After Halong Bay our third stop was Sapa, a town in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwestern Vietnam.
As the most northern destination on our trip and an overnight bus journey from Hanoi, we decided to visit Sapa before making our way down south for the remainder of our time in Vietnam.
I have mentioned before that Shauns ‘must see’ destination in Vietnam was Halong Bay, well Sapa was mine!
Prior to our trip I had researched into walking tours in Sapa where you can take a guided trek through the valleys and rice fields with local people from the hill tribes. The area overlooks a plunging valley, with mountains towering above on all sides and I felt as though I had already fallen in love with the charm of Sapa through the laptop screen so I knew that Shaun and I had to go and experience it for ourselves.
Additionally, Shaun and I are pretty active people and we really enjoy being outdoors and going on long walks. As we are both from Wales we have grown-up learning to embrace two hour long coastal walks in the pouring rain, but if this sounds like your idea of hell, then perhaps a 2 day trek in Sapa is not the holiday activity for you.
In terms of sampling what Sapa has to offer, our experience of the town centre itself was very limited, we only briefly saw the town at the start and end of our trek. However, that suited us just fine, as in my opinion, what makes Sapa so special and captivating cannot be found in the town, but instead in the valleys and rice fields which surround it, and we embraced this part of the area fully.
As I briefly mentioned, we travelled to Sapa on an overnight bus from Hanoi. Overnight busses were something which I had been very apprehensive about our entire trip. I knew on our travellers budget that they were necessary, but that doesn’t mean I had to like it!
There are obviously some benefits to taking overnight buses and there is a reason they are so popular amongst travellers. Firstly, they are a very cheap and inexpensive way of travelling around the country. Secondly, if you get an overnight bus then it doubles up as accommodation for the night too, which saves even more money. However, I would really advise doing your research into bus providers and don’t just select one because it’s cheap, as with most things you get what you pay for. I could honestly write a whole post about our awful experience with Queens bus (perhaps one day I will). We did have a much more positive experience using Singh tours and so would recommend these.
We had booked our tour through our hotel and so unfortunately don’t know the exact name of the trek that we went on.
Our trip started with an 6 hour overnight bus from Hanoi to Sapa, I did not sleep a wink the entire bus ride as Shaun and I were sleeping over the engine which meant that our whole bodies were vibrating the entire journey. As a result I was feeling pretty exhausted when we arrived in Sapa at 5.50 in the morning.
We were collected from the bus and taken to a hotel in the town where we were able to take a shower and had some breakfast, we were then met by our tour guide Finn, she was a lovely local lady.
Sapa is home to five ethnic minorities of Vietnam: H’mong (internationally known as Miao), Red Dao (Yao), Tay or Choang (Zhuang), Giay, and Phu La (Yi). Finn our guide was from the Hmong tribe.
As we drove to the starting point of our trek, we stopped to pick up two other people (who we now know as Jayce and Mackenzie) but at this point we were just grateful that the couple we were about to spend the next two days with seemed friendly, little did we know we would get along so well and still be in touch a year and a half later.
At the start of the trek we were handed wellies and told by our guide that the walk was far too muddy for trainers, or walking boots (Shaun was fuming because he’d flown a pair of boots half way across the world for this very day). However Finn was right, the path was extremely muddy and it rained for a considerable amount of the walk which made getting up and down the hills a little tricky, but added to the fun for us as we all tried to stay on our feet.
We started the walk at a rice field and ended up walking deeper into the valley as the walk went on. At the start we were joined by some other women from the Hmong tribe who were there to help us throughout the walk. They were a little too keen to help at times, every time we would approach a particularly steep or muddy section of the walk they would snatch your hand so they could assist you (little did I know but this was because they wanted you to buy something from them at the end of the day (bracelets, bags etc.) and after they had spent 8 hours dragging you up and down a mountain it’s pretty hard to say no!)
Finn did an amazing job of telling us all about the local tribes, animals and landscape. At one stage she instructed Shaun and I to crush a leaf in our hand and rub it between our palms which turned our hands green, at first I thought this was just the sap but later it turned blue and stained our hands. Finn explained that the Hmong women use the leaves of the indigo plant that are indigenous to Vietnam to make the traditional dye for clothing. She also took us to a building where we got to watch local Hmong women dying and making garments, we even had a go ourselves!
After we had finished walking for the day we were taken to our homestay, it was a large wooden hut and once we were inside there were lots of little bedrooms separated by thick cardboard boards. Shaun and I selected our room and later discovered after hearing the sound on animals that we had chosen the room with which the exterior wall joined the shed where the animals were kept. The rooms were basic, small and damp and I think I speak for us both when I say this was the most uncomfortable we had been in any accommodation during our trip. However, this didn’t dampen our time in Sapa (pun intended) we spent what was left of the day wandering around the little area by our homestay, which was full of local children and animals, the lady who as our host was also extremely welcoming, she cooked us family dinner and we all sat around to eat together, but our she didn’t speak much English and we only knew about 5 phrases in Vietnamese, so the meal was mainly spent with us thanking her for the meal and exchanging glances across the table. Before we went to Asia I had made the decision to mainly be vegetarian during the trip, I was not a huge meat eater before we went so this wasn’t a big sacrifice for me. Shaun on the other hand did not hold back and unfortunately for him some of the chicken and pork given to us by our host must not have been as fresh as it could have and Shaun woke up the next day with a bout of food poisoning.
After taking some charcoal tablets in the morning, kindly donated by Mackenzie we were ready to set off on day two of our trek which took us through a bamboo forest which was quite challenging and I was grateful for the long bamboo to hold onto and stabilise myself while we were sliding down the muddy banks, we were followed the entire walk by a group of young girls, when we asked Finn why the girls were following us she told us that they were a group of young girls from her village, she instructed them that we had already bought stuff from women in their village and they were to leave us alone, I found it quite unsettling that the group of young girls had set out that morning to find some tourists to follow on a 6 hour trek with the hopes of selling us something at the end, the trek ended near an amazing waterfall where we said our goodbyes to Finn before being collected by our bus.
Sapa still remains one of my favourite places that we visited on our trip, I think a big part of this is because Shaun and I love being outdoors and going for walks and our whole time in Sapa was centred around our our trek. Our time here was not relaxing or indulgent, it was wet, muddy and at times uncomfortable but I think this added to the charm, we were really willing to get stuck in and fully commit to the experience so we just embraced this, but as I said earlier I’m aware that for a lot of people this is not something they want subject themselves to on a trip!