Asia / Vietnam

Sapa.”You stink like a buffalo”.

I’m not gonna lie. The town of Sapa was a big disappointment. Perhaps because we set up our expectations too high after reading some travel blogs and forums about Vietnam. Perhaps it simply was not my cup of tea… Sapa is a very touristy place. Where is the real life we could experience in Hanoi? In Sapa you can see more tourists than locals (or maybe they are easier to spot as local people are super short!). Where is the amazing cheap street food? Most of the places in Sapa are already ranked on trip advisor so: a. you won’t see the local crowd eating there; b. the food is more expensive; c.the quality is not that amazing. Last but not least – where are those beautiful views everyone was talking about? I can barely see the sunset as some of the recently built hotels are more like skyscrapers almost covering the skyline. I’m telling you, one day, tourist industry will ruin all those beautiful places around the globe.

What’s more the town seems to be completely ruled by a “gang” of local street vendors, harassing you, everywhere you go. And you wont be off the hook telling them you’ve already bought 5 bracelets like that (but not from me!!).  

If you have Sapa on your itinerary, keep calm and brace yourself. Assuming you can get over all of the above points/moans and take it how it is, you may as well fall in love with Sapa. Or at least with the surrounding, SPECTACULAR landscapes, impressive terraced rice fields, the beauty of which, is simply bewitching. 

This is Sapa, it doesn’t look too bad, does it? I have a feeling that more and more hotels are being built each year and it will only get worse. It’s like a big construction zone. We’ve been waken up by the sound of bulldozers at 6am! 
This is the main street. It’s been raining the whole day so the quality of the pic is not very good, but just to give you the idea.
The church in Sapa. Overall, the town reminds me a bit of Aguas Calientes in Peru.
Little girls from Sapa.
Now compare Sapa and this view. Don’t stay in the town longer than it’s necessary. Go trek and explore. This is somewhere nearby Ta Van village. 

We fly back from HCMC to Hanoi, where we have time for a quick dinner before our sleeper train to Sapa. It’s easier and cheaper to take a bus but I love train journeys so this is our preferred option. We arrive to Lao Cai in the morning, fresh and ready for the fight. It’s a real challenge to get out of the train station as it’s full of taxi drivers trying to get you on their cab. I booked our transfer in advance, through our hotel (because come on – it’s 5am, who is able to haggle at 5am?!). A different story is that the driver didn’t know where the hotel was and he left us in a completely random place. 🙂

Lao Cai’s train station used to be known as one of the biggest “Viet-scams”. People were constantly overpaying to get to Sapa. Nowadays it improved a lot. You shouldn’t pay more than 2-3 dollars per person for a transfer. In comparison, if you take a local bus it will be 1 dollar, but it has several stops.

We stay at Black H’mong hotel, located on one of the main roads. It’s a very nice place, even though our room is facing the street. But what what we find really awesome is – the ELECTRIC MATTRESS (warming up the bed)!!! Now you may think “rubbish, I don’t need it”, but the weather in Sapa is unpredictable. The forecast looks not so good. It is raining, we can’t do the check-in so we go for a walk trying to find a place for breakfast. As you can imagine we aren’t in high spirits. We didn’t expect it was going to be so loud and crowded. What’s more are not able to find a decent place serving Pho – scandalous! The forecast says – heavy rain for the next 4 days. We give up and I change our tickets back to Hanoi (originally we were supposed to spend 4 days in Sapa, but we decided to shorten our stay to 3 days).

So we have 3 days and, despite of the weather, we want to go for a trek. We buy a 2 days/1 night trip starting next morning and spend the whole afternoon exploring the area by motorbike.

On the way up the mountains we find a beautiful waterfall. We are already in a better mood when suddenly our motorbike decides to stop in the middle of the road. And it starts raining. This is it. The end of our adventure. We start laughing, because what else we can we do. I just can’t believe how “lucky” we’ve been so far in Sapa. 

Totally drenched we get back to our room. Now tell me again you don’t need that electric mattress!?

Silver Waterfall – you can get there by motorbike from Sapa. 
Short walk to the viewing point takes around 20 minute – level of difficulty “rookie”.
Almost a “Bird’s eye view” of the waterfall 😉
If you are drenched a hot bowl of Pho will give you a new lease of life! 

2 days/1 night trekking in Sapa (with accommodation and all meals included) can cost you 20 euro or… even up to 4 times more. Difference in price translates into difference in service. You get what you pay for, even though the views are still going to be the same. The most precious is what you are going to learn from your guide. It was our last week in Vietnam so the “finance department” didn’t approve such extravagance so we ended up buying a cheap trek. Do I regret? In a way yes, but on the other hand no. It still was a crazy and cool thing to do and I enjoyed it a lot!

We get up early and got to the meeting point where we meet another couple. It turns out that it’s only them and us – a semi private tour. Sounds great! So 4 of us… followed by a gang of local Hmong women. 🙂 It’s like 10 of them so as you see the “tourists vs guides” ratio looks pretty good. Funny? Not so much when you realize what they are up to.

