Our journey to Sapa started with a bit of a hiccup. Our flight was delayed from Ho Chi Minh, so we missed the night bus and ended up staying an extra night in Hanoi. We boarded the sleeper bus first thing the next morning to get to Sapa by lunchtime and still have some time to explore before trekking the next day. As expected, the bus was very much designed for Vietnamese people. If I sat just the right way I could almost stretch my legs out straight inside my Vietnamese coffin, but Campbell spent the entire six hour journey folded in on himself like an origami crane. The novelty factor meant that it wasn’t the worst six hours ever, and we both managed to catch a few zzzs.
We arrived in Sapa shortly after lunch and spent the afternoon mooching round town and getting last-minute provisions for our trek. Sapa is a really interesting hillside town in northwestern Vietnam. Minority groups from the highlands make up the majority of the population and there are a variety of different tribal groups, including the Hmong, Dao and Tay. Very few minority people live in the town itself, but a lot of the women and children come into the town every day to offer trekking services and homestays and sell handicrafts to tourists. The make-up of tourists in Sapa is also pretty interesting – the demographic seemed to be primarily intense middle-age European hikers, and bohemian backpackers (think guys with shitlocks and girls with partially shaved heads and aggressively short fringes). In amongst that, there is the standard tour bus crew and a fair few Aussies (as has been the way throughout most of Vietnam).
It wasn’t long after arrival in Sapa that I started to lose my nerve. The 40km “medium to challenging” trek that had seemed like such a good idea from the safety of the office many moons ago, suddenly seemed like an incredibly stupid adventure that we were ill-prepared for. Sure, I was looking forward to the amazing scenery and a bit of getting back to nature, but I was less keen on the reports of rivers of mud, it being “far more challenging than anticipated”, steep uphill ascents and tribal ladies who would follow behind and point and laugh every time you took a tumble. All those hardcore hikers strutting round in their hardcore hiking boots and hardcore hiking jackets had also given me a bit of an inferiority complex.
Day 1: 14 kms
The first day of the trek dawned and it was my worst nightmare. We woke to torrential rain and heavy mist that blanketed all of Sapa town and most of the countryside that we were supposed to be enjoying and photographing on our walk. I was not amused. After trying (and failing) to devise multiple reasons why we could/should postpone, we traipsed down to the Sapa O’Chau booking office to meet our guide, Pe, and get started. There were plenty of other anxious looking tourists at the office, including our trekking buddies, Susannah and Fabrizio, from Italy. Despite being decked out in head to toe trekking gear, they admitted that they were as nervous and unprepared as we were – they’d also tried to postpone their trek.
The trek started out easy enough as we wandered down the main road on our way out of town, but it did not take long for shit to get real in a major way. We veered off the main road after about 20 minutes and straight onto muddy, almost vertical tracks through the rice paddies. The rain from the morning had turned the tracks into mudslides, and we didn’t stand a chance in our sneakers. We had some Hmong groupies who had followed us from town who ended up having to hold our hands and help us navigate the paths. We’d been told not to accept help from these ladies (unless you wanted to go home with a pack full of handicrafts), but when the going got tough we couldn’t grab hold of their hands fast enough. Even with their help, we slipped, fell, tripped and slid our way down the paths, and were bleeding, muddy and broken after the first hour. Campbell was the only one of our group who managed to stay upright the entire trip which, as you’d imagine, made us all hate him and his gangly limbs just a little bit.
When we were learning to water-ski, our friend Leezy used to say that if you weren’t falling over, you weren’t trying hard enough. Applying that same motto to trekking, I can hand on heart say that I tried really really hard; perhaps harder than anyone else in our group – I simply could not stay off my arse. My lowest moment came when I slipped down a path and face planted through a bamboo fence and almost went straight into a rice paddy. According to Campbell, I resembled a human wrecking ball. The Hmong women were not impressed that I’d poleaxed their fence, and were a little less forthcoming with the handholding from then on. We made amends shortly afterwards by buying some friendship bracelets and giving a generous tip – they’d been lifesavers!
By the time lunchtime rolled around it had finally stopped raining, and we could relax enough to look up from our feet and take in the scenery around us. Sapa is really beautiful and unlike anywhere else we have been on our travels. The landscape is hilly, with great parts of the hillside cut into terraced rice fields. Rivers cut through the valleys and tiny tribal villages are dotted around from the valley floor, to the highest peaks. It is stunning. Our trip coincided with the rice harvest, which had been done only a week or so previously. This meant the landscape looked a little more barren than it would have when the rice was still in the ground, but we got to see some of the harvest and processing in action. There is only one rice harvest in Sapa per year (compared to two in more southern Vietnam), so there is a lot riding on getting a bumper crop every time.
