Day 18. Sapa was the location I was most excited about visiting in Vietnam. The highest mountains in the country reside here. Ethnic minorities housing a lot of culture. Quiet and peaceful relaxation. Splendid views on the rice terraces. I’ll take that Sapa. Let’s go!
After the burning weather and the dense humidity in Hanoi, it was a blessing that I was looking forward to in this mountainous region. With a temperature of about 20° it was way cooler than in Vietnam’s capital. The days before arriving though I got a terrible cough, probably because I’m not used to air conditioners and jumping from hot to cold temperatures all the time can be a daunting task for your body. That meant that on my arrival I was pretty tired as I couldn’t sleep that well on the overnight train.
You should know that Sapa is one of the more touristy areas in Vietnam. I was actually aware but in my sick morning-zombie-mode I got a victim of typical tourist scamming. As I only booked a train from Hanoi to Lao Cai – without a connecting bus to Sapa about 60km away – beforehand I needed to organize something upon arrival.
Lurching through the train station several bus drivers approached me, asking if I needed to go to Sapa. When asking them about the price for the transportation I didn’t get a clear answer and I was a bit skeptical, but it was 5 in the morning and all I wanted to do was sleep a bit longer and cure my cough. After a while of thinking about what to do, I just agreed and let my backpack be taken to the van by a driver.
I didn’t have to wait very long for the surprise though because after he took my backpack and locked it in the van he showed me the price he was asking for on his calculator: 400.000 VND (about 17$). 😱 Shocking. That was about the price I paid for the train all the way from Hanoi to Lao Cai. In the end, I did manage to negotiate him down to about 10$ which was still quite a bit too much.
“You want Homestay?”
I was a little upset and angry at myself that I didn’t organize the connecting bus earlier, at least from now on I’ll be more cautious about prices being set too high and soon I’d have a bed to get more rest.
The bus dropped me right in the center of Sapa where I first wanted to walk around to take some pictures. It felt pretty cold after getting used to Hanoi’s hot temperature. And noisy. The whole town was heavily under construction at the time, big hotels were built all over the place. And then there’s the Hmong, the ethnic minority that lives in this province. Remember that I told you Sapa was very touristy? It took three minutes until an elderly Hmong woman approached me with the words: “Hellooow. Where you from? You want Homestay?”.
Very welcoming actually, but first of all I was very tired and simply wanted to take some rest and secondly: if you walk around this area solo – without a Hmong guiding you to someplace – you will encounter them, asking you the same thing. Every. Ten. Minutes. It can quickly get very annoying.
Hmong woman in Sapa
Sapa – Ta Van
Anyways: there I was in Sapa and I finished my morning walk. The views here were already amazing, however, it was very cloudy – which I heard was normal all year round for Sapa.
The bungalow where I wanted to stay was in Ta Van, a village about 8km away from Sapa and I decided to walk all the way there. The good thing was that the path to the village was just going down, so even with a heavier backpack it wasn’t too exhausting.
With some stops for taking pictures and some rest in between, it took me about 3 hours to walk all the way down. The views on the rice terraces and the surrounding mountains were stunning and I couldn’t ask for more on my first day here.
Sapa, covered in clouds
The first couple days that I stayed in Ta Van were pretty calm. I was mainly chilling in a hammock and writing in my journal about the last few days in Hanoi while enjoying the beautiful views. The bungalow I stayed in was a little bit off the beaten track so it was very quiet and relaxing.
After spending a day or two relaxing and recovering from my illness I went exploring the village and visited a bar with a huge terrace nearby, where three guys were giving a concert one night. They were from Australia and the UK and had met on their travels, deciding to continue their journey together while playing some music wherever possible. I think I stayed there for four hours, breathing in the views with a beer in my hand and watching them play. It was a pretty chill evening and a very inspiring atmosphere.
Another day I joined a guest from the bungalow to a beeswax fabric workshop. It’s an old traditional art, where hot wax gets painted onto the fabric with special tools. You can read more about it in an article I found here. It’s a very interesting process and quite difficult to achieve a homogeneous look if you’re a first-timer.
Hmong Woman with her baby
Hmong drawing with hot beeswax on fabric
Hiking around Ta Van
After I finally felt better I decided to go hiking and explore the area. Oh boy, I can tell you that walking around here is stunning. It can be very exhausting, especially when it was (or is) raining and all the trails are muddy as hell, but the views are simply amazing and worth every effort.
I generally did all of my treks alone, there were some trails marked in maps.me so I didn’t bother too much about getting lost, although I would recommend taking a Hmong as a guide to hike around for a few days with one or two nights in a Homestay. It’s simply a better experience and they can tell you more about the history, culture, and lifestyle in the area. Alas, I was on a pretty tight budget overall, so I just went on my own which ended up in some fun encounters.
Once I was trekking from Ta Van half way up to Sapa (remember, it was about 8km). Locals, as well as tourists, were quite surprised to see me doing it because everyone is normally going the other, easier way down. After a while, I realized why. It was indeed very far to hike all the way to Sapa and I needed to turn around in the middle because a big storm was coming. I wish I could have gone further that way though, it was so beautiful.
I think pictures tell more than a thousand words so I’ll just leave you with some impressions of the landscape.
Lost without water
Ok here comes a fun story:
To the waterfall
There was one day where I wanted to visit a – supposedly – nice waterfall just around the corner, only about 30 minutes of trekking. It was said to be quite popular, during my journey I even ran into a large group of people that were going there as well, guided by a local Hmong. Instead of following them I instead took a longer stop to savor the surrounding nature.
So when moving on, I, unfortunately, lost track of them and ended up at a fork in the path. I was not sure if it was better to continue on the main path that was leading more up, or turn left and walk slightly down. Climbing up seemed more tempting, so I decided to just go there. It was both an amazing as well as a stupid decision.
First of all, it didn’t lead me to the waterfall, instead, it led just randomly up the mountain. The path got more and more exhausting the further I climbed though it presented me with amazing landscapes. It was so beautiful that I kept on going for hours. Brainfucked as I am I didn’t bring any water, I had been planning to be back from the waterfall after about an hour.
Luckily, I ran into a guy from Slovenia who was following the same path and he was carrying enough water to share. We quickly decided to hike on together and wanted to reach a lonesome tree at a mountain peak in front of us. Unfortunately, we went the wrong way and ended up in the middle of nowhere, so at some point, we just decided to turn around for some lunch that we really needed.
On our way back there were locals offering us a ride down to the valley in their car. I should have agreed because dumb me was hiking in wet shoes without socks. While walking I noticed that my foot was rubbing on my shoe all the time, which led to a brutal blister. See? Stupid.
In retrospect, I would say that the whole day was well worth the pain. I had lots of fun with the guy I met and the nature we saw was priceless.
Hiking around Ta Van
Fully recovered from my cough and with great excitement I took off back to Hanoi again. Sitting in the van that was driving all the way to Lao Cai was a tough act. The roads around here are not the best, there are potholes everywhere. While it is already annoying to be on a motorbike here, it’s even more awful to sit in a car, because there’s no way to drive around the holes. That means you end up bumping around in the car, sitting still in the seat for a minute is nearly impossible. Anyways: it was a fun ride back, free rollercoaster I’d say! 💃🏼
Sapa and its surrounding area was mainly about the nature and landscapes for me, so there is nothing too fancy that happened during my week here. I definitely enjoyed staying here and can recommend this area to anyone who is on a trip to Northern Vietnam.