Our plan after Phong Nha was to head to Halong Bay, but the weather was not being our friend. Vietnam was experiencing particulaly rainy days, and seeing Halong Bay on a boat in the rain didn’t appeal to us terribly much, so we flipped our plans around and headed to Sapa, a small town in northern Vietnam close to the Chinese border. If you picture the classic Vietnamese rice paddies – terraced and green – you’re most likely picturing Sapa. It’s known for its treks through the rice paddies and for its proximity to Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fansipan.
We arrived after a 17 hour night bus into fog. Literally nothing but fog. But hugely atmospheric. Walking around town felt almost like walking around a small alpine village during ski season, lots of small wooden bars boasting fireplaces and mulled wine (yes, it was bloody freezing!).
We didn’t have much of a plan, other than we wanted to do a few days of walking and a homestay – a night with a local family – so we wandered around town to find a company who could organise it for us. Needless to say the town is overrun by agencies trying to flog this and that tour, ranging in price from $25 a night to $80 a night, so we were left scratching our heads for quite a while. In the end we went for the guy who seemed nicest (and also just happened to be the cheapest…) and spent a chilly evening eating pho and an early night huddling round a small space heater in our room saving energies for the next day’s trek.
At 9 the next morning our guide picked us up and we joined an eclectic group of trekkers, including a lovely Italian boy who spent most the day with us. We quickly found out that we were the only two doing the homestay, whilst the others were just doing the day trek.
As we started the descent down to the valleys, we were quickly surrounded by local tribe women, from the Black H’mong tribe, who expertly helped us navigate down the very slippy slidy terrain (and helped us all up off the ground more than once). There must have been around 10 women just with our group, all very sweet and helpful, but we had read that they follow the tour groups with the hope that they can sell them crafts after the walk.
The fog certainly gave the area an air of mystique and it was beautiful, but we did often imagine what the views would be like in the sun – oh well, we like to think we got the more authentic, everyday experience.
The walk took us through a few and many rice paddies, all terraced. Each village we visited belonged to a local tribe – there are 53 within the vicinity of Sapa, each with their own language as well. We later learned, after visiting a shop where clothes were being made, that the Black H’mongs are so called thanks to their very dark, handmade clothes. They weave cloth out of hemp (hence the many marijuana plantations), and then dye it in huge vats of indigo colouring, all natural!
After about 4 hours of relatively easy terrain, we stopped off at Lao Chai village for a lunch of curries and very welcome glasses of hot tea. This is where the women seized their chances and proceeded to smother us with their crafts, saying ‘we helped you, now you help us, we friends’. We had been particularly helped by a nice lady called Sea so we decided to buy a scarf and bracelet from her, although she didn’t like the price we suggested. This didn’t stop the others however from trying very persistently to sell us more stuff all throughout lunch.
Another few hours of hiking followed before we departed from the day trippers and headed further on with our guide, stopping off at a local fayre in Ta Van village. Very luckily indeed, we visited the village on the last day of Tet celebration, so the town was having a big party to help bring good luck to this coming year’s crops.
The highlight by far of the fayre was the May pole type activity – when the party starts, they erect this huge pole of bamboo with a colourful paper shield on the top. The aim is to break the paper using these rock filled catapults you swing upwards. There were about 30 of these rocks for the whole crowd, so competition was hugely fierce to get one and be the person to break the paper. If you break it, you win the prize, but if it’s not broken by 6pm they shoot it with a gun as it’s bad luck for the crops if its left unbroken!! It’s as dangerous as it sounds, imagine 30 rocks flying overhead all at once, with no safety or anything expect having to be very attentive that the rocks don’t fall on you.
We gave it a good few goes but we didn’t come anywhere near. Later we learnt that they had to shoot it with a gun.
We walked the final 20 minutes to Soi Homestay, a family of four generations. Soi, the 37 year old woman who runs the place with her husband, their two sons (17&19), the 17years olds wife and 2 month old daughter, and the grandma!
The house was very basic, a large open space with a few beds, a private room for the family, a long kitchen and a mezzanine level with about 20 mattresses where the guests stay. It was very cold so we spent the rest of the day and evening enjoying a boiling shower and then sitting around the kitchen stove/fire with the three cats.
When we arrived, Soi was in bed as she had had too much rice wine during lunch with friends, so we hung out either our guide and her husband all evening. At one point, Soi had a big headache so her daughter in law but a piece of coal on a piece of buffalo horn and stuck it to her head. They very much choose natural remedies over medicine.
The evening was then spent eating some of the most amazing food we’ve had in Asia – a homemade smoked sausage (which I loved and I don’t usually like sausage) that had been smoking in the fireplace for a long while, homemade spring rolls, two curries/stir fries and a load of veg. All accompanied by homemade rice wine, which Vietnamese drinks in shots during meals. They were so generous and kept topping up and cheersing, so we must have had about 10-15 shots of this stuff before bed! Although it did make for an easy sleep.
We had some fascinating chats with our guide – one of the more shocking facts we learned was how corrupt the government seems to be, especially when it comes to getting government jobs (which in a communist state, most jobs are considered govt jobs). For example, if you want to become a teacher, but nobody else in your family works for the governments, the bribe is about $10.000!
The next morning we enjoyed a breakfast of crepes with Soi, who was feeling much better, and headed off for another chilly morning of hikes with our guide. We finished our lunch, and were picked up by a van to take us back to Sapa where we had a very quiet/cold afternoon around town. Although we did get to try egg coffee, a speciality of Vietnam that tastes a lot like tiramisu.
A last morning was spent in our hostel common room huddling around the fire and playing pool before a night bus to Halong Bay – and boy were we ready for some warmth again!
Bye for now x