I write this sat on the train back to Hanoi from Sapa. I admit, the sheer vastness and beauty of Sapa has left me utterly exhausted. I cannot recommend it enough and cannot say how deeply the rest of my group enjoyed this trip. Here’s hoping they find this article does Sapa justice…….if not, my friends, please forgive me!!
I have always been a country girl, regardless of continent. If I have not seen the countryside I do not feel that I have seen the true country. This definitely applies to Sapa and Vietnam. Although other tourists have found this gem, it is one of the few places where you have to use little imagination to understand what Vietnam used to be.
Landscapes of Sapa
Hanoi and the “overnight sleeper”
Our adventure starts after an intense day seeing Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology where we began to understand the Northern hill tribes that we’d be visiting, followed by an afternoon taking a cooking class which included some spicy regional treats! That evening instead of going back to our hotel we excitedly headed for Hanoi’s central train station where we boarded our “overnight sleeper”. Although this was certainly more adventurous that the rest of our small group tour passengers don’t have to do without our creature comforts. On board you’ll find pillows, a duvet, full air con and even a TV (although this showed mostly Vietnamese favourites). During the journey I slept like a baby, I put this down to the gentle hum and rocking of the train.
At 5.15 we got a firm knock on our cabin door letting us know we were now only 15mins for the Sapa station. Weary eyed but excited, the sun was just coming up and the fog was clearing. As the light increased we could see the start of the lush landscape, palm trees and rice fields for which this epic region of Vietnam is famed!
First local encounter
On arrival to the Bamboo Hotel our minds were set on jumping in the shower as and freshening up. However, the breathtaking views from the Hotel’s French style balcony distracted the entire group and we spent as least half an hour picture taking and soaking up the scenery! Once we were all watered and fed we had a chance to explore the town. Walking through the town we chatted and bartered with the beautiful local hill tribe Black Hmong ladies. Altough adhering to strict customs these ladies are savvy entrepreneurs: the key is to stay strong and promise them nothing, they will not forget if you do! No matter where you go, more than anything the locals are always interested in you and they are always keen to practice their English.
Rice terraces and local portraits
Our local guide in Sapa was fantastic, his depth of knowledge and English were second to none, but more than that he tailored our trip to the group’s requirements. Taking one look at us, he decided that we could handle a more “adventurous” trek, and so took us down a mountain lane which opened up into the most stunning valley. What started out as a gentle amble down a rocky road (like the trek in the original itinerary) soon turned into hopping over idyllic little streams and getting to take in the views from the edge of working padi fields. Elsewhere we visited a local village that felt a world away from much of modern Vietnam. We sat and watched as local kids played in streams, the locals diligently went about their daily routines and many of the village elders gazed at our camera’s with innocent curiosity. We were a little worried by the language barrier but fear not! I found after asking their permission for a photo through some improvised sign was dead easy and my now local friends were always flattered and impressed by seeing their faces on LCD!
Local lady of the Red Zi tribe
The Red Zi and our grand finale
The train journey and the trek set us in good stead for a great night’s sleep back at the Bamboo hotel. At 9am the next day we were driven through the valley into Loa Chia. Here we were joined by many new friends from both the Black Hmong and Red Zi tribes. This walk was definitely more of a leisurely amble and I’m in no way exaggerating when I say it was even more beautiful than the scenery of the day before. That is something that they have certainly got down on this extension they certainly know how to build you up to a grand finale, so however good you think it is on that train journey the first morning you get woken up, just keep in mind it gets better. After our walk through the local villages we ended up at a resort for a well deserved lunch where we were treated to a mountain of gorgeous Northern Vietnamese specialties and entertained with a display of some traditional dance and local instruments.
Local Topas eco-lodge
Topas eco-lodge…..rooms with views!
After lunch we were transferred to the famous Topas Eco Lodge, the reason why so many people make this extra trip to Sapa and it does not disappoint. It has individual huts looking out onto the panoramic landscape of the mountainous padi fields. For me it is the best view I have had on all of my travels from a room. It was simply breathtaking! You can choose to enjoy this view with a cold Hanoi beer or take another walk around the grounds on the buffalo trail. Words do not do this place justice and I fear nor does a photo. You just can’t beat seeing it with your own eyes.
Chinese border & educational gifts
The next day we had a gentle walk to a local school, and we were escorted by the Red Zi tribes women. This was so interesting to see how the schools worked, what they looked liked and to experience the journey local kids have to take on a daily basis. This walk took us 3hour round trip. Unfortunately the kids were on school holiday, but we did get to meet the teachers who were preparing for their return, we gave them the stationary we had purchased in the super market in Hanoi a few days previously. They were so appreciative, it was an incredible rewarding experience to be part of.
After walking back to the Eco lodge we had all worked up a sweat and a healthy appetite. Out local guide suggested we go back to Lao Cai and have lunch there as there was a great value restaurant he recommended. As a group we made the decision to rent one room out at the bamboo lodge so we could use the shower before boarding the train in the evening. This cost us $5 USD each, and it was worth every last penny!
As a little extra our local guide suggested that on our way down to the train station we have a quick stop at the Chinese border. This was a great little extra that none of us were expecting.