help keep us upright by clutching our arms. I wanted to do it on my own (I knew there would be an eventual cost of some sort for their assistance) and a little way down the hill some locals sold us a bamboo pole for half a dollar. This was far and away the best 50 cents I’ve ever spent: it helped a lot and I was able to get down the hill without going completely arse over tit – although it was often a close-run thing.

One of the bridges we crossed on the trek

The fog lifted a little as we headed down the hill but stayed with us for most of the day. As did the treacherous, slippery, sucking, oozing mud. It would probably have been a very easy 13km trek had it not been for the mud. At least all the extra movement kept us warm and pretty soon we were all shedding clothes. And the occasional lessening of the haze gave us a good impression of the fallow paddy fields (due to the climate they can only grow rice once a year in Sapa) that we were walking past on all sides. I could only imagine how beautiful it would be in the summer with unimpeded vision and people working the fields.

The foggy paddy fields of Sapa

At one point on the walk up the hill we encountered large group of small children. Greta decided to get a photo of them and show them it to them on the camera. They gave beautific, radiant smiles and it looked like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. “Ah, how cute,” we thought to ourselves. Then one of them stuck out a hand and uttered the only English word he knew: “Money”. The cry was soon taken up by the rest of the group and we were assailed on all sides by the discordant mantra of “Money! Money! Money! Money!”. They sounded like a flock of seagulls clamouring for a single piece of fish. The angelic creatures had, with seconds, transformed into evil, possessed brats like something out of a horror movie – perhaps Children of the Corn. We quickly left them behind and moved on.

It wasn’t far to walk after our lunch at a local restaurant and before we knew it we were at our home-stay for the night. Once we’d kicked off our muddy boots we were all thrilled to discover that there was a pool table there. Until we actually played on it… it was so bad that I don’t think anyone actually finished a game; we all got fed up with the table’s vagaries and the awful cues before anyone got on to the black. Our home-stay family were friendly enough but they never really mingled – perhaps it was because we were such a large group and clearly able to entertain ourselves.

Some of the farm animals we passed on the way

We sat around the fire to begin with – trying to get some warmth back into our feet – and told a few stories to get to know each other. Sophia asked the English boys if they were full-time lads. They quite liked the term but I don’t think any of us had heard it before. “You know?” she continued. “Full-time My English friend is always going on about it.” More bemused looks and, after a Google search, I can confirm that this domain doesn’t actually exist on the Internet – although there is a page on Facebook. We’d also been talking about how the South Koreans always travel in huge tour groups and Sophia explained this by telling us that they’re very family orientated and will all go on holiday together. She told us about one of her trying experiences in Korea when she tried to buy a single bun from the bakers but he kept telling her that she had to buy five. “No, I just want one,” she said. “You mean five,” he said. In the end she gave in and had to leave the store with five buns even though most of them would end up in the bin. It took Sophia 10-minutes to tell us this story because we kept interrupting her with silly questions and asides. I think the beer that we’d been drinking was starting to kick in.

We were playing some music on my laptop when Sophia proclaimed that Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem was music for old people. “No they’re not,” I started to argue before I suddenly realised that, by any yardstick, I actually was an old person in the eyes of anyone else around the table. It was a sobering moment.

Another story told was about a Chinese girl called Sue who’d been at a party that a friend of Andrew’s friend had been attending. (Yes this totally has the ring of an urban myth!) At the party she went to the toilet upstairs but when she’d finished her business it wouldn’t flush. At this point there were other people waiting for the bathroom. Embarrassed by the colossal size of her bathroom offering and not wanting to leave the evidence behind she decided to scoop it out of the bowl and throw it out the window. With the problem solved, she washed her hands and rejoined the party. Most people were gathered in the conservatory and as she mingled amongst them everyone started crying out in surprise and pointing up to the glass roof: where Sue’s sizeable excreta was prominently on display; gradually sliding its way down.

This story had extra resonance because our guide, who was sitting next to fire knitting away, decided to give the others some animal names. When she got to David she decided that he wasn’t an animal but that he was Buffalo Poo. Clearly she had the measure of him but none of us could have imagined what Buffalo Poo (or Poo Sue as he was quickly rechristened) would do later on that night.

