Trekking through terraced rice paddies and getting to know local minorities – only in Sapa!

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Asia » Vietnam » Northwest » Lao Cai » Sapa
August 5th 2013
Published: October 9th 2013
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With the typhoon on our heads during the weekend we started having serious doubts whether to go to Sapa or not. The last thing we wanted was to get caught up in the rain while trekking. But then on the other hand we thought that since we were here already, we couldn’t just skip it right? Then there was another matter that needed attention – should we go on our own there or book the whole deal through some agency and if so, which one then? I have read so much about the scams in Vietnam that at this point I was thinking that everyone was trying to scam us… And once you see some big differences in prices between the offers around, the cheap ones surely look very attractive but then what’s the guarantee that the itinerary is really true? Is it worth saving a few bucks? Eventually we decided to book 3days/2 nights package through our hotel – as I remember LP was advising not to do that… Ah well… So what, right? Besides, I just refuse to believe that everyone in Vietnam just tries to trick you into buying something that you don’t want. It was quite a relief to have it booked actually. No more searching for the best offer and worrying what’s really behind it, now all we could do was to show up at 6pm at our hotel and wait for our adventure to start.

I woke up in the morning with a sore throat and feeling all weak… Not a great start for sure! Just popped in some paracetamol, lied in bed until it was check-out time and just spent the next few hours in a café trying to catch up on blogs (so behind at this point!). Then just headed back to the hotel and soon after jumped on a bus which was supposed to take us to another one to Sapa. When we changed the buses I just thought – well this just CAN’T be the bus all the way to Sapa right? There was no seat in front of our seat and no seat belts either, so if there was some rough breaking we would be flying through the whole bus for sure! Thankfully it was another ‘temporary’ bus (not sure why the first one just couldn’t drop us off at the station?). Eventually it turned out that we booked ourselves a sleeping bus. The girl that we were booking the tour with did speak pretty good English, but the accent, pronunciation, me not paying too much attention (oops! That probably should’ve gone as the reason number one!), all this just made us a little bit confused as to what exactly was it that we booked. 😊 I probably would’ve been fine with a normal seater as well, still a sleeping bus was a nice surprise for sure! As easy as it would’ve been to put my head on the pillow and drift off, I decided to make a good use of the free time and catch up on blogs a bit. We stopped just before midnight at some restaurant . What a horrifying place! Even though the toilets were located a good distance away from the restaurant, the stench was just overwhelming. I doubt these toilets have ever been cleaned! Also I was surprised to see communal toilets again – I thought they only had them in China but I guess I was wrong. The restaurant itself was a bit odd as well. Aside from chicken and beef the next thing on the menu was pig’s heart! Slightly unusual I would say… What was even more unusual though was seeing Vietnamese men sitting on tiny stools around the counter, ordering nothing but a few boiled eggs each and consuming them straight away at the counter. Like a fast food egg bar! After a few minutes there we were on our way to Sapa again. This time I had to try to sleep though as needed to catch a few z’s before the trek next morning. It wasn’t too easy as I was still fully awake at this stage. I managed to catch a few hours of sleep, but at the time I was in my deepest sleep it looked like we were at our destination already. Thankfully it was only Lao Cai, so I still had another hour of sleep ahead of me. And as soon as we were moving again, I was totally knocked out. Apparently I have missed some nice views on our climb up to Sapa, but it would seem I have missed some dangerous and totally reckless driving as well, so maybe it was best I was asleep this whole time then? We got to Sapa in one piece and even with eyes half shut I was ready for our trekking adventure!

Our guide, Lin, dressed in traditional Hmong clothes welcomed us at the bus station and lead us to the hotel where we had breakfast and were able to freshen up a bit before the trek. The first thing that struck me about Sapa was how many Hmong women you could see around! I thought that I would be able to see them somewhere on the trek in the smaller villages but it looked like the traditional clothes were very popular all around in this region. We came across a couple of Zao women as well with their red head scarves. The trek hasn’t even started yet and I loved it already!

