Having booked a two night tour and homestay to the northern highlands of Sapa via our hostel, we packed what we thought we’d need into our small rucksacks and checked our main bags into luggage storage to collect in a few days. We were picked up from our hostel and boarded our first Vietnamese sleeper bus which, compared to the buses we’d experienced in India, was faaaaancy – large leather reclined seats, a place for your belongings, USB ports, a free bottle of water and… seatbelts!
The 6 hour journey went by quite quickly and I filled the time catching up on social media and taking in the incredible views of the surrounding mountains. The bus stopped in Sapa on a quiet side road at 8pm and we turned down various offers for moped taxis and navigated our way on foot to a hotel I’d booked via booking.com the day before. Our room was huge and had two double beds, modern amenities and a nice bathroom, all for only £9.
Heading out into the town we wandered past various genuine fake North Face shops, restaurants and massage spas and then stopped by Little Sapa for dinner where I had grilled duck with lemongrass and honey which was delicious and only cost £4.
We checked out the next morning and were ready in the lobby to meet our guide at 8.30am. A tiny Hmong tribeswoman dressed head to toe in thick, dark blue robes with what I can only describe as velvet leg warmers appeared. Picking up a Spanish couple along the way and stopping off to buy water, we started our ascent up a very steep, rocky hill. Within minutes I was struggling and panting but the tribeswoman, in all her thick clothing, hadn’t even broken a sweat. With Sapa sitting at an elevation of 1500m (almost one and a half times the height of Snowdon) and its highest peak sitting at almost 3000m, no wonder I was struggling! And seeing as I’d had no breakfast, I had zero energy in my legs.
Breaking for a rest after an hour or so, we sat on the mountainside taking in the spectacular views of rice paddies and corn fields below, and more mountains above. It was here that we met our first rural Hmong children who carried a range of colourful bracelets to sell. Their sales tactic was strong… in essence, stand next to the person, look cute and in a singy-songy voice say “You buuuuy one? You buuuuuy one from meee?”; repeat and follow until the person gives in. I gave in and bought one.
Thankfully the location further north meant the temperature was much more manageable than in Hanoi, but the sun was even stronger and as we stopped off for lunch at a roadside restaurant I realised my arms were well and truly burnt despite the factor 50 I was wearing. So for the first time on our trip I cracked out my UV protection umbrella and, looking like a moron, on we trekked.
We came across water buffalo, pigs, chickens, horses, huge butterflies and lots of children playing, and probably most surprising: a huge field of marijuana. The guide said we could go in and pick some for a photo, so we did, and she proclaimed that they only use it for hemp clothing, not for its more fragrant attributes.
After 6 hours of trekking, including some very difficult downhill sections that killed my toes, we arrived at our homestay on the side of a hill overlooking rice paddies and the valley below. The family – a mother, father, two daughters, a son and some adorable puppies – all lived in the lower section of the main building, with a kitchen, living area and a couple of beds. Upstairs in the roof of this building were around 10 mattresses with mosquito nets set up, then in a separate building made out of corrugated metal were 5 double bedrooms where we would be staying.
We cooled off after our trek, chatted briefly to some other guests at the homestay, Face Timed Tom’s parents and then had showers, sharing the shower cubicle with gigantic butterflies and mosquitoes. Now covered from head to toe in mosquito repellent and glad that I’d brought a long sleeved top and trousers, we sat down for dinner with the 13 other guests and dined on a meal of freshly made spring rolls, stir fried chicken, pork, green beans, chips and rice, all made by the children. After dinner, our guide (who had come back to eat with us) cracked out the rice wine (tasted mostly like vodka) and asked if anyone wanted to smoke any weed… “we just use it for hemp clothing”…. oh yea, sure. So she cracked out a huge bong and two guys enjoyed the harvest – coughing and spluttering heavily.
After barely any sleep due to feeling too hot and convincing myself I was being bitten by bugs, we got up and enjoyed a breakfast of pancakes, bananas and honey with everyone. Once ready, the two young daughters put on their sandals, grabbed their umbrellas for shade and led us off on our second trek. Surprised that we weren’t going with a proper guide and were instead being led by a 6 and 10 year old and their dog, we headed off through corn fields, along rice paddies and down to a fast flowing river and waterfalls, all at an extremely fast pace.
Back at the homestay that afternoon I happened to pass the kitchen at the wrong moment to see the mother and father decapitating a chicken for our dinner. At least we knew it was fresh I guess! A short while later we had dinner, a few beers and rice wines and then played cards with everyone (I was the champion of Bullshit). We were joined that evening by a cross section of the local wildlife as a number of HUGE flying beetles the size of your palm flew in to join us, landing on my lap at one point, and reducing us all to screaming wusses, much to the entertainment of our hosts.
Waking to the sound of torrential rain on our tin rooftop we got up to find ourselves buried in clouds, unable to see anything past the boundaries of our accommodation. We could have joined some new arrivals for more trekking that morning, but decided our coach journey wouldn’t be much fun if we were soaking wet so, turning down the offer of a moped (I wouldn’t want to ride on a moped down those hills in dry conditions, let alone in this rain), we asked if a taxi could collect us and agreed to pay the £8 fee quoted. The car journey was pretty hairy, but at least we (and our belongings) were dry.
Back in Sapa we grabbed some food and I enjoyed a 30 minute leg and foot massage at one of the numerous spas to ease my aching muscles. £3 bargain! A walk around the rancid smelling local market proved that, around here, dogs aren’t just considered pets and made me query some of the ‘pork’ we’d been eating. Our coach journey allowed us one last opportunity to take in the scenery before we checked back into our old fave, the Babylon Garden Inn for our last night in Hanoi.
Next stop… Hue.
See ya later, Sophie x