Before we arrived in Vietnam there was only one place we really knew we wanted to see and that was Halong Bay. The rest would be discovered in due time with the Lonely Planet’s help. However upon arriving in our hostel in Hanoi we spotted a photograph which piqued our interest. It was the stunning rice fields in the Sapa Valley.
We asked Candy, the manager at the hostel, what tours there were to this region and she suggested a three night, two day trek which would have us do a homestay in the villages in the mountain with the local Hmong minority. For Raquel and I this seemed like a good enough plan and we decided to book this (also Halong Bay tour right after, but more on this in another post).
The tour would start actually start the day before the trek with an overnight train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a city roughly a 40 minute drive away from Sapa. The start of our adventure did start of on a slightly sour note as around five minutes after getting into the minibus taking us to the train station, I realised I had left our wallet with all our money back in the hostel reception. Moments of panic ensued with us trying to get the driver to phone the hostel and try and retrieve the wallet. Fortunately for us, the girls at the hostel realised the wallet was ours after the phone call and sent someone on a scooter to give us back our wallet.
With the crisis averted we returned towards the train station where a very brisk Vietnamese girl from the travel agency escorted us over train tracks to our train. We had been booked on a four bed cabin, which meant we had to share with another people. Our bunk buddies were an extremely tall hippy looking Italian and very frightened looking Vietnamese woman.
We settled into bunks quickly and quite rapidly the lights went out and all four of us tried to get some sleep in. Our mission would have been more successful if the group of Vietnamese teenagers in the adjoining cabins played along and kept quiet, but they had other ideas. They spent most of the eleven hour train talking loudly, drinking and singing to the dismay of the all the other tourists doing Sapa Treks.
Eleven hours after leaving Hanoi we wearily arrived in Lao Cai, where we were picked by the tour operator’s bus to take us to the Sapa Summit Hotel, where the trek would start. As we arrived quite early (around 5am) and the trek only started at 8:30am, we were allowed to take showers and have breakfast before embarking on the 12km trek scheduled for the day.
Just before our trek we met our Hmong guide May and the other members of our group which included a Liverpudian (Micheal), American couple (Andrew and Liz), a young French Couple (Lucy and Gregoire) and Older French couple (Could not remember their names).
With the formalities over and done with, the trek finally started walking down through the town down towards the valley village of Lao Chai where we would have lunch. This part of the trek was not very hard and mostly done along roads and decent paths with some excellent views of the rice fields. It was during this part of the trip that I mostly spoke to Michael, the Liverpudian, who wants to do some extensive travelling since leaving the UK and moving to Australia shared some of his mishaps during his travels in Vietnam, which he made sound a lot more amusing that what they actually were.
It was a fun trek down towards the village where we would have lunch, followed by what seemed like dozens of other Hmong girls, however I didn’t understand whether they were also guides, or just walking with us, but the reason for their company became apparent when we arrived in the restaurant where we had lunch: As soon as we arrived they started taking things from their backpacks to try and sell us.
Raquel and I abstained from buying anything, with Raquel simply telling the girls I wouldn’t let her buy anything. Lunch also turned out to be a bit of a group “getting to know each other” exercise as everyone kind shared their travel experiences around the lunch table.
As soon as lunch was over we were back on the road toward Ta Van village where we would be spending the night. One of our stops was at a village school, where, bizarrely we were told to look around while the kids were in class or running around the play ground and the teachers were in a room drinking “happy water” (otherwise known as rice wine). Raquel here came into her own with the camera and was snapping away some good photos of the mostly friendly kids (maybe except the one running round scaring the others with a live mouse).
It was here where Raquel and I got more chatty with our guide May, who simply brilliant. She was very talkative and very open to discussing life as Black Hmong girl and her aspirations of one day becoming a doctor or a teacher (though she quickly admitted to not liking blood too much).
We walked a few more kilometres to where we would be spending the night in Ta Van village. The tour operator called it a homestay, but until today we were never too sure who’s home it was and just ended up feeling like a very cheap hostel with great food and massive dorm room to share with other people.
Raquel and I, as were the others on the trek, were exhausted and soon after arriving collapsed for a nap in the midst of having intentions to shower (considering the amount of sweating, we were not smelling too nice again, but then again, neither was everyone else). After a nap and a walk around to take some photos, we eagerly awaited for dinner around the table talking with each other and sharing stories before a lovely dinner was served.
After dinner and some more chatting, Liz shared that she had a blog (and Raquel, my public relations manager, shared I had one as well) but when she said the name of her blog, “This Kentucky Girl” bells rang in my head. For some reason, the name sounded very familiar… I felt like I had stumbled across it before. Liz felt a bit excited that someone had already “known” her through her blog, but I just thought about how small this world is (once I had an internet connection, I realised I was right, I had been to her blog before). After that excitement of blog sharing we all stumbled to bed and slept until the next morning (with a few interruptions from some loud snorers).
The much needed sleep was not interrupted by an early wake-up call (I think the guides liked to sleep late too) which I had expected. We all seemed to get up when we felt like it and made our down for breakfast, which oddly enough was pancakes, which I didn’t think was very Vietnamese and Hmong tribal food, but I guess that what they think tourists want.
As soon we scoffed down breakfast, coffee and got ready for the 6km of trekking which awaited us. Once again the scenery was simply breathtaking at times filled with more rice terraces, waterfalls, amazing views of the valleys and the people going on about their daily business.
The waterfall which was before a more steep climb offered a great little rest bite and an opportunity to dip our feet into the cool waterfall steam. This reminded us so much of our trip Setti Fatma in Morocco where we ended up eating in stream with our feet being cooled by the cool water. Liz, liked our idea and soon followed suit until it was time to move on.
As we walked toward the river we could see children enjoying the cool water of the river while we crossed the suspension bridge that spanned it. Then our final little ascent towards the little restaurant where we would have lunch and await the minibus to take us back towards Sapa.
When we arrived at the restaurant I think everyone was so exhausted from the little climb (which wasn’t helped by the scorching sun) that we simply sat down in silence for a while until the food was served. Lunch was followed by a group photo, before boarding the bus back towards the hotel.
Back at the hotel, I think everyone was happy to take a shower, change clothes and simply lounge around until our dinner and transfer back to Lao Cai train station. We had another 11 hour train ride back to Hanoi to look forward to and then, the all important Halong Bay tour.
The two days spent in the Sapa valley were fantastic and despite the tiring treks, were spent in good company (we were fortunate to be in a good group of people who were interacted well with each other) and even though the homestay was a bit of a let-down and not like a homestay at all (considering we didn’t even know who the host family were), there were other positives such as the amazing scenery and our great guide, May!
Considering we weren’t even aware of this area of Vietnam, we thoroughly enjoyed it and would highly recommend anyone interested to do it!
This post is based on our day of the 10th, 11th and 12th of September 2012**Practical Details** The tour was organised through Hanoi Hostel with Sapa Summit Tours for $100 per person and included the following: :: Train tickets from Hanoi to Lao Cai, including bus transfer to and from train station to Sapa Summit Hotel; :: Shower facilities and towel before trek ; :: Breakfast at Sapa Summit Hotel before trek; :: All meals during trek including 2 lunches, 1 dinner and 1 breakfast; :: Shower facilities and towel after trek; :: Dinner before transfer to train station