Day 35: Sapa's Dirty Little Secret

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Asia » Vietnam » Northwest » Lao Cai » Sapa
November 18th 2009
Published: November 26th 2009
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Weather was so-so at the start of the hike but deteriorated rapidly.
Here are two things that no travel agent, tour operator or, apparently, guidebook will tell you about Sapa:

1. You will get dirty. Especially if you go trekking (which is what everyone does in Sapa because there is no easy way to get from one village to another via car). If it is raining or muddy, expect to get very, very dirty. So bring appropriate clothing (best if they are clothes that you can toss after you complete your trek).

2. Always, always, always check the weather before you leave Hanoi for Sapa. Get weather information for Sapa, not Lao Cai, which is at a much lower elevation. If it is cold and raining in Sapa, consider postponing or even perhaps canceling your trip. At the very least, call the hotel directly and ask if they have heat. We've discovered, from talking with other travelers, that most hotels in Sapa don't have heat. Even the best space heater won't make a dent in 40F temperatures when your building has effectively no insulation. At the end of your trek you will be muddy and, if it is raining, you will be thoroughly soaked so arriving at a hotel without heat

Flooded rice paddies on the side of our muddy walking path.
is a big letdown.

Our guidebook, Frommers, merely recommends that the traveler "be sure to bring one extra layer of warmth (a pullover will do)". The author has clearly never visited Sapa during the fall/winter months. What you need is a parka, rubber boots and a completely waterproof jacket and pants (Gortex will do).

So on to our day:

We woke up several times last night to coax the great Midea space heater into action. Each time we hit the timer for 1 hour, a little worried that the Midea didn't have built-in safety sensors one would find in an applicance manufactured in the United States and could burst into flames at any moment. Fortunately the Midea never exploded into flames and we started our day in a chilly room with almost no hot water.
Peeking out the window, we saw dense fog and rain. We cranked up Midea to the full setting, showered, dressed and packed our bags (both of us day-dreaming of sitting on deck chairs on a beach in Thailand). At 8am, we checked out, stored our bags and wandered down to Highland Coffee to warm up with lattes and pastries. At breakfast we

A relatively flat section of our muddy path.
decided to think of our Sapa journey as a camping trip and after 30 minutes in the warmth of Highland Coffee we felt a little bit better.

Bee met us at the hotel at 9am with two older ladies in tow, and we began our trek in the rain. Our agenda, Bee showed us on a map, would be to pass through a Black Hmong village located on the main road and then take a path down to her village for lunch; after lunch we'd hike a few more miles to a Dao village, where our driver would meet us to take us back to the hotel. It would be a downhill trek the entire way.

Bee was wearing the same outfit as yesterday except we noticed she had traded in her running shoes for knee-high rubber boots and she brought a large umbrella. We were wearing jeans, running shoes, several fleeces and waterproof jackets. Like Bee, we also carried umbrellas. Feeling prepared for the rain, off we went!

The main road was enshrouded in a dense fog and the first 40 minutes of our trek were uneventful. We soon arrived at the first Hmong village. It

Hey Bee, we are getting a bit wet!
was a small village and we didn't stop since it looked pretty bleak. We were looking forward to seeing Bee's village; she had even suggested that we stop by her house and we were extremely interested in that prospect. So it was with interest and excitment that we turned down the path to her village.

The next two hours were quite awful. We hiked, rather slid, down a steep, very slippery, very muddy path, flanked on both sides by terraces of rice paddies. Down down down we went - at least 1,000 feet - towards Bees village which appeared and disappeared into the clouds.

It probably would have been a delightful walk if the path were dry and the sun shining. But that was not the case and we crept slowly downward, slipping here and there in the mud but never falling face down in the mud. The path was nearly vertical at times and, on a few turns, there were steep drop-offs on one side. We agreed - this was a bit dangerous.

It almost goes without saying that Bee and her two friends happily walked down the path, like little bright mountain goats, well prepared

Quick break in the rain - time for a photo.
and accustomed to mud. Both of the older women kept holding out their hands, offering to steady us (Angelique especially). The idea of falling off a hillside and taking one or both of these frail-looking 80-lb grandmothers was a bit disconcerting, so we refused their offers.

After about 2 hours, to our immense relief, the path flattened out and we traded in slippery downhills for flooded rice paddies, meaning that we were hiking in ankle-deep water. Our pants, jackets and gloves were covered in mud and our shoes were soaked. After crossing several rice paddies we saw a large tour group behind us coming down the same steep path that we had negotiated 20 minutes earlier. Like us they seemed to be very muddy and very wet.

