We arrived in Sapa the day before our scheduled two-day trek in the rice fields and local villages. The trek description suggested we would be hiking for a total of 20 miles over two days on moderate to challenging terrain, so we wanted a day to rest up. After our whirlwind tours of Phong Nha and Ninh Bình, and another night bus, we were tired.
Our bus dropped us off in Sapa early in the morning. As usual, our room was not ready, but we had a nice breakfast at the homestay’s restaurant, before venturing out to explore the very picturesque town.
There is a small artificial lake in the middle which was allegedly created to make the town more beautiful for tourists. The Sun Plaza Sapa Station is a newly-opened stunning building in the French colonial style where you can catch a train to the cable car station to go to Fan Si Pan, Vietnam’s tallest mountain (10,309 feet above sea level). Since we had limited time and it was a cloudy day, we opted not to visit Fansipan. The cable car costs $30 per person which was a sizeable portion of our budget, and there was plenty to entertain us in Sapa Town for one day.
We spent the morning visiting the Ham Rong (Dragon’s Jaw) Mountain which is described as a sort-of botanic garden. It was the most unusual botanic garden we have seen, but it was a fun place to explore. There were lots of paths winding all over the mountain leading to various sights. There were beautiful flower gardens, funny animal sculptures, caves and rock outcroppings, and stunning panoramic views over Sapa Town from Cloud Yard, a viewing platform.
We passed a few tea gardens, and Eric wanted to stop at one for some tea. An American man sitting in one overheard Eric say he wanted to get some tea and recommended he try the tea before he bought it. For some reason, the tea was left to steep in the teapot way too long, so it was extremely bitter. It was not good tea. Eric asked through Google Translate if it was supposed to steep that long and the guy serving it said yes. The Vietnamese definitely like their coffee strong, so maybe they like their tea this way too, but it was not for us.
The mountain is said to get its name from its dragon-like shape. Legend says there were once two dragons when the earth and heaven were connected. A big storm came which split the heaven from the earth and the big dragon flew away, but the little dragon got stuck behind and was petrified into the mountain.
Sapa Town is at an elevation of 4,920 feet which is enough to make the climate significantly cooler than anywhere else we have been in Vietnam. It was a pleasant change to be away from the hot, humid temperatures while we were walking around, and to need a sweater in the evenings. It is misty roughly half the year, and our time there was no exception. That evening we sat outside on a balcony for dinner with what would have been a view of mountains and rice terraces, but they were completely engulfed in grey mist.
Sapa, in the north of Vietnam near the Chinese border, is known for its rice terraces which are built into the hillsides everywhere. The terraces minimize erosion where soil cover is thin and allow for natural irrigation. They also make it easier to work on mountainous land. Approximately 36,000 people live in the Sapa area and roughly 85% of them come from five ethnic minority groups: Black H’mong, Dao, Tay, Giay, and Xa Pho. Each of the ethnic groups have their own villages, and many people have their own rice fields which they work to produce food for themselves. The beautiful landscapes created by the rice terraces are a big draw for tourists who like to trek through miles of quiet hills between the villages. Despite the increase in tourism to this area (80% of the tourists are from other parts of Vietnam), the ethnic minorities remain poor.
We booked our trek with Trekking Tour Sapa, which employs guides from the ethnic minority Black H’mong, the largest minority group in Sapa. The trek included one night in a H’mong homestay in Ta Van Village where we would get to meet a H’mong family.
Sinh showed up promptly at 9am the next day to take our big backpacks to his office, and introduce us to Sam, our H’mong guide for the next two days. We started our trek from the hostel, walking downhill on the road past Cat Cat village. About 30 minutes later we were on narrow muddy paths walking down into the valley. This part of the trek was quite hard as it was a bit slippery and we had to take some big steps down. Under the shade of a tree we came across a man who collected the entrance fee for the villages. Sam paid and we continued.
It was here that we noticed there was another woman behind us. We thought she was just another person trekking to the villages, but she walked with us and kept offering a hand to help us down the tricky spots. Sam had mentioned something about village women walking with us trying to sell us stuff and that if we did not want to buy anything, we could just tell them that. However, this woman did not appear to be selling anything, so we did not realize she was one of these women Sam was talking about. She walked with us the entire way until lunch, and in retrospect, we should have realized she was from one of the villages because she did the entire trek in sandals we would wear in the shower!
We passed by groves of tall bamboo and had picturesque views of the rice terraces the whole way into the valley. August and September are harvest season, and it is the best time to visit because you can see the different colored terraces. Green fields are still growing; yellow fields are ready to be harvested; and brown fields have been cut already. There is only one rice harvest per year in Sapa because the winters are too cold for rice. We saw a lot of terraces that had already been harvested and a few yellow ones. These fields are all harvested by hand, and we saw a few places where people were working.
We passed a terrace that had water buffalo sitting in it. The water buffalo like to wallow in the mud. Apparently the water buffalo are sent into the mountains when the rice is growing, but they are brought back down after the rice is harvested.
Since many of the terraces have been harvested, there were lots of water buffalo around. They like to lounge in their infinity mud pools which is a funny sight.