After a fantastic spread of Vietnamese food – washed down with beer and what our host called Happy Water (a rice whisky/wine) we decided to play some games. I taught them all Paper Telephone which was a huge success: although, much like the guy in Superbad, James seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with drawing penises on whatever sheet came his way. Afterwards we played the game where you have a famous person’s name stuck to your head. Unfortunately one of them fell off straight away so we quickly whispered a new one around the circle that only the rest of us would know. It was much later in the game when we realised that “Adolf Hitler” which had been whispered around the circle quite successfully until it got to James, was understood by everyone past him to be “Mickey Mouse”. We were all so drunk at this point that everyone got their name because someone else inadvertently gave it away.

Some of the guys decided to hang their socks on a pole over the fire which was fun until one of David’s socks fell into the blaze and became little more than a charred mess. He was quite drunk at this point and someone said that maybe he didn’t need both his zip-off trouser legs either. He decided to burn the right one and grabbed it from where it was hanging over the balcony and prepared to throw it into the fire. “Wait!” I said, “That’s my trouser leg!”

Poo Sue then decided that a game of beer pong was in order but the penalty for losing was to finish off the rice wine. He lost, so the penalty was his: he duly swigged the wine back and almost instantaneously became a mumbling, gibbering wreck. Connor and Alex took him to the bathroom and left him in there. By this point we were all watching more Inbetweeners on my laptop. 10 minutes elapsed and they decided that they probably should check on him. When they got there the bathroom was empty and as they walked past the kitchen our hostess handed them a big bowl of water – this could not be a good sign! They found Poo Sue upstairs in his bed where he’d proceeded to throw up on the slatted floor – some of which had dripped down to the floor below, near to where our host, Mr Chin, was busy watching tennis on the television.

Michele got up out of bed at this point (she’d gone to bed early) and helped clean up Poo Sue’s mess, whilst the others posed for pictures with their unconscious friend. I’m not sure we set the best example for future home-stayers. After the Poo Sue pandemonium was over and he was passed out safely in his bed, the rest of us watched a few more Inbetweeners on the laptop before finally calling it a night and heading up to the loft to sleep.

The next day was only 7km walking but this time it was mostly uphill and the loathsome mud never left us. This time I did use the services of one of the indigenous women to help me up the hills. I couldn’t believe how strong she was for such a slight woman. The good news of the day was that the fog was not so severe down in the valley and we were able to get some decent views of the valley. Unfortunately my camera really wasn’t behaving well that day – I really needed to get it repaired – so I didn’t get many photos.


The full-time lads and their helpers


The end point of our trek was a waterfall but it was too cold for any of us to contemplate swimming so we all just sat in the restaurant and tried to ignore the annoying attempts of the locals to sell us more of their wares. I did have to give my helper “mum” a tip though for her help. Back at the main village, we all had a shower this time (luckily it was hot this time around) and then chilled out in the office on the Internet and playing with the mother cat and her kittens before having a last meal together.


The cat and her kittens at the tour operator's office

Then it was back to the train station for a short wait before our train back to Hanoi. At one point Greta came back from buying some supplies for the trip, looking a bit white. She’d just seen a pig being killed in the street. It was not an uncommon sight to see the sacks of pigs squealing away at the side of the road but to actually witness the slaughter must have been an uncomfortable experience.

On the train we hung out in the boys’ room and watched an entire season of Inbetweeners. This was interspersed with a few trips to the buffet car where we were paying varying amounts for the same beer – dependent on whether they actually applied the tourist tax or not. Something that I also noticed, which hadn’t been so apparent on the way out on the train, was just how many staff there were on the train. I suppose it was the first clear indication to me that it was still a communist country – with jobs just given out for the sake of it rather than for reasons of efficiency. Finally it was time for bed – although I didn’t sleep as well as on the way out – possibly because we stopped so often and eventually ended up with a 4-hour delay. Which was a shame because it meant we couldn’t make it on time for our trip to Halong Bay that morning…