Sapa, Vietnam

On the evening of November 30, we took an overnight train North from Hanoi to Lao Cai. It was our first overnight train experience and it ended up being extremely comfortable! We had a “VIP” room on the Sapaly Express, fully stocked with beer, water, snacks, and toothbrushes.

When we arrived in Loa Cai on the morning of December 1, we took a shared van for about an hour up into the hillsides of Sapa. Sapa is considered “The French Alps” of Vietnam. It is a popular trekking base overlooking the terraced rice fields of the Muong Hoa Valley.

From December 1 to December 3 we trekked with an organization called Sapa Sisters. The organization was started nine years ago by a group of four young women wanting to provide a local trekking experience for tourists. With the help of a Swedish teacher living in Hanoi, they launched a website and began offering tours. Today, 48 women, most of whom are mothers, work for Sapa Sisters providing genuine treks through the mountains to visit many of the local villages.

Day 1: December 1, 15km

After arriving at the Sapa Sisters office at about 7:30am, we ate a quick breakfast and stowed away our large backpacks, packing only what we needed for three days in our daypacks. At 9:00am we were introduced to our guide, Pang, who provided us with a map of where we would be going.

At 9:30 we started our trek from downtown Sapa. While Sapa itself has become very commercialized in the past few years with large hotels and even a gondola to the highest nearby peak, a short five minute walk led us to a trail downhill through rice patties and out of the view of the city.

Our group of three (us + Pang) was accompanied by two other women heading in the same direction. Their names were Moo and Shishoo. While we were both hiking in our Asics, Moo and Shishoo (who also had her 8 month old strapped on her back) sped ahead of us in their sandals and helped as we carefully navigated the slippery terrain. Shishoo was so sweet and made Mel a heart out of a fern and Cody a horse out of straw. Throughout every minute of the morning’s trek, the scenery was breathtaking with hills and rice fields in every direction.

By noon we reached the village of Y Linh Ho. Moo and Shishoo told us they would be leaving and showed us some beautiful patchwork that they made. We bought three pillow cases from them and said goodbye. After that, Pang explained to us that she has over 150 cousins in the area and that for lunch we would be eating in the home of one of her cousins. Pang’s cousin was so friendly and cooked us a delicious lunch inclusive of rice, pork, potatoes, cabbage, and spicy sauce.

After lunch, we trekked for about three more hours. Since it had rained a few days ago, the trail was muddy and slippery so we had to focus and make sure not to fall! Along the path we passed many women with big red dots on their foreheads. Pang explained that this is simply “cupping” and it is used to treat their headaches and the marks usually last for about a week. Throughout the three hours of trekking, there were no moments of silence with Pang as she continually answered all of our questions about the Vietnamese culture. We learned that the prominent religion in the villages is Catholicism, while the prominent religion in the cities is Buddhism. We also learned that many of the women in the villages around Sapa marry (via arranged marriages) and have children by the age of 16-18 years old. Pang explained that she is 26 and unmarried because she wants time for herself before she gets married and has a family. Luckily her parents are very open and accepting of today’s progressive culture. She said most families in the villages are still extremely traditional and disapprove of her choices.

As we finished the day’s trek in Lao Chai (village of the Mong people), we stopped at a nearby market and bought sugar cane for a mid-afternoon snack. We then trekked for about 10 more minutes before arriving at Pang’s brother’s home. His home sits adjacent to the home where Pang grew up. We met Pang’s two nieces and one nephew, as well as her brother and sister-in-law. After having a cup of green tea while overlooking their rice patties, we got a quick tour of the home and sat near the fire where Pang and her sister-in-law prepared dinner. We helped by making Vietnamese spring rolls and fried pork. Our delicious dinner with Pang and her family was followed by shots of their homemade plum rice wine.

Day 2: December 2, 21km

We slept in until about 8:30am and then had some breakfast with Pang, her brother, and her sister-in-law. Towards the end of breakfast, the kids came home with some of their baby cousins!

Our morning trek was very long. We trekked from Lao Chai to Ta Van to Giang Ta Chai. Along the path we passed ducks, huge water buffalo, and some adorable baby pigs. Luckily it didn’t rain overnight, so the path was a bit less slippery than the day before. Every view throughout the entire morning was picture perfect.

We took the path less travelled to get from Giang Ya Chai to Su Pan. By doing so, we actually got to pass through a bamboo forest and see many four leaf clovers!

We reached Su Pan at around 3:00pm for lunch. After a delicious lunch of pork fried rice and chicken fried rice, we continued to trek towards our homestay for the evening. Within a few hours we reached the village of Ban Ho. The homestay was quite large with about 14 beds on one floor with room for more in the attic.

Dinner comprised of steamed rice, pork, chicken, spring rolls, vegetables and chili sauce. After chatting with a few new friends from Belgium, Australia, and Singapore, we were all exhausted from a long day of trekking and called it an early night.

Day 3: December 3, 5km

Our last day of trekking was much easier than the first two. We woke up for breakfast at 8:30am and departed at around 10:00am. We walked through the village, got some sugar cane as a snack, and soon reached a beautiful waterfall surrounded by tons of rocks to climb on.

After hanging at the waterfall for an hour, we trekked back to the homestay for lunch. While everyone ate their fried noodles, Pang invited Mel into the kitchen to have steamed rice with her, another Sapa Sister, and the owners of the homestay. They were all very kind and taught her the “proper” way to use chopsticks 😝.

After lunch it was time to say goodbye. We took a van back to Sapa, hugged and thanked Pang, and took a bus to the station for our overnight train back to Hanoi.

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