After lunch it was a fairly easy three hour walk to our homestay for the night. None of us was really sure what to expect, but the homestay was fantastic. We were staying with Miss Co, her husband and two children. Us tourists had our own loft to sleep in, while Miss Co and her family slept in a nearby house. It was close quarters with the Italians, but sliding around on your arse for six hours has a way of bringing people together, so no one really minded that we could have all spooned if we’d wanted to. Dinner was an incredible Vietnamese feast, which we all ate together on tiny wooden stools that were perfect for the locals, but like dolls’ house furniture for anybody else. We were having trouble walking at this point, let alone trying to get up and down from midget chairs.
Dinner also meant our introduction to rice wine (or “happy wine” as it’s known here), and some traditional Hmong drinking games. Hmong people do not typically have access to cards, or dice, so drinking games utilise a chicken’s beak. Miss Co’s husband did the honours by eating the head from the chicken we’d had for dinner, and it was game on! Essentially each player has to throw/roll the chicken’s beak and if it lands flat (i.e. if it’s the same way up as it would be when still attached to the chicken) the person it’s pointing at has to drink. It didn’t take long to polish off a two litre bottle of rice wine, with Miss Co’s husband and Campbell ending up having to drink the lion’s share. Amazingly, despite not speaking a word of English, Miss Co’s husband became a lot more conversational after a bit of rice wine and managed to put his few English words to good use with scathing sarcastic comments and insults that had us in hysterics.
Day 2: 16 kms
The weather gods heard our prayers and we woke up on day two to a stunning day. Pe had prepared us for the fact that the first few hours of the trek that day would be really difficult and muddy, but the sun had already started to dry things out nicely. It was just as well, since we woke up in various states of agony. Putting our wet shoes and socks on, and hauling our packs onto our backs for round two was all kinds of miserable. We were also feeling the effects of the not-so-happy water, meaning it was a subdued start to the day. We all came right after the first couple of kms and enjoyed the first part of the day trekking up to a beautiful waterfall, and up to some amazing look-out points.
The heat meant that day two was just as challenging as day one, albeit for totally different reasons. We were all starting to lose the plot by lunchtime, which is possibly the reason that, despite the conditions being much better, I still managed to fall into a stream and trip over a rock.
After carbo loading on fried noodles for lunch the afternoon was much easier. We got a welcome break from the rice paddy tracks, and spent most of our time wandering through villages on proper roads. It was a really nice time to meet some of the locals and especially the kids who were home from school for the weekend, and were running around everywhere! People in Sapa don’t have a lot, so the kids were playing with old tyres, climbing trees, tormenting the farm animals, mucking round at the school or church, or pretending to ride their parents scooters. A lot of the children were also doing chores, and it wasn’t uncommon to see really small children looking after a herd of buffalo, drying the rice harvest, or helping their mothers with embroidery and other crafts to be sold in town.
We also stopped at a couple of handicraft shops where we got to see how some of the arts and crafts are made. The local tribes create amazing fabric from hemp, which they dye with the leaves and flowers from the indigo plant. It’s a laborious task that includes harvesting the hemp and making the fabric, harvesting the indigo and making huge vats of dye, dip dyeing each individual swatch of fabric multiple times until it is the right blue/black shade (an icon of the Hmong people) and finally embroidering or block printing the fabric. It is a labour of love and the finished products are beautiful. Selling the handicrafts to tourists is an essential financial top-up to the annual rice harvest.
We spent our second evening with a Tay family, who lived in a traditional Tay home on stilts overlooking the rice terraces. Unlike the Hmong people, Tay people typically live in large extended family groups, so we were treated to visitors of all ages and stages throughout the evening. Our hosts had three small children who kept us entertained all evening by playing up, which we thought was cute, but was close to making their mother homicidal. It was another banquet dinner around the table, followed up with the mandatory rice wine and a very early night. We were all fast asleep by 9 pm.
Day 3: 8 kms
The bodies were sore, but the spirits were high when we woke up on day three. We knew we only had a short trek ahead of us, and we were all looking forward to getting the job done. Pe had blatantly lied when he told us the walking would be flat, because we’d only gone a km when we staring down the face of some massive hills and steep gravel inclines. We were rewarded at the top with a quick visit to a local school, where the kids were having their morning tea break and doing running races and long jump competitions on the porch. We wrapped up the walking with a trip to the river to soak our very tired and disgusting feet and to reflect on an awesome three days.
Day three was also our wedding anniversary, which we celebrated with a couple’s foot massage back in Sapa town, pasta and burgers for dinner and a few beers on the rooftop of our hotel. It will be a memorable anniversary for many years to come.
Tomorrow we say goodbye to Vietnam and take to the skies for our trip to Laos. We have very little planned and are interested to see how things pan out.