After everybody freshened up a bit, Lin gathered the group together and we were ready to set off. Altogether with Lin, there were 14 people in our group and quite a mix of nationalities it was – a few Chileans, Germans, Dutch, Spanish, Canadian, Scottish, one Kiwi (that would be Grant) and a Polish (moi of course 😊). But the size of our group doubled the moment we started walking through Sapa – Hmong women of all ages (including a few little girls) joined us on our trek. And straight away each of them picked one of us as their companion for the walk. They were just the sweetest, very humble and smiling all the time. They asked us all sorts of questions on the way – the usual ones: what our names were, where we were from, if we were a couple, if we had any kids, when we were going to have kids… Whaaaat? That was going a bit too far, haha! Still one thing just totally warmed my heart – when we said I was from Poland and Grant was living in Australia, both girls that were walking with us seemed to get a bit confused. They said ‘So you come from different villages?’. I wanted to say that we come from two totally different worlds actually, but different villages seemed just about right. It made me get lost in thoughts a bit of course. After all we are from two different ‘villages’, how were we going to cope with that? I wasn’t really worried what future had for us up in its sleeve, as it was way too early to be thinking about that, still a part of me was a bit curious how things would turn out… Time would tell I guess!

What can I say about the trek? Well… nothing else but to say that it was absolutely amazing! Lovely group of people, breath-taking scenery and gorgeous weather, speaks for itself right? We couldn’t believe when we saw blue skies that morning and it looked like the weather was only getting better. It was also getting hotter and hotter... And it seemed like good weather was quite important during this trek as we were walking right through the terraced rice paddies, up and down through a muddy and rocky path (yep! it could’ve been pretty slippery in here when raining!). And our Hmong girls (Ta and Sa – not sure about the spelling?) said that the previous day was simply miserable – good timing then I guess! We had a couple of short stops along the way, not to mention the numerous stops to take photos as the views were simply spectacular! At one of the stops our girls gave us little presies, actually all the trekkers got presents from their Hmong companions – all the boys got little horse figures and girls little hearts, all made from grass. Very sweet! Did it mean we were to give them something at the end of our trek as well? Were we supposed to tip them or what? I wasn’t exactly sure how that was going to work, but I found out soon enough as once we got to our lunch place in Lao Chai village it turned out that it was the end of the walk for our Hmong girls. They were staying at the village. So before saying goodbyes they put their baskets on the ground, took out their wares and… it looked like it was trading time! So that was the whole purpose of the trek for them after all! Trying to make a few bucks selling their goods… Well… I wasn’t planning to buy anything but the girls were very convincing and what can I say? Handmade bags and purses… Just lovely! So couldn’t say no to that! Probably we overpaid a bit, but in the end money well spent! We were approached by another few Hmong women during lunch, but that was it for shopping… for now at least! After lunch we had another hour of walking which seemed to have flown by and eventually in the early afternoon we got to our homestay at Ta Van village – the village of Zay people. Very friendly lady (the owner) welcomed us at the door and showed us our room… To be honest I didn’t know what to expect about the homestay and have to say I was very positively surprised. We all would be sleeping upstairs – even though our beds (or should I say mattresses?) were placed next to each other all along the walls, still everybody had a little bit of privacy as there were mosquito nets over each bed. The beds were pretty big as well! And comfy! I have to say that they might have been one of the comfier ones in a long while! No springs sticking out, nice and firm, yep! It was going to be a good night! Also the toilet and shower (hot water! Yay!) were very clean, seriously I wasn’t expecting anything like that at all! Once everybody chose their beds, we gathered in front of the house to listen to Lin talking about what was on the table for the next day. She ran through the itinerary for the next day and warned us about going out at night as well – not only there were dogs running wild in these villages, but apparently there were some wild locals around as well – wild locals who loved smoking hash and opium… Hmmm… Well… It didn’t look like anyone was interested in going out anywhere anyway so problem was solved. We just sat around, shared a few travel stories and a few beers as well. Really lovely afternoon! Dinner was quite a positive surprise as well – a few dishes to choose from, everything looking good and tasting yummy. Not bad at all! And then our host came out with two small water bottles and shot glasses. Lin said that it was time to drink some ‘happy’ water (some local rice wine that is)! Nobody could say no to that! Our host taught us how to toast in Vietnamese and it looked like she really enjoyed the way we did it as we had to repeat it a couple of times, haha! Really lovely evening indeed! And full of laughter for that matter as well! Even though we didn’t walk that much that day, sun, in general a pretty long day, almost no sleep the night before, and a drink (or two) in between, made everyone tired and we called it a night quite early that day.

