My friend, whose guidance I heeded like a bible, regarded Sapa as the highlight of her trip. She gave lots of advice, to which I replied
“But I still don’t get what Sapa is?”
All this talk about homestays and treks and guides, I wasn’t sure what I was signing up for by scheduling Sapa in the itinerary, but I trusted her word.
We decided to ignore her advice of just finding a tour guide there, as we were still a bit confused, and booked a fairly pricey one through the hotel. It was three nights and two days, with one night at a homestay and two on a sleeper bus. Both days involved trekking and a few activities involving local customs.
The sleeper bus left at around 9pm. One thing to bear in mind is that queuing is not really a Vietnamese thing, and if you attempt to queue you’re guaranteed to get the worst seats. We weren’t even the last ones on and still got horrible seats – right at the back in the toilet’s line of smell. And every time the toilet door opened, I woke up.
The bus pulls in at 4am, but you can sleep until 6, 6:30. Any later and you’ll meet a very angry tour guide who has been waiting for you out in the cold. And believe me, it’s very cold. Sapa, in the morning chill, feels more like a Alpine ski town rather than a South East Asian valley. On the way to breakfast, Alessio was honestly hoping for a croissant, orange juice and hot chocolate. Presumably followed by a plate of pasta al pesto or freshly hunted deer for lunch, no doubt.
The breakfast we had was good, and included. Coffee and Asian breakfast favourites like rice, eggs, fruit and porridge but also toasted baguettes and pancakes. Stock up on calories for the trek! That’s what I told myself anyway, but it was more about the words “free”, “breakfast” and “buffet” being in the same sentence.
The trek begins at 9AM, where you meet your guide and trekking group – around 10 others. She’ll be from the local Hmong tribe most likely. Ours was a young and lively girl whose name was said as “Shaw”. She explains the day, and takes you walking down the valley, teaching you various things like how they use Indigo as a clothing dye.
I can’t understate how lovely and amazing she was. She was very curious about my hair braids, so I told her all about them. Quite magnificently, she had only been learning English for half a year. She learned from following her sister on treks but spoke extremely well – no matter how much she denies it!
The landscapes are phenomenal. We went in February when the rice wasn’t growing. It’s supposed to be even more beautiful in the summer when there’s rice, but we were impressed even then.
It also heats up by about 11AM. Alessio refused to heed my advice to wear his jeans several times. In the morning he deeply regretted his choice in temperatures almost rivalling the London winter, but by early afternoon it had warmed up enough for him to begin bragging about his “good decision” to pack only shorts for the trek.
You are often joined by women from the local villages. They are very eager to help with holding your hand. It’s very kind, but actually sometimes easier to balance by outstretching your hand or letting yourself slide a bit. Holding someone’s hand makes it a bit trickier. The other thing is this. If they hold your hand, you’re then sort of expected to buy things from them when you stop to eat. They’re very persistent and remind you how kind to you they were. Some women who didn’t speak to you will also ask you to buy, but by the time the food comes they tend to leave.
The food is in a restaurant in the Hmong village and you get rice with options of chicken, pork and tofu.
The next part of the day is a little easier. You walk from the Hmong tribe village to the homestay in the Dzay village. It’s a really simple trek of just over an hour.
Once there, you have the evening to chat with your fellow trekkers… or even befriend a very technologically advanced toddler.
Seriously – this kid would not let go of the iPhone because she wanted to watch youtube videos, and ate all of Alessio’s M&Ms! She’s a sassy one!
If you want, you can take the time to help prepare part of the meal but I chose to sit outside, chill and chat. By late afternoon, it does begin to get chilly again.
The meal is served at a long communal table. You all muck in to set the table and prepare the chairs. Several tours may be staying at once – we had twenty two people staying at our small homestay! The food is pretty similar to what was served for lunch, only you also get to experience “happy water”. I’ll let you try that one yourselves.
The evening was a great place to meet new people from around the world and chat over a communal meal. Mostly the chat revolved around cuisines of our countries, and since I was sat near a French, Spanish and an Italian I got very miffed with the “fish and chips” comments! I mean have these people never tried shepherd’s pie?!
You can, for an extra fee, pay for a private room but the bathroom is shared and never free so we weren’t too bothered. The beds in the shared room had those princess curtains around them so I didn’t mind! It’s less like a dorm, and more like an open mezzanine with lots of double mattresses. The beds are so soft with warm blankets and lots of plug sockets.
Breakfast was served around 8AM – a lot of fruit and piles and piles of crepes. I would have happily eaten about forty but I had to pretend to be a little civilised.
Shaw joined us for 9, and we began our trek to a third village where we’d eat lunch and end the trek.
This trek was almost instantly a lot tougher, but I enjoyed it so much more. There’s a lot more uphill trekking, and she took us through a stretch of bamboo forest. The stretch you have to walk on is so thin it would challenge a tightrope walker, but the bamboo is a slight protection against falling to your death.
What’s a bit disconcerting is that this seventy five year old woman from the local tribe is more agile and capable of completing the trek than I was!
We were rewarded by beautiful views, and the chance to rest by the waterfall.
