Even before we arrived in Vietnam we were given many recommendations to go to Sapa to enjoy some trekking in a very rural environment. To be surrounded by mountains and rice fields sounded fantastic, especially after enjoying the blue waters of Thailand for so long.
We checked lots of options in Hanoi before finally booking by wandering around various travel agency shops price comparing, something Seda excels at due to her purchasing background. We found a 4 nights & 3 day package which would save us the room and food costs as well for 4 days.
With this sort of thing, and previous journeys we’ve made elsewhere, you pay your money to a travel agent and all you get is a flimsy hand written receipt for your troubles. You’re told the itinerary and pick up time and you just hope someone will actually turn up like they said they would. That said, we’ve actually found it works like clockwork.
We were picked up by a husband and wife, along with their 9 year old son from our hostel, not in the bus the hostel staff told us had arrived, but in their family Nissan – complete with tv screen showing a local version of X-Factor!
We were taken to a bus stop, which was basically a lay-by outside a hotel on a busy road about 3 miles from the hostel. Whilst their child ran around like crazy for 20 minutes we were having a conversation with the lady which was going very well until she dropped her iPhone and the screen shattered! She was pretty upset to say the least, and the conversation died down somewhat from that point.
Seda: Andy asked the boy who was shyly practising his English with him “Have you ever spoken to an Englishman before?”. I don’t think he was expecting the boy to say “yeah, loads!” as he answered.
The sleeper bus to Sapa arrived bang on time. We were on the 10pm to 5am bus so you get to sleep all through the journey and arrive ready for breakfast.
Upon arrival we were taken to the hotel we were meant to stay at, but there seemed to be no booking for us. Just when you think it’s all going so well, your heart sinks. After a couple of phone calls it was sorted out and we were taken to another hotel where thankfully they had heard of us! It was also nicer than the first place, so that was a result too!
Breakfast at the hotel was a buffet arrangement which was not that great. We both had coffee which was served in glasses resembling whiskey tumblers. They only had condensed milk and interestingly enough when you add it to coffee, it’s rather heavy and so sinks to the bottom making the drink look like an upside down Guinness. I wish it tasted the same, but alas it just tasted of coffee, just a tad sweeter than normal.
The tour guide arrived at 8.30 and once she’d gathered up everyone on her list, we were on our way. There had been heavy rain in Sapa for the previous 3 days so it was very muddy under foot. It made for challenging walking conditions, not made easier with the first hour all being up hill. Being the elder statesman of the group I spent the majority of that time trying not to look too much like I was completely dying, and more like it was a walk in the (flat) park. A look I’m proud to say I pulled off with much aplomb. Ahem!
Seda: While Andy’s tongue was sticking out, it was clear that he was trying to look all cool and fine about it. I on the other hand was so far ahead of him that occasionally I had to pretend like I was tying my shoelaces so he could catch up. Team work you know!
As we walked we chatted to the other trekkers in the group and started getting to know them. They were a great bunch from Ireland, Spain, Taiwan and England. That is the beauty of travelling – meeting people from all over the world, and from all walks of life. Something we love about this experience.
One tour guide soon turned into about five. They seemed to appear from all over. All ages too. One lady was around 65 and there was even a young girl with baby strapped to her back!
The mud got worse the higher we went and lots of us were slipping over. We finally started heading down though, which in some ways is even harder work. Well, my knees were telling me it was!
Seda: As Andy was slipping all over the place, the ladies gave him a long bamboo stick in the end to aid his walking. Andy totally getting into Gandalf mode, started telling us wise stories to learn from. Oh and I have a picture to prove that look!
As we descended down an extremely steep path, made worse by the fact it was wet, we passed by a few kids going the other way with absolute ease eating ice creams as they went by. Yeah, thanks for that!
We arrived into a small village for a break and were immediately swamped by women and kids selling wrist bands, wallets, purses, shawls and hats. They were all very colourful, but also very unwanted by everyone in the group.
The walk that first day was amazing though, and everything we wanted out of this trip. Walking through tiered rice fields in a beautifully picturesque valley, across rivers by very wobbly bridges, through traditional Vietnamese villages witnessing the locals harvesting and drying their rice crop, and seeing buffaloes being herded. All such wonderful sights we’ll never forget.
Amongst all this beauty there was a scheduled stop for lunch – stir fried pork, spring rolls, tofu, cabbage and rice. It was all very nice, but getting going again for the last hour was tough. Especially as it was getting hotter all the time.
That last hour of walking took us to the first nights accommodation – a Homestay. It was a traditional looking building owned by a local family, but transformed to house weary trekkers for the night. First order of business, we all wanted to get cleaned up, but there was one problem – there was only one toilet and shower and there were 11 of us. Unfortunately it came down to who was quickest off the mark and not a more medieval method of hierarchy, otherwise I’d have backed myself!
We did get a double bed each though, complete with mosquito net which was a bonus, even though it was like concrete!
Dinner at the homestay that evening was rather nice followed by an evening of chatting and getting to know each other more over a beer.
The beds were very hard, but we were all very tired after a challenging 15k walk that day, so we all slept very well. Like 11 extremely tired logs in fact
For breakfast at the homestay I think we were all prepared for something Vietnamese/Asian but instead we were given pancakes with banana and honey with coffee! A very pleasant surprise indeed.
After our very western inspired breakfast we all felt invigorated and ready for the day ahead. So much so that Shelly braided Seda’s and Leanne’s hair in an awesome style, making them the sole members of an elite club. Sadly I was unable to join the Shelly club as Seda called it, as she found it difficult to repeat the same style on me!
Once the hair styling was completed, we had a short walk through more of the beautiful rice fields and even a bamboo forest, ending up at a rather impressive waterfall.
It was then back to the hotel via bus along what was possibly the bumpiest road in all of North Vietnam. Astonishingly, some even managed to sleep through the maze of potholes – You know who you are!
We said goodbye to the rest of the group back the hotel as we were the only ones who’d booked the longer trip with an extra day. We had an amazing dinner that night of sizzling beef with rice, spring rolls and cabbage salad. Very tasty indeed.
In the morning, the same guide came to pick us up for our morning walk down into the valley to a traditional village. This time the group was small, consisting of us two, a sole Vietnamese man, and a Chinese couple with 2 very young boys. We were told the walk was easy, and only 2 hours. Great we thought, as our legs were still feeling it after walking the best part of 20+ kilometres in 2 days.
We walked through parts of Sapa town, and started heading down, down, down into the valley. We must’ve walked down slopes and steps for at least an hour past shops and stalls selling and hiring traditional costumes, restaurants, coffee shops and souvenirs of all types before finally reaching the valley floor.
After marvelling at the beautiful, if somewhat artificially created village, waterfalls and witnessing some traditional Vietnamese dancing, our guide gathered us up ready for the walk back…….
….not before we’d gatecrashed a couple of photo shoots of Vietnamese youngsters dressed in traditional costume!
Now, bearing in mind we were told that today’s walk was easy, and only 2 hours we thought we may get picked up by bus and taken back to the hotel from the valley floor. Oh no, how wrong we were! The Chinese family were forced to take a taxi at great expense because it was obvious their small children would not be able to make it back. Pretty poor we thought. After walking back uphill for another hour or so, in very hot sun with no shade to be found, we finally made it back to the hotel completely knackered, and extremely hot and sweaty.
Our time in Sapa had come to an end, and we’d had an amazing time. All the people who’d recommended it us were right, it is a fantastic place to visit. I’m just glad we got to see it now, and not in 10 years time as I fear it will be even more spoiled than it is starting to become today.