Sam pointed out some bamboo stalks that had big and small holes in them. She told us the little holes were made by an animal and the big holes were made by people who like to eat the animal. We asked what kind of animal, but she didn’t know the name in English. We asked if it was like an insect or a mouse, and she said, “yes”. This made us even more curious about what this animal was. We kept seeing the bamboo stalks along the path and decided we would ask her the name in Vietnamese later when we could use the translator. We were eventually able to get another guide to tell us it was a caterpillar!
On the other side of the river Sam showed us the plant indigo which is used in the villages to dye fabric. She told us we could dye our hands blue if we wanted by rubbing the leaves in our hands with a bit of water. We tried it and stained our hands blue for the next three days! When they dye fabric, they usually leave it in the dye for 24 to 48 hours so it turns into an intense dark blue.
About forty five minutes later we crossed the river again, this time above a dam that supplies power to the nearby village. At the bottom of the valley we crossed the river again and stopped for lunch in Y Linh Ho village. It was here that we learned the woman who had been walking with us for three and a half hours did in fact want to sell us something. Her backpack was full of handicrafts she had made, including small bags, coin purses, and wall hangings. We did not need anything, but Eric was intrigued by an over-the-shoulder bag he had seen for carrying a water bottle. He also thought it might be nice to have something to put his phone and glasses in on the bus rides. He bought a small bag that he thought might serve both purposes. For the rest of lunch people kept coming up to us trying to sell us more things. We kept saying, “no, thank you,” over and over again, but they would not stop until a new group of tourists came into the restaurant.
After lunch we continued our trek uphill until we arrived at Sam’s house. She needed to get her bags for the night and asked if we would like to see her home. She explained that she is the youngest of seven – four girls and three boys. She studied Tourism in Hanoi and now works as a guide for a few companies in Sapa. Her house was made of wood with a thatched roof and had four rooms: a small kitchen, a large living space, one small bedroom and a second kitchen which they use for parties and weddings. Above the bedroom there were at least ten big bags filled with rice which Sam said was from a single year’s harvest of their terraces. Six people live in the house. Her mother lives up the mountain which Sams says is two hours away but it only takes her mother one hour as she does it every day.
A short while later, we arrived at our homestay, the Indigo Snail, in Ta Van around 3pm. It was a beautiful place with a pretty view off the balcony over the rice fields. We had done a similar kind of trek in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a few years ago and had slept on the floor in a wooden hut next to all our trek companions, so we were expecting something similar. This Homestay was so far from that experience it was hard to believe. We had our own tiny private room with a comfortable bed and mosquito net. We took a nap and read for a bit and then went out again to explore further.
We walked up the hill along the road and encountered some young girls selling bracelets. One girl who was not selling anything spoke very good English and gave us a flower she had picked asking for nothing in return. A little bit later we passed a guy who was trying to signal something to us that we think was, “come in my house for a drink”, but we did not have much time before we had to be back for dinner. We turned around when we got to the water buffalo with its baby on the side of the road and returned to Indigo Snail.
Dinner was really fun! Lots of delicious food was served family style with the H’mong family that runs the homestay, all the guides, and the tourists eating together. We met a nice couple, Steph and Alexis, from Spain who were heading back to Sapa Town the next day and would be on our bus to Hanoi the day after that. We also met an Irish guy, Ian, who ended up trekking with us for most of the next day. The homestay hosts shared a lot of rice wine with us and taught us how to say “cheers”. Eric was excited that he already knew the cheer, “Mot, hai, ba, yo!”, but the host said “Ee, ah, beh, how!” instead. We realized this was “cheers” in the H’mong language, not in Vietnamese.
The next morning we had banana pancakes for breakfast and then started trekking. We were aiming for Giang Ta Chai where we would have lunch and then catch a bus back to Sapa Town. It was a cloudy day spitting with rain. We decided it was not enough rain to warrant ponchos, and in any case, the rain felt refreshing. Even though Sapa is much cooler than anywhere else we have been in Vietnam, we were still sweating from walking uphill.
We trekked through beautiful bamboo forests, down narrow alleys in the villages where indigo cloth was hanging to dry, and up lumpy, muddy paths. Sometimes we walked alongside canals that brought water to the terraces. Sometimes we had to climb over barbed wire fences dividing the villagers’ property. For a while we were behind a big trekking group which made the trek a bit like being in Disneyland, but they stopped for a break, and we were able to get around them. From then on if we rested, we could only rest until they caught up so they would not get ahead of us again.
We stopped briefly at the Giang Ta Chai waterfall, but a lot of villagers trying to sell handicrafts came by. Since we were not going to buy anything else, we kept walking.
We crossed another bridge over the river and stopped at a restaurant there for lunch. Just as we got under cover, the rain started in earnest. We finished lunch and then waited for the rain to calm down. Afterwards Sam called a taxi to take us back to Sapa Town.
The road up to Sapa Town was very rough and bumpy in the rain, and we were feeling a bit carsick when we finally made it back to the lake. Our bags were in Sinh’s office, so we walked up the hill to get them and passed our hostel for the night on the way up. We had chosen a different hostel for this last night because it was closer to the bus station for the bus we were taking to Hanoi the next morning at 8am. It could not have been more convenient at the end of our trek.
In our original plan for Vietnam, trekking in Sapa was going to be the last thing we did before crossing the nearby border to China. Now that we have abandoned China, though, we have a flight from Hanoi to Busan, South Korea in a few days, so were heading back to Hanoi for our final stop.