Sapa, a charming region in northern Vietnam, is another of Vietnams top tourist destinations and one of the country’s leading trekking bases. Offering tours which enable you to hike through the small hill-tribe villages and green rice terraces it is a great way to do some exercise whilst enjoying the spectacular landscapes and of course meet the locals! With most tours offering overnight stays with a local family it really gives you an insight into their life and the stories you are told are eye-opening.
We organised our tour whilst in Hanoi via Friendly Hostels for $62 which included all meals, transport and the homestay. Once there we were welcomed by a Summit Hotel staff member and taken to the hotel which we used as a base to shower and store our belongings. Temperatures dropped significantly, regretting not having brought our hats.
Our two day trek commenced at 9am where we were accompanied by six tribe women including the guide and five other visitors. The tribe women were dressed in traditional wear, very colourful clothes and head scarf. One lady carried a baby boy wrapped behind her. These women were tanned and wrinkled and it came to our surprise that one of them was only 27, almost my age! This particular girl told us about their ways, marrying young at 17 years of age and having children by 18 years. She had a child 9 years of age and another 5 years of age.
Tribe children went to school during the day whilst their fathers worked on the rice paddies or collecting wood. Wood was chopped down from trees at the top of the mountain and dragged down with ropes, leaving distinct paths which was visible the entire length of the mountain. Women also worked on farms or like these women helped out during tours. I am quite thankful for the help these ladies offered as they regularly held me up whilst walking/climbing down the muddy ground, even if they used this as an excuse to buy goods from them later on, which we expected.
We trekked along the beautiful landscapes, alongside rice terraces, buffaloes and rivers. Rice terraces covered mountain after mountain and even though it was not the time of the year it was still astounding to see the vast number of them and the distinct patterns they created on every mountain.
We joined up with another group at times at the view points, drink stops and for lunch. On one of our breaks we ate sugar cane from the stick, so sweet and refreshing and the baby boy agreed also as he ate half a metre of it all by himself!
Whilst trekking layers of clothing came off but the minute we stopped it was ice cold again. We hiked to Y Linh Ho Village and then had a traditional lunch at Lao Chai Village and experienced the Black H’mong life. Each tribe had a colour to show where they belonged, in the past men and women from different tribes were prohibited to marry but now it is more acceptable. During our lunch break I was guilt tripped into buying a scarf from one of the ladies, but in all fairness I was clean thanks to them and I had wanted a traditional handmade scarf from the minute I saw them wearing one.
The afternoon trek was shorter and we mainly walked through concrete paths in villages, crossing through Dao Chai Village to Ta Van Village where we had our overnight stay, inhabited by Dzay minorities exhibiting a strong Chinese culture. Our homestay, owned by a Dzay family, was at the top of a hill and we arrived around 4pm after having walked 12 kilometres. The homestay was a two storey wooden house with a basic kitchen, a dining table and outside bathrooms but it came to my surprise that they had hot showers and wifi! On the second floor mattresses were laid down with concrete dividers and mosquito nets. It all felt very cosy. We spent the rest of the day around an indoor fire (under the table!) and getting to know each other as a blanket of mist covered the village shortly after we arrived.
There was Ana and Paco from Seville (nice and close to us back home) and Helenou, Olivier and Vincent from France. The house kitten spent most of it’s time curled up on my lap with it’s head tucked between my arm and body as it was so cold. Before our guide left around 6pm to go back to her family she kindly answered questions we had about the tribes. Each family was self sustainable, that is, they grew and farmed their own rice and vegetables and bred their own chickens and pigs, for their family only. There was only one harvest annually so rice was usually stored on the top floor of the house to last the dry season. Buffaloes used for harvesting were rented from wealthier families just when needed and like previously mentioned, fire wood was also provided by the men of the families. She also mentioned they grow their own indigo and marijuana which they make clothes out of and smoke legally, which we found quite humourous.
Dinner that night was substantial and quite tasty and we were offered rice wine so we all had a shot of it, my goodness is that stuff strong! I could feel it burning its way down my throat. We ended the night playing UNO, having not moved from around the fire the entire night. Bed time was around 11pm which gave us enough sleep before our 9am wake up.
Breakfast pancakes and tea and coffee was a good start before we began our second day trek. That day we walked for 5 kilometres up until lunch time. We were greeted by another set of tribe helpers outside our homestay but this time we were wiser and the terrain was not as bad as the previous day so we felt less pressured into purchasing anything from them when they left us past a waterfall and crossing the suspension bridge at one of the villages. During this trek is when we saw the log trails and small huts on the mountains where people lived. Many households had pigs, dogs and children running around. We hiked through terraces and bamboo forests to Giang Ta Chai village to see the Ref Dzao people and continue to H’mong village further on.
The trek ended around 2pm after we finished lunch where we were picked up by a minivan and driven back to the hotel. Wanting to make the most of it we showered and changed and headed out to the town to walk around the shops. The town reminded us a lot like a ski village minus the snow. There were small shops lining the narrow roads selling warm clothing and cosy looking cafes and restaurants with candles, some still with Christmas themed snow graffiti on the windows
Mist filled the streets giving it a cold wintery look and low visibility. After a few hours we headed back to relax before we were taken to Lao Cai bus station at 9:30pm.