Sapa is a town wayyy up in the north of Vietnam. It’s only about an hour away from the Chinese border, making it quite different from the rest of Vietnam. Sapa was originally set up as a French hill station in 1922 but has since become Vietnam’s trekking centre. Located in the Hoang Lien mountains, Sapa is the coldest place in Vietnam and we decided to come here in the middle of the harsh winter!
After a 5 hour luxurious bus ride from Hanoi we arrived in freezing cold and misty Sapa. The drive was through beautiful farmlands being tended to by Vietnamese workers in their traditional leaf hats and cows ploughing through fertile soil.
We spent the day resting up at GoSapa hostel in preparation for our two-day trek starting the next day. We were collected in the morning by Mao, a lovely colourful and cheeky Hmong lady. We were taken to the start of the trek where we met the rest of our group and our beautiful guide for the day: Moo.
As we made the steep incline up the mountains, leaving Sapa behind us, Moo told us about the different hill tribes of the Sapa valley. She belonged to the Hmong people who traditionally wore colourful head scarves, patterned bags and black velvet pants held up by brightly coloured ribbons. There was also the Red Dzao tribe who traditionally shaved their heads (men and women) and wore red headdresses.
As we walked up the mountain Moo pointed out green tea fields which were harvested for their tiny leaves to make green tea. She showed us the now winter-dead crops of corn, green beans and marijuana (they use the hemp to make clothes). With every step it rained harder and harder and the mist became thicker. We began our descent and after a lovely meal of fried noodles we walked through the rice terraces of the village. It isn’t rice season and the best time to see the iconic rolling green paddies is around March/April. But we did manage to see something, for which I was very grateful.
Then the mud slides began. After all the rains the already muddy trail became absolutely treacherous. The only way to get down was to hold one of the ladies hands and let her guide you or otherwise risk using only a bamboo stick and falling on your bum in the mud (like Nic did!). After a few hours of snail pace, slippery descent we washed off in the waterfall and made the final wet hour walk towards the homestay.
What a beautiful and comfortable place! It has recently been handmade (as in they cut down all the trees needed to make this massive 20 bedroom house) by Mao’s family and was the perfect place to come home to after a tough 12km walk in hectic conditions. We dried off by the fire and played cards with the most wonderful people we’d been trekking with. This was followed by the most delicious and abundant spread of traditional Vietnamese food: springrolls, pork, chicken, green beans, bamboo, mushrooms and rice. Absolutely spoilt!
After a much-needed comfortable sleep and a hearty breakfast of banana pancakes we were set for trekking day two! The mist was even thicker and I had managed to burn my hiking boots of the fire trying to dry them. All of this combined with my disappointment at not being able to see the abundant rice terraces of Sapa that I knew surrounded us, just tipped me over the edge. It’s really difficult when you plan something for ages and get excited about it and then it just doesn’t turn out the way you thought it would. We were supposed to go back to Sapa after lunch but Mao said there was a village nearby that was clear and if we wanted to we could continue hiking there and get a lift back to Sapa later. We decided to do that and I’m so so so grateful I did!
After an hour or so of walking we came to the top of a mountain pass. And quite miraculously the mist cleared completely to reveal a sweeping valley of lush green rice terraces. I couldn’t stop smiling. So so so grateful for answered prayers! It was beautiful and what I had come all the way to Sapa to see. The 24 km trek may have been pretty tough but this made it all worth it. Sapa really has been an incredibly rich experience.
After a scary, in-the-dark, pothole-filled drive back to Sapa we were more than grateful for the hot shower and warmth of a cosy bed. Next stop: Halong Bay. Please may the weather be kinder to us!