Trekking the hills of Sapa
Sapa is around a 6 hours drive north west of Hanoi, close to border with China. The overnight train is also a popular method of transport from Hanoi, but in our opinion over romanticised. Even if you were to purchase the most expensive carriage option (which we did - SapaLy Express) the cabins are often a hot, uncomfortable, four birth rocking machine, that can put your stomach out of whack for days. Whilst the bedding is comfortable for someone under 6ft, which I am not, the mattresses are plastic wrapped under the sheets, so you’re in for a sweaty night even with the AC on.
After leaving the train at six in the morning you still have a 40-60min minibus ride from Lao Cai to Sapa proper, so our advice would be to take the road during the day, take in the sights or conk-out on the bus. At least you'll get to see some of the countryside, it'll be a lot quicker and you won't lose a day being too tired to do anything for lack of sleep.
The town of Sapa as most would know it is a relatively small. It is cradled between two hills overlooking one of the most gorgeous vistas you're likely to see. But like many long known tourist destinations in Vietnam, development has become rampant. Photos from the 90s show a fairly unimpeded view of the valleys below from the town centre, however unrestricted construction has put a price tag on that view for the most part.
Take a walk past Indigo Cat (well know local H’mong textile shop) and down the road to find an open vantage point. Luckily getting out of town will largely eliminate the concrete skyline.
Few other places in Vietnam make it more obvious that Vietnam is not just a land of Vietnamese. The H’mong originally from mountainous southern China are a charismatic force to be reckoned with. So much so that they can motivate even the most skeptical penny pinching traveller to buy something, if for nothing other than peace and quiet. But behind the charismatic, colourful salesmanship you’ll find on the streets of Sapa, there is a more difficult nuanced fight being fought for economic independence and opportunity by women who clearly represent the cultural heart of the North Vietnamese, H’mong ethnicities of which there are many.
Sapa is a destination for travellers wanting to get dirty on tour for a dirt cheap price, but things can easily jump up in price if you walk into the wrong place. Whilst a cheap tour may sound like a good deal the reality may be something different. We were pretty set on having a ‘small tour’ experience, maximum of 6 people trekking with us as we wanted to take photos along the way. Many tour operators will overload their guides with up to 16 people to turn big bucks, which means you will have to take the main road to allow for those who may not want to slip and slide down the mountains. Also avoid spruikers on the street offering their guiding services. They may not have the appropriate permits and both you and they can get in a significant amount of trouble trekking without such.
We didn’t want to spend a lot of money but we knew many guides earn little, so we wanted to to make sure our guide was paid reasonably. We found Sapa Sisters in the town centre (office within Graceful Hotel), a H’mong owned and run business that pays their guides well and gives them excellent support. One guide mentioned that after working with Sapa Sisters for a number of years she was ‘quite wealthy’ for Vietnamese standards. Confident with our choice we booked a 2 day 1 night Sapa Trek with an overnight homestay in Lao Chai.
Before the trek we met with our guide; Ker, who discussed what we wanted to see, which type of trek we were looking for (hard or easy walking) and what we would like to learn. We chose the harder option for the first day but due to heavy rains throughout the night, on the second day we had to take a safer option to avoid potential landslides.
The incredible valleys and mountain passes are a landscape photographer's wet dream and the minority H’mong people's clothing are so colourful and faces so etched with years of hard work that there happiness in light of a difficult past and present is humbling.
The homestay is not a true homestay experience as you may expect. Across the board with all operators you’ll sleep in large dorm style accommodation, with wifi. Whilst the accommodation lacks the homely feel, the meal and hospitality however more than compensates. At our homestay our host made up a delicious meal, a real spread of regional specialties, and we sat down to enjoy it together, with our guide and another couple that coincidentally were aboard the Dragon Pearl 1 in Bai Tu Long Bay with us. At the end of the meal out came the ‘happy water’ - rice wine with a hell of a kick and burn.
To read more about our Vietnam adventures check it our here.