Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam

By Victoria Krivonos

Search for Sapa and you’ll see images of cascading rice terraces of various shades of green against the backdrop of misty mountains, effervescent waterfalls, and smiling minority tribeswomen in traditional dress. Such scenes are stuff of travel dreams but in Sapa they really do exist.

Terraced Field
After an 8 and a bit hour train journey from Hanoi, our minibus wound its way from Lao Cai train station into the mountains towards Sapa, revealing more and more of the breathtaking view with every turn. I was later happy to find the same stunning display from the balcony of our guesthouse room. On day two, the fog crept in, shrouding the town in a dream-like haze. The view was gone but Sapa retained its magic.

Sapa, sunset in the fog
The secret ingredient came in the form of a Black Hmong girl called Yen. With baby Ma tied to her back, she approached us when we got off the minibus and helped us with directions to our guesthouse. Conscious of the fact that so far in Vietnam we’d only been offered help in return for monetary rewards, I offered her some Vietnamese dong which she politely refused but said that if we saw her around town we would be welcome to approach her for any help, local knowledge, and so on. At our request, Yen agreed to take us on a trek to her village, Bac Thao, 12 kilometers away from the centre of Sapa, the following day.

Yen and her baby
The following day we found Yen, with baby Ma and her sister in law, along the main street, lined with shops and cafes. She bought some food from the market for our lunch and the five of us set off to Bac Thao. Up the hill, through the tropical foliage and out onto the mountainous terrain with more beautiful views, which unfortunately for us, were veiled in fog that thickened and receded but never fully went away. Luckily, we didn’t have to look far to be impressed, as we passed through tiny settlements that felt like ghost towns, locals tending to their crop, buffalo, piglets and other livestock roaming in the greenery, and countless bamboo – enormous and dense – a constant reminder of our proximity to the jungle.

Trekking Sapa
The path wasn’t hard to navigate and seemed to be a well known route amongst the local tour guides – we met a couple of other tourists with their guides along the way; however, I wouldn’t recommend attempting the trek on your own – we saw no signage, found no clear maps and google maps isn’t much help in this remote part of Vietnam. Go with a local guide – not only will you not get lost but you’ll also have great company and learn something along the way. Yen entertained us with local knowledge and gave us a real insight into the real everyday life of the Black Hmong in Vietnam, which made the experience so much more memorable and interesting.

Lunch with Yen's family
Yen learned to speak English from tourists but spoke much better than the majority of Vietnamese people we had met up and down the country. Her simple way of life was at the very extreme of what we’d seen, yet her personality, attitude and way of communicating felt so much more comfortable and familiar. It seemed unbelievable that having spent two weeks traveling from Ho Chi Ming City to Hanoi, it was here – in the minority tribe community of Black Hmong, in the mountains of Sapa – that we would find a local whom we felt we could relate to and be so much at ease with.

Sapa was without a doubt the highlight of our trip to Vietnam and I just wish we’d had time to see more of the area, particularly Bac Ha and the colourful markets. If I am ever to return to this country, it will be to the beautiful mountains in the North and its kind and welcoming minority tribes people.

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like to recommend Sapa Trekking & Homestay tour. At an elevation of 1,600 meters, Sapa is a delightful former French hill station situated in the mountainous region of Vietnam's northwest, close to the Chinese border. The region is home to many ethnic minority groups, each wearing traditional and colorful attire. This trip includes a trek through the hills and valleys of the Sapa region, discovering several different minorities along the way. You will experience overnight accommodation in the hospitable villages of Giay and Tay ethnic minorities. The apparent hardships are worth it though as we walk through some of the most spectacular scenery that Vietnam has to offer and experience unique villages culture.

Highlights:
  • Awesome scenery
  • Rice terraces
  • Colorful minority groups 
  • Homestays in minority villages

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