Our trip to Sapa started with an overnight train in soft seats that only reclined a bit, but who cares when adventures are waiting! We arrived Lao Cai very early in the morning, where we had to switch to a bus going to Sapa. It is a very easy switch… First of all, you start being “hunted” by drivers while still on the train. Then, once you get off the train the drivers start chasing you offering a ride, all very persistent. Once out from the train station you immediately face a big parking lot full of mini busses all going to the same direction. As we don’t like to be “hunted” in such a persistent and annoying manner, we waited a bit outside the parking and then found a local official bus which had a price clearly stated, no tourist scams. I have to admit that this Northern Vietnam region had the most intensive chasing of tourist on every step.
The bus ride to Sapa takes about an hour and you can start enjoying nice mountain views already on the way. We wanted to visit Sapa because of the distinguishing landscape and rice fields, even though we knew it is a highly touristic destination. We thought in advance that we’d want to hire a local guide to see the best places and get some local life experience. And again – it couldn’t be easier to get a local guide in Sapa. At the arrival to the center of the city we saw local ladies RUNNING after the bus to the place it stopped. They all wanted to offer the same – guiding services, night stay with Hmong family, etc. Once again, I felt “hunted”, quite literally, because some of the ladies kept running after us even after we refused their services. The morning was rainy and cold. We jumped into a local restaurant to have some warm breakfast after a sleepless night in a train while the “hunters” kept waiting outside right next to the restaurant door… We were only saved by another arriving bus full of tourists.
Once it was “safe” to exit, we went out for a walk to look around the city and find some guided tours agencies we saw recommended on Lonely Planet book and internet. Around 10 am we entered the office of Sapa Sisters, trying our luck on getting a guide the last minute (normally you should book a tour at least few days before). It was a rainy day and not very high tourist season thus we got lucky and in another hour we started our first real hike in Vietnam! So excited!!
Our guide May, a young Hmong girl, insisted that we would leave our backpacks in the office and would only take what we need for the upcoming two days. She also strongly recommended us to change our hiking shoes for simple rubber boots. Especially mine – all new and shiny white/yellow. She warned us that it will be very wet, muddy and slippery. We didn’t listen to her. We LOVE wet, muddy and slippery! And hiking shoes are supposed to be dirty. And our backpacks are not that heavy, not to mention that we just got them back yesterday. No way we are leaving them behind again!! “OK…” she said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you”.
After a short walk through the city, we jumped into the trail. Our guide asked us how difficult we wanted the trail to be. We could choose between easy hike (with wide, easy paths and less km), medium and hard (with tiny, muddy and wet paths that also end up with more km). I guess no need to say which one we chose. The harder the better!!!
“Let’s play a game who falls first”, May suggested and laughed. She was wearing those rubber boots she offered us before and I was thinking how on earth is she going to hike 15 km in mountains with those boots … She didn’t use any hiking poles either, not like us. Our feet were wet in less than 5 minutes on a trail. Pedro feel in the first half an hour of the hike. Later I fell too, and Pedro repeated his butt sliding several times. But May was jumping around like a butterfly all the time and smiling at our clumsy falls.
In general, the area is not super complicated so you can find many recorded trails to download and follow on your own. But hiring a local guide surely has some unbeatable advantages. You get to know about the area and everyday life of people from their own lips as you talk all the time on your way. We also were given an option to chose if we want to eat and stay on a regular tourist places and restaurants which are more civilized or go to local homes to eat and sleep with families for a full immersion experience. You have to pay few extra euros for that, but it is definitely a recommended option for the real adventurers. Last but not least, you support local economy as this area clearly stands out for its poverty the second you step outside of the city. With natural resources (wild animals and trees) being protected as a heritage, local people were forced to change their traditional way of living and orientate themselves to new economic areas, tourism being the easiest to exploit as long as they learn English. And they start learning English very early nowadays.
Children don’t spend much time in the school and are only taught some Vietnamese, basic maths and few classes of English . The rest of the time they help their families. Boys help at home, with animals and work in the fields of rice, little girls take care of younger siblings, sell goods in the streets for tourists and try to learn English. Young teenage girls follow other guides, trying to learn from them, assist the tourists and learn the language, thus preparing themselves for the future work as a guide too.
We also had two of such assistance girls on our hike. Right after we entered the trail, one girl appeared out of nowhere and started following us. The second one joined us few moments later. They didn’t speak much English yet, but were just as professional on slippery trails like May. One of them was wearing the same rubber boots, while another one wore simple rubber slippers!!! Surprise surprise, none of them fell on the way and even assisted us giving a hand on every tricky path. Unbelievable… I felt being a spoilt tourist too many times on this hike.
