During our eight day trip to Vietnam, we spent two days in Sapa. Situated in the northernmost region of Vietnam, Sapa lies near the China border. The perfect contrast to Hanoi, Sapa is smaller, more rural, and contains a naturally breathtaking landscape. The hustle and bustle of Hanoi was incredible, but it was equally nice to spend a couple days in a place where I felt we could breathe and relax.
Vietnam has 54 different ethnic groups, six of which are in Sapa. All the groups have their own dialects, but the majority can also understand and speak Vietnamese. Many people we met even spoke five or six different dialects from the surrounding villages! We found the Red Dao tribe the most intriguing. The women shave half their heads and wear wraps in a turban-like fashion, and their garb is colorful and textured. You’ll find them along the treks and in the towns selling their handmade goods.
To reach Sapa, the most popular option is the overnight sleeper train. There are many different companies and types of amenities, but they are just different versions (some nicer, some cheaper) of the same compartment.
*Tip: Come prepared! Our train to Sapa was freezing cold with just a thin sheet for cover. I had no warm clothes and the worst night’s sleep. But on the way back to Hanoi, after buying a huge blanket in Sapa, of course our train was incredibly hot and provided a thick comforter.
The trip takes about eight hours. We left at 9 p.m. and arrived around 5 a.m. Overall, it’s a very time efficient way to get around Vietnam.
We arrived in Sapa and met our guide. We piled in a van and drove an hour to Sapa Town proper, where we would begin our trek.
*Tip: We highly recommend our guide! He did a phenomenal job of getting us around Sapa and planning activities and meals. He is patient, knowledgable, timely, and attentive. His name is Nguyen Bac Dao and you can contact him via messenger on Facebook. You can find his profile here: Nguyen Bac Dao. He can even help you arrange transport to and from Sapa.
We weren’t sure how strenuous the trek would be or what we would need to wear. We decided to play it safe with athletic gear — running shorts, tank, and hiking shoes – and it was definitely the correct decision! The path grades were never very steep, and we trekked less than ten kilometers; we never felt overtaxed or out of breath. However, we did walk through rice paddies, which are muddy, and on dirt roads blanketed by the hot sun.
*Tip: Don’t forget sunscreen and water! Also, bring a hat to keep the sun off your face: we bought the rice hats that all the locals wear and found them to be perfect.
As we began the trek in Sapa Town, three women dressed in traditional garb joined our company and trekked the entire way with us. They asked us questions about where we were from and told us about their lives. They helped us down steep and slippery steps, and they crafted small trinkets from the grass and gifted them to us as we walked. We enjoyed their company and appreciated learning about the local culture and way of life.
You’ll see these women all over Sapa Town; it’s typical for them to latch on to trekking groups. They live about seven kilometers down the valley in the small village, Lao Chai, where the trekkers stop and break for lunch. When you arrive at the village to sit down and eat, they will pull out, seemingly from no where, all kinds of small wares (wristlets, bags, bracelets, etc.) and ask you to buy them. We didn’t mind and bought a few small gifts for friends and family — we felt having the ladies along on the trek greatly enhanced our experience — but don’t feel pressured if they pester you!
The views are unparalleled. It was like a dream to have researched this trip and ogled at all the astonishing photos of Sapa and then for our actual experience to outstrip them all. It was an incredibly moving and humbling three hours. The rice terraces cascade down the sides of a seemingly endless mountain valley in all shades of green and yellow.
*Tip: When we went in late September, the rice paddies were still green, and the villagers had just started harvesting the rice. After harvesting and during the winter season, the terraces will be mostly brown, and you won’t get those lush, green colors that are so famously photographed.
We trekked through the ever-expansive terraces, making our way up and back down the mountainside, and passed many villagers and livestock going about their daily routine. Our guide explained to us the process of growing and harvesting rice and took us by workers performing the tasks by hand.
After about three hours, we had trekked down into the heart of the valley and into a small village. We said goodbye and ‘thank you’ (in the form of purchasing wares) to the ladies that had trekked with us and taught us so much about life in Sapa. We ate lunch and spent some time walking around the village; we stopped at the local school, the textile factory, and down by the river where villagers go to wash their hair and clothes. The van picked us back up and drove us further down the valley to where we would be sleeping. Be on the lookout for a followup post on our fairytale lodge in Sapa!
It was an enriching and perspective altering experience. For us, that’s the purpose of travel — to gain a better understanding of this great, big world. There are uncountable lives that are different from our own, and each has something to teach us about the way we should aspire to live.
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Travel on, Beaches 🙂