Sa Pa (or Sapa) is a smallish town slash region in the far north of Vietnam. Home to many different hill tribes, it became something of a resort destination during the French Colonial period, and after 30 to 40 years of neglect, has now become one again. There is a large agricultural base in the region, with terraced rice patties visible in any given direction. It’s an open question to me, however, whether agriculture or tourism makes up the majority of the area’s activity. The town of Sa Pa itself is almost completely focused on tourism: there’s only a few main streets, and they consist of restaurants, travel agencies to arrange tours, knock-off clothing stores, and souvenir shops. Members of the local hill tribes walk the streets with baskets of goods to sell, and they could give a lesson to the pushiest salesperson you’ve ever met before. The word “no” apparently doesn’t translate.
I made arrangements with a travel agency in Hanoi for a three-day, two-night trip up to Sapa. Many people only go for one night, but I didn’t love the idea of a long bus ride two days in a row (future adventures would bear this out). I was picked up from my hotel at around 8am, and squeezed onto a minibus that I believed was just to take us to the bigger bus we would be on for nearly five hours. After ten minutes of driving, someone else piped up “Will we be transferring to the bigger bus soon?” Our guide looked confused and said “No, this bus all the way to Sapa.” Oh great. We proceeded to rearrange everything, people and baggage, so there was a bit more room for legs and other body parts. It worked, sort of. There was a lot of stretching and the like at every rest stop however! The ride itself was fine. A new highway was opened just a few months ago, turning what had been a nine-hour ordeal over bad road into a five-hour trip over smooth highway. The other option for getting to Sapa is an overnight train. A friend had actually taken that the day before, and reported that while the train itself was fine (although bathrooms are iffy) the track is in bad condition and the ride is very bumpy, so there wasn’t much in the way of sleep. I spent the majority of the ride reading and chatting with the guys next to me, a Russian and a German.
The last hour or so of driving is winding mountain road, but very pretty. I was there at the wrong time of year – spring or fall is the time to visit. The weather was actually quite pleasant; it’s just that the fields were brown and the scenery not as beautiful as other times. Apparently, however, we missed the cold weather by a week, so that was very well planned on my part (not!). We arrived in Sapa around 1pm and went to a hotel for lunch. A short break to repack slightly, as we would be leaving our large suitcases at the hotel and only taking a daypack with us for the hike and overnight homestay. Then five of us (plus guide) drove about twenty minutes to the top of a ridge where we began the trek.
Within 30 seconds of getting out of the van, we had a collection of hill people surrounding us. This is, apparently, what a large majority of the women do for work. They dress in traditional clothing (when we walked through the villages, the non-tourist hill people were in jeans and t-shirts) and accompany trekkers, hoping to sell them homemade goods. Our tribes were the Red Dao and the Black Hmong (no idea what the differences are). It was interesting for about five minutes, and the for the remaining three hours was mostly annoying. They were just there, walking with us, asking the same questions (Where you from? What your age? How long you in Sapa?) and trying to get us to commit to buying something at the end of the trek. Honestly? This doesn’t make me sound good, but I would happily have given them money to simply leave us alone (I asked the guide afterward, he said wouldn’t work). It makes me feel bad, that this is basically the option for the these people, to walk with tourists and sell them tourist schlock, handmade or not. It doesn’t help that apparently the men do nothing when it isn’t planting season, just sit and drink and occasionally drive tourists around on motorbikes. *note* My uncomfortableness with taking people photos was in full force, so I don’t have any. It basically looked like this.
