After 4 days spending in Hanoi I thought its time to leave this city and see another place. I’ve received many recommendations to see Sapa. Sapa is all the way to the north.
Sa Pa is a quiet mountain town and home to a great diversity of ethnic minority peoples. The total population of 36,000 consists mostly of minority groups. Besides the Kinh (Viet) people (15 percent) there are mainly five ethnic groups in Sa Pa: Hmong 52 percent, Dao 25 percent, Tay five percent, Giay two percent, and a small number of Xa Pho. Approximately 7,000 live in Sa Pa, the other 36,000 being scattered in small communes throughout the district.
In the hostel I ask some information about the two and three day packages they offering to Sapa. Either bus or train. Hotel, hostel or homestay. Everything is possible. All for a decent price. But I don’t want to be showed and toured around in a group. I want to explore things by myself. Decide where I want to go and what to see. I make up my mind and book myself a bus ticket with Sapa Express. They offer comfortable bus rides between Hanoi and Sapa. And promoting themselves as “Special aircraft on the ground”. The price for a return ticket is in total 34 dollar. I’m going to Sapa for 3 days.
Its early Monday morning and I look on my phone, 5:50am. My bus to Sapa leaves at 7am. Last night I informed the staff that I was checking out this morning for Sapa and that I have a pickup service who will pick me up at 6:45 at the hostel and bring me to the bus. The staff offered to wake me up. Its almost 6am and the door opens. The guy on duty enters the room with his small flashlight and tells me its my wake up call.
Last night I already packed all my stuff in my backpack. Besides some clothes which are still drying and some toiletries I’m ready to go. At 6:15 I’m downstairs. The entrance of the hostel is locked down with a metal shutter. Inside there is a scooter and two members of staff sleeping on an improvised matrass. In a chair near the reception a guy is sleeping. The staff explains to me the guy came back some hours ago, drunk, and fell asleep on the chair. When one of the staff is opening the metal shutter the guy wakes up, disoriented looks around and slowly continues his way upstairs to his bed. Another guy is also coming down. It seems I’m not the only one who has a pickup this morning. He tells me he is also going to Sapa. He arranged the bus in the hostel for just 10 dollars one way. I’m wondering if we are on the same bus, since I paid almost twice his price. A third guy shows up for another tour.
A GrabBike is showing up. He picks up the guy who goes to Sapa. It seems we didn’t book the same bus then. Soon after that the third guy is picked up by a transport service. More tour guides walking up and down the street, visiting multiple hostels and hotels to gather tourists who booked a tour with them. Finally, at 6:55 also my pickup is there and together with some other tourists he leads us to a small bus. After a short ride and picking up other passengers we arrive at our big Sapa Express bus. No word was lied about there marketing quote. The seats are big and there is enough leg space for tall guys like me.
After a very comfortable ride with two stops to have lunch and stretch the legs I arrive in Sapa. The weather is great over here. Its warm, blue sky with some clouds, there is sun, and I can see mountain Fansipan. When I look outside the bus window I already see a group of local H’mong women. Traditionally dressed in their dark costumes with decoration of many bright colours on their arms and legs. When I leave the bus I hear the women asking the same questions to everybody. ‘Where are you from?’, ‘Do you have a hotel?’. I already did read before the H’mong people offering their home for tourists to stay. It’s another opportunity to make money besides selling handcraft to tourists. Since I already arranged my place to stay I try to ignore them, grab my bag and walk straight to the hostel. Although the women are very nice they aren’t here for social talks but doing purely business.
After checking in at the hostel I decide to spend the midday to see Cat Cat Village. The village is nestled beneath in the valley and is reachable by walking down a hairpin road. It’s more of an open air museum where a lot of tourists walk through to see how the local Hmong people do live like.
When I enter the gate of Cat Cat village and walk down the stone steps, I see a lot of small shops in front of me on both sides of the road. Anything from leather, textile or food can be bought here, and I’m not even walking 2 minutes after entering the gate. I decide to ignore it and walk further. Later on I was explained that the Hmong people can not keep up with the demand by hand making the items. A lot of items are just imported from China.
The village itself is not big and on on my way around I get presented a lot of items to buy from the locals. There is a nice waterfall and wooden water wheels which are part of an old power station built by the French.
Sapa HL Studio. An art gallery café with a magnificent view on Fansipan mountain. I decide to stop here and drink a cup of coffee, Vietnamese style: Phin Sua da, dripping coffee. On the background is some jazz music playing. The surrounding is quiet and I’m enjoying my view. When the sun goes down I decide to walk up back to my hostel.
When I’m walking around in Sapa during the evening I find the small church in the centre. On the sidewalk there is a group of local people sitting on plastic small stools all drinking tea and eating roasted sunflower seeds. This is called ‘Quán cóc’ and very typical to see everywhere in Vietnam. A guy playing flute is decorating the whole setting with his music. On the square near the church, called Quang Truong Square, there are some groups of people playing shuttlecock. Others walking around on the square or riding on hoverboards which you can rent. On the background I hear folklore music coming from a bar near the square. It’s around midnight when I’m back in my hostel. I still can hear trucks and construction workers making noise at the construction sites. I guess this is the downside of attracting many tourists. Where I thought I would come in a small cosy little village this midday it turns out to be a big tourist driven city mainly consisting of hotels.
