Vietnam: Sapa

After Ha Long Bay, I spent a night back in Hanoi before setting off North to Sapa, an area famous for its lush green valleys of rice terraces. There are again many a company offering packages and tours from Hanoi, which after doing some research, looked the best way for me to go as they include transfers, they sort local homestays, and the paths turned out to be remote and quite precarious in places so you definitely need an experienced guide. There are varying time lengths, styles of accommodation and group sizes, so worth doing a little research before you commit to one. I went with Central Backpackers again, which despite a few hiccups with the outbound transport, was worth the $55 I paid for 2 nights and 2 days. 

A group of six of us from the hostel were picked up around 9:30pm and taken to the sleeper bus. I managed to bag myself a bottom level window bunk which is the best spot for me for the most comfortable journey, and I plugged into Stephen Fry’s soothing Harry Potter narration and tried to get some kip. The first few hours were fine and I dozed in and out, but it turned into something of a pickle when we arrived. We got to Sapa at 3am, and we weren’t able to check into our change/shower hotel until 6am. Normally, the bus drivers allow you to stay on the bus and sleep until you’re picked up, but we were clearly unlucky with our bus driver who was most unpleasant and kicked us off, closing the door and ignoring us from then on. We then had to sit in the car park in 2/3 degrees for three and a half hours – you can imagine how cold and miserable we were when our pick up finally arrived. We had half an hour at a hotel to eat some breakfast and get ready to leave, so I put on as many layers as I could physically wear, and we set off on a 12km trek (which I can’t pretend I was looking forward to at this point after only sleeping a couple of hours).

Although we’d got off to a bit of a bad start, I soon cheered up. The town had been in complete cloud when we arrived, and after reports from friends a couple of days earlier, I was worried we’d not actually be able to see the famous rice paddy terraces that draw people to the area. Luckily, the weather cleared a little just as we set out, and we enjoyed some beautiful landscapes as we made our way up, down and around the valleys. It only took me about 3 minutes to fall over as it was incredibly slippery after a lot of wet weather – but I did capture the wipeout on my GoPro which was quite a funny video to watch back:

This video doesn’t exist

As well as the group of us from the hostel (me, another 3 Brits and a Dutch couple), we were joined by a Spaniard, 2 Danes, 2 Kiwis and an Australian guy, and we had a really good group. We got to know each other as we clambered along the ‘paths’ (often almost taking each other out), and after about 9km, we stopped for a delicious lunch in a little village called Lao Chai down in the base of the valley. After we’d had our fill of rice, spring rolls, pork and tofu (which I’m really growing to like out here), we set off again for the remaining 3km of the day. It was a steep and slippery uphill trek to the remote hillside homestay near Ta Van village where we were all staying that night, but we arrived to a beautiful view over the valley’s terraces – and some lifesaving hot tea.

The view over Lao Chai village

In the few hours before dinner, we played some games which was really good fun and a useful way to get to know everyone better. The family we were staying with had 5 small children which was a bit chaotic, but they were quite sweet. They cooked us up an evening feast of more rice, tofu, spring rolls and chicken, before we turned in for the night. We were all sleeping on a mezzanine level in the house, with mattresses laid out around the quad floor – it was a bit like a big sleepover! Given how cold it was I was dreading the night’s sleep, anticipating having to wear all of my clothes and still getting frostbite. So it was a very pleasant surprise when we discovered the blankets we’d been given were wonderfully thick and heavy and deliciously warm. It was actually the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a while, cocooned in the blanket, and I woke up feeling ready for another day’s trekking.

Our homestay sleepover (best blankets ever)

After a breakfast of tea and banana pancakes, we got ready to go. I had a blister under my big toe which made putting my boots back on a bit of an ordeal – so it actually turned out to be a good thing when my feet went numb from the cold as I couldn’t feel the pain! The weather was sadly worse than the day before, with visibility about 10m and steady rainfall. This made the paths quite treacherous, and it was a morning spent more or less skiing on mud. However, I managed to stay on my feet this time, which is more than can be said for some other members of the group… The weather cleared a little throughout the morning and the rain stopped and started, so we did get some views, but I’m glad we had much better weather the previous day or it might have felt like a lot of effort for not much reward. We trekked until lunchtime when we were fed a delicious egg noodle soup in another village, and then a minibus picked us up to take us back to Sapa.

At the homestay before our second day’s trek

We jostled for the first hot shower back in the hotel change stop, and felt much better after having thawed out and put some clean clothes on. The bus back to Hanoi came, and we arrived back in the city around 10.

I think Sapa is one of those places where the weather can really affect your experience. You book a tour with the summery images in mind of bright green and yellow rice terraces and views for miles, and even though I knew it was the wrong season for that, you still blindly hope it’ll come up trumps! I’m glad the weather lifted enough for us to appreciate the landscape of the area, which truly is beautiful.

Enjoying the rice paddies (and smiling because the rain had stopped!)

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 4, including a local handicrafts woman whose sales pitch was that I’d made such good friends on the tour, it’d be rude of me not to buy all 11 of them a souvenir to remember it by. 
Interaction was:
thought-provoking. Always thought friendship didn’t cost a thing, but maybe I will need to resort to present-based bribery to make some pals in the run up to Christmas…

One Woman and her Backpack x

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