Trekking in Sapa

If you had told me a few months ago that I would be completing not one, but two 3-day treks this year, I would have thought you were nuts. Hiking, as I’ve mentioned, is not my favorite activity yet has turned out to be the highlight of some of the trips I’ve taken this year.

After a whirlwind day in chaotic Hanoi, the prospect of spending three days in nature sounded blissful. We took an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, where we were taken via bus to the bustling market town of Sapa. In addition to being quite charming in and of itself, Sapa serves as a jumping off point for trekking in this region of northern Vietnam.

After rearranging our stuff and enjoying some breakfast, we were off. Our guide was Mu, a 24-year-old who has lived in this region her whole life. She has been leading treks for the past four years. It is worth noting that most of the trekking guides in this area are women, and often serve as the breadwinners for their families.

Unfortunately, our party was not just the three of us and Mu. We were joined by three women, who spent the first part of the day talking to us and helping us over the more treacherous parts and the latter part trying to sell us their wares. We had read about these women on TripAdvisor, and so tried to ignore them as best we could. While I understand that they are trying to earn their living, I found their presence to be a distraction from the quietude of the hike. I was also probably a little annoyed that one of their “helping” hands nearly landed me in a creek.

Nevertheless, nothing could detract from the natural beauty of the Sapa region. We visited just as the harvest season was beginning, which meant the rice terraces were in the process of turning a gorgeous golden hue.IMG_5090IMG_5091IMG_5094IMG_5100IMG_5104We spent our first night in the village of Ta Van, home to the Giay people. Our housing was somewhat of a cross between staying at an inn and in someone’s home. Much like Myanmar, a series of mattresses were set up on the floor and dinner was served to us in the evening (I have a whole post on Vietnamese food, lest you think I’m glossing over what we ate).

This homestay, however, was quite a bit more modern than ours in Myanmar. We had access to a Western toilet and shower, as well as electricity and even wifi! I didn’t even bring a charger for my phone, since I assumed there would be no use for it. The trekking business in Vietnam is certainly more developed than that of Myanmar (as is the country as a whole). I wouldn’t be surprised if Myanmar has similar accommodations in 10 or so years.

Here was the view when we woke up the next day:IMG_5125IMG_5128We were back on the trail the next morning, ready for another day of hiking. Day 2’s terrain was much like Day 1’s, with the exception of an awesome bamboo forest through which we trekked (no pictures of the bamboo, I’m afraid, as I was too busy trying not to fall).IMG_5131IMG_5136IMG_5150If you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, Tara looks an awful lot like a Boy Scout in that picture,” you’d be wrong. I look like a farmer in that picture. The old bandana-on-the-back-of-the-neck trick is one learned I learned from grandfather’s field attire, and has prevented many a sunburnt neck whilst hiking.

The pathway down to the Ban Ho, where we stayed the second night, was a tricky one. We lucked out in that it didn’t rain a drop during our whole trek, which was fortunate because I couldn’t imagine how slippery it would have been if the trails had been wet. The picture below is of the main path; once again, I didn’t get a picture of the tricky part because I was having trouble just walking. IMG_5165IMG_5169We made it to our homestay quite early, around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. This one wasn’t quite as modern as the first, so we didn’t have anything except ourselves and each other to entertain us (and a single English guidebook to Vietnam, which was about 20 years old). A couple from England arrived shortly after we did, and we made friends with them over a couple of local beers and dinner that night.IMG_5170The last day of our trek was short and sweet. Wanting to spend some time in Sapa town upon returning, we had asked Mu if we could leave for our hike early the next day. Proving that time is ever fluid in Southeast Asia, we walked out around 9 or 10 the next day. (You would think, by the way, that this is something I would be used to by now but I find that my mind still races constantly to New York time.)

This last bit of the trek turned out to be more of a nature walk to a waterfall about 30 minutes away. We hung out there for a bit before traveling back to our homestay to retrieve our bags and catch the taxi back to Sapa.IMG_5180IMG_5190I highly recommend trekking through the Sapa region if you get the chance. Although we trekked only about half the distance of what we did in Myanmar, I found the terrain of Sapa to be much more difficult to hike. Since you begin in Sapa town, at the top of the mountain, and hike down into the valley, there are more than a few treacherous downhill stretches (I’m also terrible at hiking downhill, so there’s that). The scenery, however, is not to be missed. Aim to go late September- early October, when the rainy season is mostly finished and the rice paddies have changed color.

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