After a good night’s sleep and a lovely banana pancake breakfast it was time to start our second day of trekking. Lin asked if anyone needed to use the ‘happy’ room before we took off, pretty funny – it looks like everything was happy here, happy water, happy rooms… Lin sure looked happy as well – maybe there was a bit too much happy water the night before? 😉 We grabbed our stuff, thanked our host for her hospitality and set off for a lovely walk through rice paddies once again. There was a bit of a twist that day on the trek though. On the way to the waterfall we had to walk through a bamboo forest. It looked like it was raining heavily during the night as the path through the forest was ‘slightly’ muddy. Once again we had a few local girls accompanying us on our walk and they were ready at all times to help out clumsy tourists across the muddy patches. Haha! There was a little girl walking next to me and every time she thought I was in danger – of slipping and falling in the mud face first that is 😉 – straight away she was grabbing my hand and directing me were I should be stepping. Soooo adorable! After giving our acrobatic skills a bit of a workout (couple of semi-splits here and there while hanging onto bamboos) we finally managed to get through the forest and soon after we were at the Giang Ta Chai waterfall. Before enjoying the beauty of the place, everybody had to take care of an important task first though – cleaning the mud off the shoes and freshen up a bit as it seemed even hotter that day! After a break at the waterfall we descended to a village inhabited by Red Zao minority where we would be having lunch. I walked around the place a bit admiring the full scale of the waterfall. I happened to come by a few little girls having fun in a nearby pool. It looked like there was nothing more exciting than splashing water on each other! So much joy and laughter! Adorable! 😊 There were a few women with red head scarves around as well – Zao women that is, really interesting to see different minorities around. When I came back to our lunch place, it looked like Grant was in the middle of trading again! Haha! A few kids surrounded him showing him their goods. Well, there was no way out of it for sure! Yep! A wallet came out soon after… One of the Zao women saw what was going on and decided to test her luck with selling stuff to Grant as well. Well… How do you think that ended up? Yep! We were the new owners of a lovely shelf made of fabric! Haha! Even the people in our group were laughing at us that we were just hopeless… Ah well… No more shopping right? Well… Kind of… Another woman came over – I think we actually were talking to her the previous day already?, and seeing us stuffing our backpacks with new goodies, tried to convince us into buying something off her as well. This time Grant was strong and didn’t give up! I, on the other hand, thought that one of these shelves made of fabric could be a nice presie for my parents… Oops! When our group saw me getting out my purse this time, well… let me just say there was a lot of laughter around! But that was it! No more eye contact, no more smiles and most of all no more shopping! In Sapa at least… 😉

And that was the end of our trekking adventure. After lunch we were picked up by a minibus and headed back to Sapa where we had time to freshen up and do a bit of sightseeing as well. Since we were planning to head to New Zealand at some stage to do some more trekking I thought that probably I could do with a better pair of shoes than my trainers and since my hiking boots were back in Poland already, there was nothing else to do than to buy a pair of new ones. And it looked like it was a perfect place to do that as the choice was plenty and the prices were very good as well. So in the end I did buy another thing in Sapa, but what a necessary one right? 😊 We walked around Sapa a bit, checked out the market and it was time to catch the bus back to Hanoi… We were more than happy that we did the trek in the end. The scenery was absolutely incredible, the people – locals as well as our trekking companions – were really nice and friendly and we were moving a bit once again – I felt my bones were getting a bit rusty at some stage, but all was coming back to normal again. 😉 We couldn’t have been more lucky with the weather either as the moment we got on the bus to Hanoi it started lashing and it actually didn’t stop raining for the next day and a half! It looked like another typhoon was making its appearance in this area… After returning to Hanoi we would be spending one night there and then heading off to Halong Bay. The tour was booked already… well… To be honest the weather didn’t look too optimistic… Apparently it wasn’t as bad as it was a few days before though as the tours weren’t cancelled this time. Ah well… A few drops of rain couldn’t be that bad right? If there were only few… Hmmm… There was no turning back now though… Next stop: Halong Bay!

Additional photos below
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9th October 2013
terraced rice paddies around Sapa

Usage permission
Can I use this picture on my site ?
16th October 2013
terraced rice paddies around Sapa

Permission granted :) cheers!
9th October 2013

Good blog. Enjoyed your photographs and your descriptions.

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