We walked through some planting fields, a little bit through a village, and then into the wilderness. It ended up being much more of a hike than I was expecting – there was some definite scrambling over rocks and one solid slip in the mud for me. All told, it was about three hours of hiking, some beautiful scenery, and great exercise. We finally arrived at our homestay for the night, and within eight seconds of arrival the hill tribe ladies had opened their packs and begun shoving goods in our faces. Tired, dirty, and desperately needing a drink of water, I was really not in the mood (I’m not getting much in the way of souvenirs anyway!) but I decided to purchase something from the woman who had ‘attached’ herself to me during the hike. She had pointed out the best way to go on some paths and occasionally tried to talk, although I couldn’t really understand her (sidenote: I’ve been having a much harder time understanding accented English than I would have predicted. Not really sure why? It makes me feel bad though.) I didn’t really need the walking help, and I know it was calculated to win her a sale, but whatever. Ended up buying something from her, and from one other woman who I literally could not get to go away. Honestly, it didn’t leave me with a positive feeling.
Anyway, we settled in at the homestay. Our hosts were a very nice couple who spoke no English, so the guide translated. They are in their late 30’s, work as farmers in addition to hosting visitors, and they have two sons; one 12 year old who goes to school in Sapa and stays there during the week, and a five year old who was adorable and spent the entire time like any other five year old, watching cartoons on the tv. We were provided a delicious meal which our hosts joined us for, and there were several rounds of toasts in several different languages, all with homemade rice wine. After the first three or four shots, it really doesn’t taste that bad *grin*. After dinner we all sat around a brazier filled with hot coals as the weather had turned cold, and just chatted for several hours. It was really wonderful – there was our Vietnamese tour guide, two women from England, a Russian, a German, and me (American, in case you forgot). Had some great conversations about everything and just really enjoyed it. The continued pours of rice wine, and the large bottles of beer, may have helped. We finally went to bed, which was much more comfortable than I was expecting. Thick mattress pads, thick heavy blankets (the home is unheated) and nice pillows. Honestly, it was one of the most comfortable nights I’ve had over here. I think we got lucky however, I’ve heard that some other homestays weren’t as comfortable.
Despite best intentions, none of us woke to photograph sunrise the next morning. It was fine, since the fog was so thick you couldn’t see anything anyway. Our hosts provided a lovely breakfast of coffee, bananas, and thick crepes, which was absolutely delicious. We said goodbye and headed out, a brief walk then picked up by the bus for a transfer to our next hike. However, it turns out that hike was a bit of an overstatement – the next bit was really ‘walk through tourist stalls for twenty minutes, than a short hike on a well-built path to a tourist waterfall, then a slightly longer hike up to the bus’. Not bad, just not as interesting and no great scenery. Anyway, we got back to town for lunch, and after some brief time for walking around, everyone else got on the bus to head back to Hanoi. I was staying for another day, so I said goodbye to them, checked into my hotel room, and took a shower! which was bliss. *note: the three-day trip actually had the option for more advanced hiking on the second day. I was tired and not sure I felt comfortable with that, so I made arrangements to just stay in town*
After a nap and some tv (HBO is available everywhere here, it’s great), I grabbed some quick dinner. Confession time: I had pizza. After a point, you need comfort food!! I then had coffee with Linda, who I had met on the food tour in Hanoi. It turns out she was in Sapa at the same time, so we compared notes on our adventures. A little more walking around town, then bedtime. The next morning, I skipped the hotel breakfast thinking that I would go out for something. However, after sitting at two different places for 10 minutes with no service, I gave up and just wandered for a bit. The shops didn’t have anything that really appealed to me. I headed back to the hotel, met the group that I would be riding back to Hanoi with, and grabbed some lunch. After some more down time, we got into the van (more comfortable this time) for the ride back. Our driver, for whatever reason, seemed unwilling to acknowledge that the vehicle could go above 60kph. I generally don’t consider myself an aggressive driver, but I was definitely thinking “C’mon already!”. Also, Vietnam can build nice highways, but they need work on the rest stops. Food stalls with nothing appealing, and facilities that a very generous soul could describe as bathrooms, don’t quite cut it for most tourists. We finally arrived back in Hanoi around 9pm, and I was dropped off at my hotel. Skipped dinner because I literally couldn’t summon the energy to go out and navigate the street traffic again, so off to bed before getting picked up the next morning for my trip to Ha Long Bay!