3 days in Sapa
Although Sapa is a relatively small town in Northern Vietnam where we only spent 3 nights, I’m going to dedicate 2 blog posts to our time in Sapa. The first will be dedicated to how we spend our time there while the second will focus on our experience with May, an incredible young women who we were lucky to have guide us for our trek on on first day, and what we learned from her about life as a woman living in Sapa. I hope you enjoy both.
For those unfamiliar with Sapa, it’s about 320KM north of Vietnam (about 5.5 hours on a bus). Set within the mountains and made up of a number of small indigenous villages with endless rice terraces spread across the valleys between, Sapa is an incredibly picturesque area.
We took the Sapa Express sleeper bus from Hanoi leaving at 7:30am. Although we did not sleep, it was an interesting experience boarding the sleeper bus for the first time. This bus had 3 rows of ‘bunk beds’, so 2 aisles along the middle row of ‘seats’. When we got to Sapa around 1pm, the bus was met by a group of locals, eager to take us trekking, set us up with a homestay, give us a ride, or already trying to sell us things. They were so aggressive they would hover over our shoulders as we tried to figure out where our homestay was just so that they could tell us we needed a ride.
Noteworthy Sapa Moments:
When we arrived at our homestay the first day, the host, who speaks a little english was not there. His wife greeted us but given the language barrier and the casual nature of ‘check in’ we sat with her in a stare off of sorts for quite some time before Will gestured to our bags and to the space upstairs. We did attempt to use google translate but unfortunately Hmong isn’t available for google to read out loud and her reading seemed to be elementary
Despite the initial awkwardness, we ended up having a really nice experience at the homestay. This was thanks in part to the other couples staying there. The first night we had 3 other couples with us: Brits, Poles & Scots. The homestay family cooked us a huge (and amazing) dinner and it was nice to chat and get to know one another. The following night it was just us and the Scottish couple and on the last night ended up being just us. The experience was markedly different with no other guests at the home, and I can imagine we may have felt differently about it had we been all along on our first vs. last night.
On our first full day we decided to do a guided hike, thinking it would be the best way to see the area. We booked a trek through a company called Lily Travel, under the assumption that it would be a private guide. The morning got off to a good start, the guide picked us up at our Homestay as planned and took us to the starting point. But as soon as we got there we saw a huge group of people. We stood around for a little, trying to decide what to do. But, once Will pointed out the American guy with a flask of whisky in his back pocket and a joint behind his ear we decided it wasn’t the type of trek we were looking for (it was also not even 9am). Since we hadn’t paid yet, and knew a different company, Sapa Sisters, offered private hikes for only $13 more per person, we decided to make the quick call to leave the group and go do our own thing.
The switch above ended up being a great idea. We luckily were paired with an incredible guide, May. May is a 23 year old, who is known as the village rebel because of her progressive views. It was amazing to learn about her and her life experience, specifically as a young woman growing up in the Black Hmong community. More of our experience with May is captured in my post tiled: Finding Perspective in Sapa
The women who sell goods in Sapa are true hustlers. They approach you by simply saying “shopping” and don’t let up until they realize there really is no chance. If you say “maybe” they will bring that back to the present moment asking “why not now” and will stick with you all day if they think they’ve got you. We saw a group of indigenous women who had followed hikers to the top of a mountain, just hoping they would buy their goods!
What we did
Walk to Sapa town & around lake: This essentially means climbing up a winding mountain road to get to the town. Given where our homestay was it was a perfect hike to start the day.
Trek with Sapa Sisters: Hiking with Sapa Sisters was a true highlight. We did a pretty long day trek that included: SaSeng, Hang Da, Lao Chai & Ta Van. It took us up into the mountains first, for incredible 360 degree views, and then down through the rice terraces & villages.
Trek to Ta Phan & Ta Phan caves- After trekking with May, she suggested we check out Ta Phan the next day. We were able to do this on our own with some help from an offline map site called Maps.me. We thought we’d be on main roads the entire way, but were surprised by the paths we were directed to. It certainly is not a main route for the average day trekker as we didn’t see anyone else for nearly the entire time. The town itself was pretty bare bones, but there is a cave not far from the main village. The cave was way bigger than either of us expected. We took about 5 steps into the cave’s mouth to realize we did in fact need a flashlight & guide if we wanted to see more. Of course, there were about 10 girls waiting around ready to take us in. We had a lovely 14 year old girl lead the way. Apparently it’s possible to do 2-3 day long hikes into this cave, and she seemed to be willing to go until we said stop, which ended up being about 5 minutes into the cave when I started to get scared (lots of tight passages, low ceilings, climbs, etc).
Motorbike ride! On the walk to Ta Phan, we talked about how we’d get back to Sapa and I was confident there would be taxis (we were always surrounded by them after all), but sure enough it was such a remote village that as we got closer it was obvious we might have some trouble after all. After the cave, there was someone there offering us rides back via motorbikes and since we knew it was pretty much that or walking (which would mean another 4 hours back), we opted for the Motorbike. I was terrified the entire time, Will loved it. That being said it was a fun experience, and certainly a part of life here, so glad we had the opportunity, though I’m sure it won’t be the last.
What / where we ate
Homestay (ChienDe Homestay) Breakfast: Every morning at the homestay we had banana pancakes for breakfast! They were more like crepes into which we would add the pancakes (and condensed milk, a new daily indulgence)
Homestay Dinner: We had dinner at our homestay all 3 nights. Not only was it insanely inexpensive ($2.50 each), but it was SO good! They basically just brought out a variety of dishes, including lots of veggies, which I loved.
Good Morning Vietnam: Along the route from our homestay to Sapa Town, so was a good place to stop for lunch.
Fansipan Terrace: Also on the route from our homestay to Sapa Town, so we enjoyed the view from the terrace, the food & coffee on a few different occasions
Things to note if you are going to Sapa:
Many people choose to do homestays in Sapa and I definitely recommend it. However I also think it’s important to know it’s possible to do homestays, like the one we did without having to do overnight treks. Ours worked out really well since it was still walking distance to Sapa village (worth noting it’s all uphill, took us about 30 minutes, but it could be closer to an hour for others).
We didn’t actually visit Cat Cat village although it was just a 10 minute walk from our Homestay. Since we got to see nearly every other village in the area, we chose to forego paying for Cat Cat. It sounded like a lovely place, but even more built up / developed than the other villages in the area.
We also didn’t make it to the top of Fansipan Mountain. If there was any multi-day trek we were going to do, I would have wanted it to be this one. Apparently this is a hike that you really can’t do without a guide and we didn’t have much interest in paying $25 each to ride a cable car to the top of the mountain. We did hear there were spectacular views, but felt we had already had those in Sapa.
Don’t engage the women who are selling goods unless you truly want to buy something! They will stick with you until you do. Get used to saying no.