And then we reached Bee's house and we forgot that we were cold and that we were muddy and that we were a bit miserable. We stopped at Bee's house for about 15 minutes so that she could breastfeed her son. She introduced us her to husband, a good-looking guy in his early 20s, and her very cute and photogenic baby, Dang (not sure of spelling but translation is "blue"). We

After the steep descent and after crossing several flooded rice paddies we arrived at a river.
sat on a low bench facing the front door and Bee sat on another bench near us, nursing and chatting. This was the home of her in-laws; she and her husband are saving up for a house of their own. The building had one door and, from what we could see, no windows. The floors were stone/dirt and the walls and roof were made of wood and tin. There were two stories in the house; the family lived in rooms on the lower level and stored food in the loft area above. We saw cured meats and vegetables hanging from the rafters. A large fire was blazing in a pit in the kitchen?? to our left; to our right were the family's communal sleeping quarters. On the wall in the entry room was a clock, some family photos of weddings and other special occasions, and the ubiquitous photo of Uncle Ho. We told Bee that we had visited Uncle Ho in Hanoi. She responded, with a smile, "Do you think it's really him?". We pondered that for a few minutes.

After meeting her father-in-law briefly, we bundled up again and hiked 15 minutes to our lunch spot - crossing
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Crossing the river and entering Bee's village.
more rice paddies and a few rickety bamboo bridges. Finally we arrived at two very large buildings perched on a hill overlooking the river. We could see the ladies before we got there - a huge group of them forming a line directly in our path - kind of a "red rover, red rover" feel from grade school gym class. We managed to get past them and to lunch which was plentiful and fairly good; fried tofu in a tomato sauce, cooked cabbage, pork with onions and mushrooms, chicken with lemongrass and fresh fruit for dessert. Our table overlooked a river and we watched a number of ladies from various hilltribes in their amazing traditional dress walking across bridge and occasionally accosting tourists in hopes of selling their embroided textiles.

After lunch Adrian managed to negotiate a good price for a few pieces of brightly colored and intricately embroidered cloth, but only after starting an aggressive bidding war among several of the ladies. One lady wouldn't budge from her price so Adrian went with another who offered it for 50% less. This enraged the first lady who hissed: "You very mean man!".

Covered in mud and soaked to
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Bee and her son "Dang"?
the skin, we opted to end our trek for the day. Bee was very accomodating and arranged for the driver, a young guy with an impressively large, new, SUV to pick us up. We held our breath as he careened up the muddy road that leads from the main, paved road to the village. Our driver nearly skidded off the road and into the rice paddies a few times but we made it safely to the top. Feeling some sort of bond with us, he cranked up his music, a kind of techno-rap mix in English. The lyrics were profane to say the least and we wondered how much of it he understood.

Back at the Global Hotel, we made use of the communal showers to rinse off as much mud as possible. About an hour later, the people from the group tours began to arrive and clean up. A few were unaccountably perky and delighted with the experience but most were covered in mud and shaking with cold. We heard some pretty sobering tales from those who had selected the homestay option (instead of staying in the hotel, sleeping at a house in an Hmong village). Leaky roofs,
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Inside Bee's house.
chilling cold. The Global was a five star resort in comparison.

With a few hours to kill before our van left for the long trip to Lao Cai and the train, we wandered back into town. Adrian picked up some new hiking shoes for $35; Angelique bought a few pair of warm socks for $3. Then it was back to Highland for a coffee to warm up.

The van ride back to Lao Cai, in the dark and nearly zero-visibility fog was uneventful, even at the muddy bit. The fog cleared by the time we reached Lao Cai. We boarded the train on time and settled down for a much-needed sleep on our way back to Hanoi. We have one more day in Hanoi and then we go to Halong Bay for a three-day cruise.

Additional photos below
Photos: 14, Displayed: 14


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"You buy from me!!"

Adrian bought a small wallet from this lady.

Sapa in the fog. The Delta Restaurant.

Highland Coffee!

Is that a scooter coming right at us!

12th January 2010

Great sapa info
Thank you for taking the time to write your account in such detail. My wife and I leave for Vetnam in five days (1-16-10) and Sapa is on our list of places to see. We've been mildly concerned about the weather/clothing/temperature situation we would find there and was actually checking the net to see if it were possible to purchase rubber boots in Sapa when I stumbled upon your blog post. We'll be looking at the weather closely and may very well drop the Sapa leg if the weather isn't clear. Chris

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