A little further on, we crossed a bridge over the river and ate at a different homestay. Here you get to choose from a small menu of fried rice, fried noodles or noodle soup with pork, chicken or vegetables but if you ask they also provide steamed rice.
Here, we rested and got the chance to meet our amazing tour guide’s baby son Chang!
The tour ends here if you do just two days and three nights. For those staying longer, you spend the night in the homestay and trek the following day too.
We did the toughest part of the trek, which was a steep uphill walk to the place where the bus would meet us. We got separated from the four others on the trek coming back to Sapa town at that time because a Vietnamese group wanted to stay together. We stayed on our bus, and they got onto another. We arrived without issue, but they had problems and were even told to get out and take a taxi!
We got dropped back at the hotel, and just as I was booking the train from Hanoi to Hué, we were ushered outside to a motorbike taxi to catch our coach back to Hanoi.
The small issue is that we initially booked for the 9pm bus back to Hanoi as not to pay for a night. We were then told we were on a 3:30pm bus – which I figured worked out well, as we could leave Hanoi the following day and get more time in central Vietnam. We got to the hotel where the bus left, and he told us we were on the 9pm bus and couldn’t change as it was a weekend. It meant we had five long hours to kill.
A young Vietnamese guy who was working on the tour buses from Hanoi offered to take us for coffee. Knowing our scams and the fact I am just very skeptical in the first place, I was reluctant and unfriendly at first. This was bolstered by the fact he was really really eager to smoke weed with us.
“Don’t give him too much information” I warned Alessio.
Actually, I was wrong. He was just a really cool, friendly young guy who wanted to chat with people his age. He told us about his life and his dreams to go and make money with his rich uncle in America. He loved hip hop music and Australian girls and we recommended he watch the film “Mac and Devin Go to High School” since it featured his favourites. Chilling with Tu really taught me not to always be so skeptical. Some people are just nice!
The night bus came, and he was on it, organising the travel and giving out water. We were also joined by two amazing Chilean Italian-loving friends we met on the trek who were the happiest, funniest pair I have ever met!
I had been reading about the awfulness of Vietnamese buses. One forum post said “I mean you’re likely to come back in one piece but don’t ever risk it”. That was playing on my mind as I drifted off to sleep – and in my half asleep state I kept thinking that every turn the bus made we’d skid off a sharp cliff and die. I remember thinking “this is how I will die, but at least I’m amongst nice people”. Then I would open my eyes and see that we’re on a straight city road!
The bus arrives back in Hanoi for about 2am. Be prepared for this. We hadn’t booked a room, but our hotel knew we were coming as we had booked through them so we could stay in the hotel. One Australian girl clearly had not forseen this eventuality and began ranting that she was told it would arrive in the morning and now it’s arrived too early and she has nowhere to stay.
With a pure “sorry ’bout it” attitude and immaculate comic timing, our Vietnamese friend Tu replied, slow enough for her to realise the obvious:
“Well… it’s six hours there, so it’s six hours back…”
“Yes, I know! But but… on the way there we got to sleep on the bus until the morning!”
Slowly, the bus started to drive off.
“Maybe I can help you find somewhere to stay?” Tu replied, but she was already too huffy to accept the help and stormed off.
That wasn’t the last of our adventures for the night. We were let in to sleep in chairs in the lobby by a very exhausted hotel receptionist. He was clearly very tired, so we were as quiet as possible and tried to just snuggle down in our chairs. About an hour later, a European guy flung open the door with a loud “good morning!” and began waving his torch around. “I want my room!”
He too had just arrived from a Sapa tour and hadn’t paid for them to keep his room either. For some reason, he expected them to just have a room waiting free of charge because he demanded it. He began shining a torch in the face of the other sleeping receptionist, trying to climb over him to get his bag and talking at the top of his voice. We began shaking our heads at this complete disregard of manners and disrespect to the receptionists, and I even mouthed “sorry” to one of them, who smiled and said it was fine. It really wasn’t. The rude guy demanded they prepare the first available room for him – even though we were waiting longer. The tired receptionist agreed, but once the rude guy went outside he vented his frustrations to us and we comforted him and pleaded with him to get some sleep!
The rude guy returned, grabbing his bags saying he was going to find a hotel with a room “because he needed a good night’s sleep.” – as if we and the receptionists didn’t. Guess who got the huge first available room at a discount, only a few hours later? Alessio and Letitia. Manners really do go a long way.
Those two stroppy individuals were nothing in comparison to the great people we met on the trek. Everyone was so kind, funny and brilliant company, and I really do hope to meet them again! At the very least, we met two amazing Israeli girls for dinner in Hoi An!
My friend was right – trekking in Sapa is truly a highlight. Everything was included for the two days except drinks, and a big bottle of water came cheap. You meet so many great people, and the trekking is a lot of fun. Although they say you trek for ten kilometres on the first day and six on the second, it was more like eight and four. Considering we walked for around ten kilometres on an average day, the most challenging part of the trek for us was the mountainous terrain. The first day is mostly downhill, too.
It was truly unforgettable and the tour guide one of the best people I’ve ever met!