The trip to Sa Pa began for me on an overnight/sleeping bus from Hanoi. From memory it takes about 7 hours to Sa Pa town, and the whole trip (transfers to and from the hostel, guided 2 day hike, meals, and overnight accommodation) cost roughly $70, booked for me by the absolutely lovely guys at Hanoi Brothers Inn.
The bus full of people from different accommodations arrived to Sa Pa very early (around 6AM?) and everyone had to wait for their respective guides to pick them up. There was a lot of confusion because the bus driver didn’t speak any English, nor any of the travellers enough Vietnamese, so we didn’t know who to go with or who to look for. Luckily our guide had 4 of our names clearly printed out so we spotted him as soon as he arrived. I was warned to be careful of booking tours with very cheap deals, tourists can get stranded after transfers if unlucky and conned. Please be careful to book with reputable places – you can’t go wrong with booking tours from your place of accommodation though they probably aren’t the cheapest. But when we arrived there were about a dozen local ethnic women who were waiting to see if they could take travellers with no bookings on tours and a homestay.
We were driven to nearby hotel Hoang Ha for a shower and buffet-style brekkie (and me snooping around shooting) before debriefing with our guide for the hiking trip. The hotel is on elevated land and the scenery from the room balcony I was in was so beautiful and atmosphere very peaceful. The plan: we’d trek south-west to Lao Chai and break for lunch then continue on to Ta Van, about 30km? that day. Then the following day go further on to Giyang Ta Chai, then double back and after a certain point get picked up by a car to go back to town. Four of us girls (2 Danes and an American) set off down into town with our super friendly guide to see the local history museum and souvenir store which is worth a visit (lizard or falcon alcohol, anyone?), then to pick up another couple from Germany. We all got friendly very quickly and I’m glad we were all in our twenties, relatively fit, and happy to chat.
From town we were joined by several ethnic (Black Hmong) villagers who assisted us during the hike to Lao Chai where we stopped for lunch. Okay let me say – these women HUSTLE. They carry large woven baskets to help carry things, grab your hand to help you along slippery bunds, develop rapport by asking about you and your family, and then at the end pretty much DEMAND that you buy handmade souvenirs from them. I was shocked at how much they (and children especially, from 5 to 12 years old) hounded everyone, never taking no for an answer. They sell things like bracelets, wallets, bags, all in their traditional materials and designs, and it’s fine to buy, but I was taken aback at how persistent they were even when we’d already purchased something and when I realised that they were so fake-friendly only to guilt-trip us into buying things. This woman word-for-word said to me with a stern expression, “I help you, now you help me.” Just keep that in mind before you get sucked into their seemingly genuine friendliness.
Along the trail from Sa Pa to Lao Chai it was just breath-taking. Both literally and figuratively lol! It was the dry season so we saw more dead than alive grass, and of course the rice paddy terraces weren’t lush, but the incredible heights of the mountains and construction of the terraces.. layers of ridges fading into a misty gradient of white-blue.. the sweeping mist rising up from beyond the curve of a valley.. it was incredibly beautiful and I’m happy I was able to experience it. I can’t even imagine what it’d be like seeing all the countless race paddies in their peak of harvest. We were also blessed with beautiful weather – sunny but cool, some cloud cover and the most amazing, constant, gentle mountain breeze that we so appreciated. You will SWEAT. There are rest stops with kids selling drinks in reasonable intervals, and it was only a mildly/moderately taxing hike. However in the wet season I don’t see how one could do it especially if it’s raining, I think it’d be very dangerous because we struggled in only a couple of stretches of slippery mud. Seems impossible to go up and down tens of kilometres of that!
There’s one particular rest stop (a concretely-built one, not just a log-seat stop) which had the most amazing view, perched on the edge of the mountain side, right over the river below, and panoramic view of the mountains. I was awed. Speechless. After staying there for a short while taking photos and using the toilets we all moved in a comfortably brisk pace and arrived to Lao Chai earlier than expected. We had a set lunch at what looked like the largest restaurant in the village, right above the river. It was a feast of local food! Awkward though because this is where the hustling began.
A few hours later we arrived to Ta Van where we’d be staying the night, again earlier than scheduled. We were all completely out of breath and sweaty because walking through villages is very windy and they have some steep paths going up and down. The trails change from being dust and dry leaves, to muddy bunds, to rocky, then concrete in the villages. We were offered tea on arrival, and we all just sat in silence completely zen-ned out by the view and peaceful sounds of breeze and birds. There was literally nothing to do but relax and explore the surrounding fields. I caught up on journalling and watched a couple of sermons online because OMGOODNESS there is free Wifi EVERYWHERE in Vietnam! So impressive, even in the middle of the dang mountains it’s available and fast!! Can the rest of the “developed world” please catch up?!
The homestay house was built for eco-tourism, and was 2 storeys with bedding and a mosquito net each all around the top floor. Dinner was again a generous feast of local cuisine and we all had a shot of super strong Vietnamese vodka-like alcohol to cheers celebrate making it and.. simply being alive and there 🙂 It was a great night, and the sunset was just.. ahhhh.. I almost didn’t upload the photo because it’s miles behind what the actual sunset was like and it was a poorly-taken photo, but by that logic I shouldn’t upload anything. I’ll at least have it in my memory always. When I’d heard “homestay” I kind of expected really traditional and undeveloped lodgings which I’d actually prefer, but a warm shower in a clean bathroom was really nice too at night. It does get cold after sundown but the blankets were more than thick and fluffy enough to keep me toasty. Do bring a change of walking clothes as well as a thick jumper though for the night if coming around this time of year. You’ll need one anyway in Hanoi because it feels pretty freezing at night!
Day 2 of the hike coming soon~