In the high mountains in the North of Vietnam there lay villages nestled between the rolling hills, shrouded in a thick mist, reachable only on foot. This is Sapa. I have pulled out my journal to share some small snippets of our time here and I’ve cut down the hundreds of photos to just these few(ish). This is the story of our time hiking in Sapa Vietnam.
As part of our adventures in Vietnam we decided that this was a part of the world we simply couldn’t resist seeing. With some local help we somehow figured out which train we had to board, traipsed across the railway tracks in the dark of night to climb aboard our train in Hanoi.
We were travelling with our toddler who was more than ready to sleep when we finally set our gear down in our sleeper compartment at 9:30pm. She conked out, still dressed and still in her new boots (because, as kids are likely to do, she outgrew her shoes as soon as we boarded the plane to start our holiday). We settled into our bunk beds and feigned sleep to the thumps, rattles and clangs of the train as we made our way 300kms North to the town of Lao Cai.
Darkness slips by the window and we rock from side to side, back to front, jolting along the rail lines of the Orient Express.
In the early light of the day, bleary eyed from our lack of sleep, we stumble off the train and into a car that will drive us the slow hour up the mountainside into the hills of Sapa.
The clouds hugged around us …the valleys around us opened up and we glimpsed small huts dotting the rice paddy terraces, smoke billowing from chimneys, water buffalo grazing lazily. It is serene and almost mystical…a life hidden by the clouds, unpenetrated by the outside world.
As we ascended the clouds became so thick I worried about the driver being able to see oncoming traffic around the bends in the road. There was no view, just a white wall of cloud.
You can hear the silence. The crisp fresh air bites at my cheeks and it smells of dirt and growth.
We eventually arrived at the top of the mountain to a small village that seemed entirely set up for tourism. We cut down our luggage as much as we can and leave most of it behind. We were setting off on a 2 day hike through the hills of Sapa, stopping in to visit the villages along the way.
It was raining, not just a drizzle but a wet you all the way through drenching sort of rain even though it wasn’t really heavy. Our guide decided to alter the start of our hike because of the landslides and slipperiness of the steep track. We trusted in his experience and our hike started off as a 6km trek down the road. This alone was treacherous as we negotiated our way around the rocks and rubble left strewn across the road by landslides; we had to contend with waterfalls gushing across the road and adjust ourselves to the weight of the packs we carried on our backs.
My pack was substantially lighter than my husbands, who also carried our toddler in his pack. That sounds worse than it was, it was a special carrier pack and she sat high and dry with a special canopy over her head and a rain cover for the heavier weather. Like princess muck. Though surprisingly she came out at the end of the hike with not a splatter of mud on her! You must read on to see why this was such a miracle.
We were followed by a group of hill tribe women dressed in traditional outfits, carrying baskets on their backs. The outfits aren’t for show, it is just what they wear everyday. When we stop for lunch they try to ply their handicrafts on us, and we concede, handing over a few dollars, knowing that this is how they make a living.
The people living here have rice and corn crops which they harvest together as a village once a year and they share this amongst themselves, hopefully providing enough food for their families. For the other 8 months of the year they have no work. It is incredible to see that they are entirely self sufficient in these hills. They grow their own food, hunt in the mountains, and grind their own flour.
The rain turned parts of the tracks into thick gloopy mud that sucked your shoes into it at every step. My husband even had a boot come completely off at one point and I was in stitches of laughter at the absurdity of it all. Somehow the locals skipped effortlessly over the top of it, some in thongs, some barefoot and others in gumboots which seemed to be the preferred footwear if they could manage to get a pair.
Other sections were simply slippery and you were easily thrown off balance especially when carrying a heavy pack on your back. We tramped up steep hills and down gullies just to go up again and all the while with a smile on our faces because the scenery was just breathtakingly beautiful.
Fields of rice grew on the terraced hillsides. Small villages popped up out of nowhere. Happy children skipped around us beaming white smiles at us. Women dressed in traditional clothes were colourful and vibrant in both appearance and personality. Living such simple lives, barely scrapping enough food together to share amongst themselves yet they are so happy. Simple really can be better.
We hike to a small village along the track where we stay the night. A home-stay is the only way to truly experience everything there is to offer here. We climb the ladder in their home to the second floor where they have mattresses rolled out across the floor with big thick doonas for everyone and mosquito nets dangle from the ceiling. It is very basic and surprisingly comfortable. Downstairs they prepared a feast for us and we dined with the family and their neighbours before crawling into bed, the copious amounts of homemade rice wine toasts providing a nice warm buffer against the chill of the night.
In the villages we were surrounded by children keen to play with our blond haired
doll daughter, her fair skin making her stand out in the crowd. They taught each other words like duck as they pointed to the animals surrounding them.
The rain overnight turned the pathways into mud a foot deep and as I balanced along the edge of a terrace I was thankful for the agile hilltribe woman that joined us. She was worth her weight in gold, probably more considering how tiny she was.
She showed me where to step, dug out footholds, foraged for bamboo walking poles, holding my hand on the more difficult sections and was just in general friendly company to have along. Laughing when I fell over in the mud, twice.
It was an intense couple of hours splashing, sloshing and sliding through mud but when we stopped to look up from our muddy boots at the vistas, they were astonishingly beautiful and well worth the effort. Though I didn’t snap many photos because of the muddy situation I will remember those images forever.
Along our hikes we saw plenty of animals including a water buffalo fight, baby piglets and an abundance of fowl, cats and dogs. We were lucky enough to be travelling during the small window of time it takes to harvest the rice paddies, so we watched the villagers working and hoped that it stopped raining long enough for them to get the rice dried and stored for the year ahead of them.
We even visited a home that made indigo dye from the unassuming small green bushes surrounding it, as well as seeing corn drying and the intricate weaving process. Everyone was so genuinely welcoming and open to our intrusion.
When we eventually stopped we sat by a stream to try and wash the caked on mud from our boots. The grips no longer gripping. Some locals, after laughing at our attempts, showed us how to grab a handful of the nearby weeds to scrub at the mud to help remove it. A very handy tip. Needless to say, when they began to show us their wares at the end of our hike we didn’t bargain when we happily bought a few of their handicrafts, they deserved every Vietnamese Dong we spent.
After a final hike up a steep hillside to the road we were driven back to Sapa town where we stripped off our muddy and boots and wet clothes, which were miraculously cleaned and dried in a couple of hours by a local laundromat, while we had a long leisurely lunch overlooking the cold misty valleys we had just been hiking. Soon we would be returning the chaos of Hanoi on our way to Halong Bay, but for now, we were happy to soak in the experience of hiking in the hills of Sapa, an incredible once in a lifetime opportunity that we will never forget.
Have you ever travelled to Sapa in Vietnam?
Would you enjoy an experience like this?