After an uncomfortable nights sleep on a bus from Hanoi, I arrived in Sapa early in the morning ready for the first of three days trekking in the mountains of North Vietnam. The bus was an adventure in itself. Three columns of bunk beds lining its length on a first come first served basis to the passengers as they arrive – the way that pickups work from the hostels meant that I was one of the last to get in the bus, and so my bed was right by the toilet… I got an unpleasant smell and a push in my side every time anyone tried to negotiate their way up the aisle. I actually slept surprisingly well considering the beds were made for Vietnamese people probably a foot shorter than me.
We arrived in Sapa around 4am, but as nothing opens until a little later on, we were left to sleep on the bus until 6am, when the guest houses were ready for our arrival. I was greeted off the bus by a hoard of hill tribe women touting for business from anyone who had not prebooked a guided trek to a home stay in a village. From what I later found out I regretted prebooking, as this way the hill tribes get a fraction of the wage they should do from the travel agents.
Our first days trek wasn’t due to start until 9am, so I waited at the guest house until then. As 9am drew nearer, I could see outside that the rain was getting heavier and heavier, peaking just in time for us to set off. Ponchos ready, we left to start our first day, 10km trek, and became instantly soaked.
The heavy rain of the previous days meant the tracks down the rice paddy fields that we had to descend towards the bottom of the valley had turned to mud. I was one of the few who managed to stay on my feet all the way down and it was definitely a funny sight to see the majority of the group get covered in mud as they’d slipped and slid all of the way down. Fortunately, the rest of the trek was on easier terrain, as we’d missed out on a lot of the views of the valley because we had to concentrate so hard on where we were walking.
When we reached the hill tribe village, the friendly tone of the woman who had be helping us down the muddy hills and guiding us through the mountain pathways, suddenly turned into sales pitches as they gathered round us all to sell their handmade bags, purses, shirts, hats and bracelets. Their relentless attitude towards selling sort of detracted from the experience, but this is when I learned that this is the only money they make, and that the 10km trek they make everyday to help the tourists is not paid by the travel companies.
We stayed in the village over night, high up in the mountains, and finally got some time to relax and take in the views of the paddy fields that stretched in every direction across the valley. Unfortunately the locals didn’t mix with us as much as I’d hoped, so I don’t have any interesting stories to tell. Instead we entertained ourselves playing cards and sharing stories of previous times in our travels.
The next day we only had a short trek before a bus picked us up and took us back to Sapa for early afternoon. Sapa in not a large town, and most of the day was spent seeing what the locals got up to – paddling in the lake, football by their old stadium, volleyball in the central square etc. Later on in the afternoon, after the heat of the sun had subsided a little, I climbed Hamrong mountain – a small hill in Sapa town, but with incredible views over Sapa and its surrounding area, and across to Fansipan, the largest mountain in Vietnam (3143m), which disappeared above the clouds.
The final day was another short trek, down to the nearby village of Cat Cat and to its waterfalls. This was a pleasant wat to finish off my time in Sapa, and so I awaited the bus journey back to Hanoi (this time not overnight!).
Sapa was a little more touristy than I would have liked, but I should have guessed that from how it was advertised in every other shop in Hanoi. Although the hill tribe trek seemed to lack a little authenticity, I’m definitely still glad that I went and had the experience.
View over (half of) Sapa from Hamrong mountain.
Nearing the bottom of the valley on the first days trek.
Looking up at the rice fields that we’d just descended.
The lake in Sapa town.
The sunset observed from the hill tribe home stay.
A community football match at the old stadium.
Volleyball and other games in the central square.
The lake by night.
The waterfall near Cat Cat.
Me. Soaking wet at the top of the valley.