About 10 hours north of Hanoi and only just off the Chinese border, Sapa is like the Vietnamese Lake District. A growing tourist hot spot made up of beautiful mountainous scenery and numerous treks, Sapa is like the refreshing, invigorating getaway from hazy, polluted Hanoi and provided a much needed detox after all the heavy drinking I endured during Castaways.
I booked a tour to Sapa which included the night train. In hindsight, if I did it again I would get a bus and book a tour once in Sapa as it was quite pricy and the train wasn’t really worth it. It was nice, with our own cabins for 4 beds, yet the train was bumpy and noisy the whole way there. We arrived at about 7 in the morning. Sapa is a town which is high in the mountains and is much cooler than the south, yet felt refreshing and in late September, was still very warm. The town is filled with restaurants and markets, but I did not spend long in the town. Just after 10am we set off on our two day trek in a group of 15 – 14 of which were women. Female power for the win!
Trekking in Sapa is an amazing experience. On our first day the trek mostly stuck to roads of laid out tracks, which we didn’t really enjoy, but the second day was completely different. We walked off the beaten track, really gave our muscles some work, and got to see some incredible scenery.
We also got to swim in a waterfall to cool ourselves off.
We stayed in a home-stay, but it felt more like a lodge. Many commented that it wasn’t an authentic home-stay experience and I can see how this is true. We didn’t socialise much with the family, our area was very separate, and we had hot running water and er, wifi! Yet even though it may have not been authentic, I still had a brilliant time and in many ways preferred the way it was. I quite liked the creature comforts, whilst still staying in a remote, peaceful village with incredible views. We had an amazing dinner made up of several authentic Vietnamese dishes, and err, French Fries, as well as a big pancake breakfast.
Not only was it an experience to see the scenery, of which I had never seen anything of the like, but it was also wonderful to wander through the local villages which are set in the mountains and see a glimpse of village life for the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. Most of the trading is set around tourism, with little shops selling handmade goods. But of course most of their livelihood is set around the rice paddies they surround themselves with, and any livestock. Chickens, geese and ducks would wander the village, and pigs could be seen in cages behind houses. What broke my heart, as a vegetarian, was seeing a pig in a tiny cage, so small it wrapped around his body with his legs sticking out, as he lay on the floor in the boiling heat, waiting to die. Of course, I know this is simply the way it is. Pork is a huge part of the Vietnamese diet. Yet it was interesting to see this – as like everything I come across in Vietnam, I’d never seen anything like it before.
The ethnic minorities who live in these villages are usually members of certain tribes. Many of the women, who are dressed in colourful outfits, with large earrings in their stretched earlobes and normally a baby slung on their back, flee into Sapa town in the morning to catch the tourists. They will then walk with us trekkers through until lunch,, where we stop in their village to eat, then try to sell us their handmade goods. This can really annoy some tourists, but I just saw it as the way they make their money. I bought a beautiful handmade bag, but of course it’s important to barter and stand your ground. I bought mine for 60,000 Vietnamese Dong, when the lady was trying to sell it for 200,000. It’s important not to give in as all Vietnamese traders will up the price for tourists. However, it was nice on the second day to simply walk with just the group.
Sapa was not only fun, invigorating, and insightful, but I met some amazing people doing the same trek as me. Some people accuse Sapa of being overly touristy. Maybe it has become quite heavily commercialised, but I don’t think it has lost any charm, and there is a reason tourists flock here. It is absolutely stunning.