The hike itself was very nice, with spectacular views even though it was raining most of the time the first day. We were walking in the mountains through endless rice terraces, crossing some bamboo forests and entering villages once in a while. We didn’t see many tourists on the way, mainly because we were walking on the harder paths. Other tourists started appearing whenever the path got easier.
The villages we crossed were very simplistic and primitive, with old wooden houses that barely have any conveniences. We wanted the “full immersion” experience so we asked for lunch with a local family. We visited a house of one of the May’s aunties who was taking care of her son while she was working. We don’t have a single photo from that stop as we were overwhelmed with the experience we had. We were met by a bunch of people and all kinds of animals that were walking both outside and inside the house. After buying some purses from our persistent “assistance girls”, we sat down inside at the tiny table where our lunch was supposed to be served. At that moment I was afraid even to think in what sanitary conditions our food was being prepared or what we would eat. I didn’t want to insult people by not eating their food. Those waiting minutes were full of inner tension. The tension got even higher when an old woman sat down in the corner on the floor of our barely lit room, started smoking something with a HUGE bamboo pipe and talking in local language. I can bet she didn’t say anything good about the tourists. The whole scene felt surreal and even a bit scary. We were the dirty and wet outsiders , intruders who came from their nice home, with their fancy clothes and many unnecessary things to see how people live in less civilized part of the world. To have our cultural experience when in reality we are just destroying their culture. I had very bipolar feelings in Sapa. On one hand I wanted civilization to come in the area so that people would at least have better sanitary and living conditions. Most of them only have some water and toilet outside the house, doing laundry in the rivers, a fridge is a luxury equipment, they are still using inefficient ancient machines for every single task. Yet on the other hand it was painful to see how people are deprived of their traditional work (who are we to judge which way is better?) and are forced to serve the needs of tourists to survive. Even though the change that is happening will bring the civilization in, I felt it was happened too fast and in a manner that is just too brutal.
The tension was interrupted by the meal on the table. Surprisingly enough it didn’t look bad at all. It was very simple and minimalistic yet smelled and tasted amazingly. Some meat, tofu, vegetables and, of course, rice. After we had lunch together with May and her little boy, we set off for the second part of the route that was planned for the day.
The trail again had spectacular views and we enjoyed every single moment of it, including falls, crossing rivers with soaked feet, etc. We didn’t have much time left before darkness so the second part of the day wasn’t long. We mainly had to reach our overnight stay place, about an hour away from the lunch place. Before lunch we were given an option to choose what kind of homestay we want: a completely old and traditional house that doesn’t have any conveniences nor beds, or a bit more elaborated that even has a shower. We chose the first option – full immersion experience ! But after our lunch experience we started having doubts if that was really what we wanted. May probably noticed our doubts and said that if we arrive the place and decide that we want a shower tonight, we can always walk half an hour more to the other house.
We arrived the house of her second auntie around 5 pm. The house was quite empty, with only two young (not even teenage) girls inside. We spent there some time looking around, talking about all the notes of excellence (that are so communist) hanging on the wall. We do love wild experiences and are not picky on the living conditions, but this time we felt we were not ready for this. Not because we can’t live without a shower, but more because we were not ready to sleep on the floor without any equipment of our own that we could use (we didn’t have our mats or sleeping bags) and sleeping purely on the floor with all the live creatures that enter through big holes in the house walls wasn’t really tempting. We had to admit that we were pussies and needed a shower after a fairly cold and wet day.
Half an hour later we entered the house of yet another auntie. The house was still very simple but much bigger and with amazing views to the mountains. First thing we did was, of course, remove the wet and dirty clothes and have a hot shower, which was installed outside of the house together with the western toilet. All fresh and shiny I went back inside and was invited to help preparing spring rolls for the dinner. The kitchen was again super minimalistic, using fire for cooking and having some water to wash the dishes on the floor in the corner of the room. I saw auntie cooking and this time I couldn’t wait to have another local dinner. Home food is so good!!
The dinner table didn’t look very full, but it was more than enough to eat for us and all the family. While eating we were thinking how often do they actually get to eat such food? Most of their diet consists of rice, seasonal fruits and vegetables. Meat doesn’t seem to be an everyday meal as they simply don’t have where to keep it (no fridge) so they have to buy it fresh in local markets. And money is clearly an issue in the area.
