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Date: Mon, 13 Dec 2004
Subject: Last leg

Dear All,

Another briefish one for now - we'll fill in some details after we get home.

We're currently killing a bit of time at Lao Cai station - just 1 kilometre from the Chinese border - while we wait for our night train back to Hanoi after two days of trekking in the most glorious surroundings in the Sapa district. We're close to Vietnam's highest mountain, Fansipan (again, pronounce that as if you're French, not like 'fancy pants'), and among various hill tribes, who are the loveliest people, albeit persistent in their sales technique (unsuccessful in our case if only because we've no more room in our luggage). They have beautiful high cheekbones and wear the most gorgeous dark, embroidered clothes, with colourful headdresses for the women. Even the smallest girls are highly photogenic, carrying bamboo baskets on their backs and looking like dolls. They're very friendly, despite our reluctance to buy - it's all done with a smile and a twinkle. We apparently paid towards a permit to travel through their territory, including in some cases their houses, so at least they get some benefit from our intrusion.

The landscape hereabouts is truly spectacular: high mountains and deep valleys (the largest valley in VN, according to our guide), much of it carved out in beautifully shaped rice terraces. Why do such terraces transform the landscape into something magical? The trekking through this lot was pretty strenuous - well, fast - for us, but we've survived.

At the last moment, while killing time before the bus to here, we stumbled across a superb French-style patisserie, 'Baguette et Chocolat', whose cakes tasted even better because the profits go towards the Hoa Sua School, which trains disadvantaged youth in the region to work in hotels and restaurants in Vietnam. So we bought a couple more cakes to take away for the train journey.

And speaking of spectacular scenery, this excursion was preceded by three days in Ha Long Bay, with two nights on a really rather sumptuous junk. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site, and understandably so: it's breathtakingly beautiful, with its limestone karst formations sticking straight up out of the sea in the form of partially wooded rocky islands. There are over 3,000 of these islands in an area, we reckon, about the size of Greater London - it just goes on and on. Each time the boat rounds a headland a whole new vista opens up with more of these extraordinary shapes. There are caves and beaches among them for good measure. The boat was wonderfully relaxing, with superb food laid on and excellent service. We swam in the sea and had a barbecue on the beach, complete with a table with places laid, napkins, the lot - positively surreal.

We've been blessed with perfect weather for both of these trips - untrammelled blue sky almost throughout - a great relief after the weather we experienced in central VN. Sapa gets very cold at night at this time of the year, but once the sun's out it doesn't take long to warm up.

We arranged both trips through Handspan tours in Hanoi, recommended to us by a charming Aussie couple (even older than us) at Jungle Beach. We'd recommend their sevices to anyone.

Tomorrow, we hope to see Ho Chi Minh - just back from his annual refurbishment in Russia - in his mausoleum, but we anticipate a long queue after the break. We also hope to visit the Temple of Literature and have lunch at Koto (Know One, Teach One), another charitable organisation not unlike Friends in Phnom Penh, which comes recommended (thanks, Liz) [we didn't get to Koto, unfortunately]. We might just manage Hanoi's top jazz club for our final night, or maybe the Opera [it was the jazz club!].

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