These women are carrying plastic bags full of handicraft, some of them walk with babies sleeping in the willow baskets on their back. They don’t follow tourists for fun. They follow them hoping they can sell something. No matter how annoying was their constant “please, buy something” each time we stopped, I was heartbroken knowing that what they would earn on the way was probably their only income. 

Is it ethical to haggle then? Or to be pissed off when they approach you? Please bear in mind Sapa’s difficult climate allows only a single rice crop per year and food shortages are a constant concern. The future of local tribes in uncertain, unless they find alternative source of income and those women seem to understand it like no other.

Tourists vs guides ratio looks pretty good. 🙂
Women of Sapa – some of them will follow you during your trek. They carry plastic bags full of handicraft willing to sell it on the way to the tourists.
I love folk fashion so I was immediately attracted to the beautiful textile they wear. Each tribe has their own dress code – this is black Hmong woman (no, the umbrella isn’t a part of the dress code :p it’s just another thing to sell!).
Kids from Ta Van village don’t wear traditional costumes – it makes me think that maybe the adults do it only for tourists? It would be such a shame as it’s a region of very rich textile heritage.
She is still working selling bracelets. There is nothing like state pension age in Sapa.

We left half of our luggage in the hotel (some clothes) and we walk only with one backpack and our camera. In theory it should be easier, but life doesn’t treat us leniently.

It rains cats and dogs and all the paths turned into rivers of mud. Many times I was about to fall over and not-so-graciously end up with my butt in one of those muddy puddles. It’s not that I’m clumsy, well yes, a bit, but my shoes were slipping and sliding like I was on a damn ice rink. The Hmong women were always there to help me. I don’t know how they managed to balance wearing flip flops and carrying so many things (including babies!).

We can see other people on the path and finally all the roads lead to Rome which in this case is a restaurant where we stop for lunch. The food is surprisingly good, but it is impossible to eat it in peace as those ladies are constantly nagging us trying to sell their stuff. We are more than happy to leave that place and continue our trek until we finally arrive to our homestay.

It turns out that it’s not exclusively for us, but it’s ok as the other people seem to be nice. The house is big, but looks unfinished. Upstairs are some mattresses – place to sleep for us, downstairs a big kitchen, some sort of living room and the bathrooms. The diner is really good and we can even sample local rice wine. Do you remember what is it? I wrote about it in this post from the Mekong Delta. Nothing more and nothing less that a strong moonshine. This is all you need after a day of trekking in the rain. Another amazing basic thing is hot water – as we are drenched (even my super expensive waterproof jacket finally gave up) and dirty from the mud hot shower feels so good!

Here we are! Soaking wet but happy.
RIP my trainers! I had to get rid of them after the trek. 

Obviously my shoes didn’t get a chance to dry over one night so in the morning I have a doubtful pleasure of wearing my disgusting smelly socks and wet, dirty shoes again. At least I don’t feel sorry when it starts raining again. Day two is way easier to walk because our trek ends around lunch time. The horrible thing is we then have to wait for our train Hanoi until 7pm. WITH NO SHOWER. Yuck!

We couldn’t take a shower until we arrived to Hanoi (no joking – like 2 days later!). At the same time Mario learnt how to say “you smell like a buffalo” in polish – as far as I’m concerned this is the only full sentenced he knows in my language. 🙂

We get the local bus (budget option) to get to Lao Cai. It is a school bus so we travel with a bunch of cute kids. The stare at us, maybe we really smell like a buffalo? We eat dinner in Lao Cai and by train we travel back to Hanoi.

This is it. The Wildest Tales from Sapa. If you plan to visit the north of Vietnam you should try to book your trek with a reputable company such as Sapa Sisters or Ethos. I don’t work for them, I just think that it’s totally worth your money. You could also find a guide or rent a motorbike and go towards the border with China for the real adventure. Sapa is very touristy, not worth your time and attention, but it’s a good point to start your journey to discover that part of Vietnam. You can stay in on of the homestays and self organize one day treks. Learn from my mistakes. I don’t regret we did it in that particular way, because it was an adventure but I feel like I’ve experience so little. When I am back (I will definitely come back because the north of Vietnam is indeed incredible) I promised myself to do it my way, off the beaten track I can’t wait!

There were moments when it was not raining and Mario was taking pictures of our route – quite scenic, isn’t it?
We were so lucky as one day before our trek the visibility was really bad. Sapa seems to be ashamed of its own beauty hiding herself in the clouds and fog. 
Rice paddies – another stunning view. 
We were trekking through fields and villages. 
Mario finally learnt to fly 🙂
Rice paddies look really incredible from the top of the mountains.
We had a sneak peak of local life.
Vietnamese women are fierce and strong! My fave shot from the whole trip. Just look at her – the energy in this picture is incredible.
You stink like a buffalo – was the first full sentence in Polish my boyfriend told me. Spanish boyfriends are so romantic. 🙂