It’s 8 o’clock when I get awaken by other guests who are going for breakfast. Apparently my room is near the breakfast. Sliding chairs on the tile floor, load voices, clattering dishes. Today I will do a hiking tour with a local hiker, Tin. Initial I was thinking to go up and down mount Fansipan by cable car. Just because it would provide me a nice view over the mountain and surroundings, but when I found out last night that the cable car would cost me 30 dollar for a 30 minute ride up and down the mountain, I simply skip the whole plan and decide going for a hike.
At 9 o’clock I meet Tin on the agreed spot. I’m wearing just my travel sneakers, short and shirt and brought along my camera in my backpack. It’s early and a bit fresh and cloudy around the mountain. We start heading off to the valley. A steep path downhill with a slope of around 60 degrees. A bit in front of us there is another group of tourists being guided by some Hmong women. The women are all dressed up in their traditional clothes which are beautiful decorated. The group is progressing slowly downhill and soon we are behind them. We are all walking down a very steep mountain slope by carefully making our steps and hold on trees or bamboo where possible. The ground is a bit wet by the morning dew. The group of tourists mainly consists of elderly people, which means they need some extra time to climb and walk down. By observing this I’m glad I make this trip now and not 30 years later.
As soon when it’s possible we leave the group behind and continue to follow the road at our own speed. Tin although has to hold in a bit, since I’m not such an experienced hiker. A few time I slip away with my feet but I quickly can recover myself. I don’t want to think about sliding off the slope. If you lose balance and fall off the path it’s a hurtful way down. My sneakers aren’t the best either. They are worn out and the soles don’t have a good profile anymore to get grip in the soil. The road is hilly and some climbing is required. Sweat is already on my forehead. We are walking for 2 hours down when we reach the river. Tin wants to continue our journey by crossing the river. It doesn’t look difficult, but the longer I’m staring and thinking through my steps the riskier it seems like. According to Tin hiking with him is taking risks. Well, what can go wrong anyway except for me getting wet shoes? For Tin this is all easy and manageable since he’s doing it daily, but I rather don’t take these kind of risks, especially with my camera and phone in my pocket. What if I not simple slip, but fall in the water instead? I decide to give it a try anyway. I follow the path of stones across the river, calculating my jumps. Must be doable. On the first big step it already goes wrong! I step, slip off from the rock with my right shoe and find myself balancing in 20 centimetre deep water. In a moment of panic, I move my left foot to balance myself but I misstep in the water. Now my left shoe is also completely wet. With two wet shoes for a split of a second I walkthrough the options. Should we go back, or try and try my shoes. But this all isn’t an option. We walked all the way down already and I don’t want to climb up with wet shoes. And drying shoes will take some hours too. I decide we just continue. We find another doable route through the river. Without some big steps and small jumps we reach the other side without falling or slipping off. When we continue our journey on the other side we pass by a bridge to the other side. Confused I ask Tin If we also could have used this bridge. He confirm we could have taken, but as he said before, hiking with him is also about taking risks. Great!
When we walk on the small paths near the paddy fields the view is amazing. Some paths are paved and some muddy. Mountains all around you. Small ducks swimming in the paddy fields and a pot-bellied pig sunbathing just on the path in front of you. We barely see any people, except for some local villagers. After like 4 hours of trekking through the nature we reach Lao Chai. We decide to have our lunch here. Of course the local entrepreneurs also know where to find you here, as soon as we sit down the local people come to your table try to sell you all kind of souvenirs. I’m amazed by how well small children who are selling items already can count from 1000 till 100.000. I decide to ignore the invitation to look and buy.
After our lunch I decide I want to go back the same way as we came. A shorter and easier version would be the mountain road, taking a car or scooter. But I’m not interested. I enjoyed the hike and view on the way back and I want to enjoy it to the max.
The way back feels way shorter than towards Lao Chai, but I’m not sweating any less. No, I’m sweating even more. The sun is high above us in the sky. I didn’t count for the sun today and left my sunscreen in the hotel. Stupid decision. When we are almost in Sapa its 5pm. I’m so looking forward for taking of my clothes and taking a cool shower. I’m counting down the minutes to my shower. Before we start to climb up the last part to Sapa, Tin shows me a hill on which you have a front row view on the sunset behind Fansipan. All wet and tired of the long walk and climbing back to Sapa I decide I don’t mind to take a rest, leave the shower waiting and like to see sunset. Here I am on the hill. Its beautiful and peaceful up here. Far away you hear the traffic en rumour of Sapa town. After the sun is down, I immediately feel its getting a bit cooler. It’s a nice welcome for me. We continue our last climb up to Sapa on that same steep path as were we did descent this early morning.
With sore feet, burned skin and sweat all over my body I arrive back in my hostel. Looking back on this day I’ve seen so many things I couldn’t get from riding the cable car. I’m glad I didn’t do the cable car.
The next day was my last day in Sapa. When I went out after breakfast the weather was completely different as the day before. Instead of hot air, sun and blue sky now all the sudden mount Fansipan was completely hidden behind a thick layer of mist. It was cold and a bit windy and you couldn’t see further than 100 meter. I had another Phin Sua da at the same art gallery as the first day. But this time there was nothing to see. I felt really lucky and happy about my experience and hike of the previous day.