Trip up to Sapa in the mountains NE of Hanoi
Wednesday 8th July
Our overnight train from Hanoi arrived into Lao Cai station in drizzly weather at about 6.15am. Lao Cai is located at an elevation of 650m and the 1 hr trip up to Sapa, at 1650m, has to be taken by a narrow and winding yet sealed road.
Sapa village is located near the top of the highest peak in Vietnam, Fransipan Mountain, and is just 2 km form the Chinese boarder. The Village offers an amazing view down the mountain and to the river below. The sides of the mountain are almost completely terraced with lush rice paddies and other forms of agriculture generating the most breath-taking scenery. The river below draws water that has flowed down from China and was obviously responsible for carving the limestone mountains into such a spectacular valley.
Sapa is home to numerous Vietnamese ethnic minority groups. The most significant of these are the ‘H’mong’ people, known for their craft work, and the ‘Dzao’ people, identified by the red head dress of the women and for the produce they sell in the village. Until recently this whole area was predominantly subsistence farming but now, with the advent of tourism, local people try to sell their craftwork or surplus produce to generate an income. Never has the USD been so popular in a Communist country.
Our guide for the day, Huy, met us at the train station and drove us up to our hotel which was located at one of the highest points in the Village. He explained that he would be back to take us on our afternoon tour after we had checked in, showered and had breakfast. He asked if we were ok to walk for about 10km to which we replied ‘yes’. I stupidly envisaged a stroll to Bronte and back and was also lulled into a false sense of security when Huy arrived back to pick us up attired in trousers, business style shirt and joggers. This is what Huy should have explained to us though: “We will be descending the side of a fairly steep mountain to visit a traditional village at the bottom of the valley where we will have lunch and this will take about 3 hrs. At times the path will be rocky and muddy and, thus, quite slippery. We will criss-cross our way down the mountain through rice paddies and at times be walking along narrow stone walls. We will also have to rock hop our way across a river and negotiate a few crude bamboo suspension bridges over other creeks too so, please, make sure you are suitably attired and prepared”! Had I known all of this I would have been mentally prepared as I had only gym shoes with no grip or tread to speak of. We started the walk from our hotel and had to pass down through the main village where some H’mong girls joined us, clearly hoping to sell us a few items along the way. They stuck with us for the whole adventure though and, it was lucky for me that they did! Initially, we were quite dismissive of them having been advised not to talk to them or to encourage them in any way. If it hadn’t been for these two girls though I would have made more than the few slips that I did; one into the water from along a rice paddy wall and another into a fairly fresh water buffalo paddy! They held my hand many times guiding me down the steep, rocky, muddy and slippery path. By the end of the journey we were on first name basis and I knew all about them, their children and partners and where they lived etc etc!
At the end of the ‘walk’ Huy announced how ‘his path’ had enabled us to see so much more than what the other people arriving at the restaurant in the village had seen, those who had simply taken the road. I’m not so sure about this though. All I saw for most of the trip was my feet! Mark said he will show me a few photos from his camera so I can see what I missed though! We finally arrived, muddy, sweaty and wet, to a rather crude hut that served as the local Village restaurant where we had an hour to unwind and assess our morning. Located at the bottom of the valley and along side a fast flowing river, it had spectacular views across a narrow plain on either side of the river and then up the lush and terraced mountains. It had certainly been an adventure and one we won’t forget.
After lunch we had to walk for about another hour along a dirt track that ran parallel to the river and passed through a number of simple villages. From there it was back up to our hotel by car thankfully.
Our afternoon was spent recovering and relaxing by the hotel’s indoor pool. Later, we went down and wandered the streets a bit before stumbling on a fantastic place for dinner, ‘Viet Emotion’. Mark and Tom had a game of ‘Pool’ back at the hotel before we fell into bed exhausted at about 9pm. Mark just asked me to state that he won both of their games of pool.