We spent the evening discussing local traditions and labour. It was impossible to not notice that all villages were full of children and women but almost no men. They all worked outside, mostly cutting trees in the mountains to build houses. Or driving tourists like us… We clearly saw and felt that gender and family roles are very strong in their society.
All tired after a day we went to our humble room (don’t expect any doors) that just had a super hard bed and a mosquito net over it – all we need for a good night sleep.
Next morning greeted us nicely with few hours of sunshine. Our clothes and shoes got almost dry. The host prepared us some nice banana pancakes which were very popular all around Vietnam, yet so different from the ones we eat in Europe (mainly because of different flour used and the best bananas ever). The rest of the family had rice which made me think again that all this fancy food only comes for fancy tourists…
We tried to pack and hit the road fairly early as we had to catch the train back to Hanoi the same day and the last bus from Sapa leaves quite early in the afternoon. We had a bit more of touristic routes this day and probably better weather influenced bigger crowds too, but in general it was still ok and once off the beaten track we were mainly alone.
Rice fields in the sun exposed their amazing colours, so fresh green that you couldn’t stop staring at them. We crossed some more bamboo forests, rivers and mountains, stopping once in a while to rest and enjoy the views.
One of the things that amazed me in Vietnam was the amount of domestic animals walking free in the most unexpected places. The region of Sapa was also full of calm and friendly buffalos. All life around here seemed to be very free, living on its own pace. Children included.
It was surprising to see so many small children running around unsupervised by an adult. There were many young girls carrying babies, and most likely if that was a teenage girl – the baby was not her sibling. Premature marriages are still very common in Hmong society. Children seem to grow there in very wild conditions and very independent from a super young age.
At the last part of our hike we were crossing a valley with quite a few houses and lots of rice fields. Far ahead we saw some construction ongoing. May explained that they are building a dam to produce electricity for the area. I couldn’t stop thinking of how much this will affect the landscape we were seeing. Looking at the height of the dam wall it was clear that most of the valley with all the houses will end up under water. This is the cost of civilization coming in…
We had lunch at yet another auntie of our guide and headed back to Sapa with a car, all dirty and full of impressions. Back in Sapa Sisters office we took of our horrible shoes. All tourists who came back from their hikes were asked to leave their shoes outside of the office. No wonder. At the office we had a chance to shower and change our clothes, not to scare people on the bus or train. All refreshed we left the office with a safe half an hour time before the last bus leaving to Lao Cai. The bus was already there so we threw our backpacks in a storage place and hopped on the bus to wait for the departure.
The bus left on time and we started concentrating on the next step that is waiting for us – Cat Ba island. If we were lucky, we would reach it tomorrow before lunch. When the bus was crossing all Sapa I couldn’t stop thinking how much it is being reconstructed and how many new giant hotels for tourists were being built. And then…. OMG!!!! We left our shoes behind !!! Driver, stop the bus!!! We jumped off the bus without much of the explanation, took our backpacks and started walking back. We were far enough and the shoes were outside in the street, all alone… god knows if they were still there at all… Thinking about the worst (lost shoes, lost train with soft sleepers again!!) we walked for a while until I insisted on grabbing a taxi to make it faster. It wouldn’t cost more than 1 or 2 euros anyway. We grabbed the first taxi passing by and in next 10 minutes we are back at Sapa Sisters. THANK GOD. The shoes were still there. All other shoes were long gone, but ours kept waiting for us faithfully.
Happy that we got the shoes back we mobilised ourselves to get back on time for the train too. We had to take a private minibus going to Lao Cai (one of those we were so avoiding just a day before). The driver made sure the mini bus is literally fully packed before leaving, so we spent an hour on the way with luggage hanging above the head and all the pathway packed with backpacks.
We arrived Lao Cai with darkness but we still had few hours before the late night train. We went for a walk hoping to find any nice place to eat, yet ended up having dinner in the restaurant right next to the train station – Terminus. While we were having our beers and spring rolls, it started raining like hell. It was raining before too, but now it just started pouring out like in a shower on the maximum flow. The restaurant was packed with tourists like us, all killing time before their departure. That was when we faced the most ridiculous way of spoiling tourists – offering them a ride from the restaurant to the train station which was literally not more than 100 meters away!!! For our surprise, most of the tourists decided to use that service… of course, not us. No matter how wet we would get but we would walk those 100 meters with dignity.
Finally on the train, just a bit wet (the sky had mercy) we got into our cosy private two bed cabin and started planning the next part of our adventure. There was still a long way to go until we would reach Cat Ba island. But that is already a new part of our story…