Sapa is a rural region in northern Vietnam that is home to several ethnic minorities, including the Black Hmong people (named for the color of their clothes). The area contains many hills, which are covered with rice terraces.
I did a three-night, two-day tour of Sapa, which included two overnight trains. The first train was from Hanoi to Lao Cai, a city with the closest train station to Sapa. I was in a “tourist” cabin, so the accommodations were plush.
My cabinmates were three people from Lyons, France: a young woman, her boyfriend, and her mom. They had attended a family wedding in Ho Chi Minh City a week earlier. The mom was a riot and was eager to match me up with one of her nephews once she found out I was single. She showed me a couple of photos of her nephew and gushed about how he had a good job in Sydney and was very kind.
We arrived in Lao Cai at around 5:45 AM, and I parted ways with the Lyonnais crew. I met with the rest of my tour group and Liem, our guide, for a 45-minute winding and bumpy bus ride to the town of Sapa. It was raining, and the air was noticeably brisker than in Hanoi – it was at least 10 degrees cooler. We stopped at a hotel to prepare our bags for the hike and made sure to pack rain jackets and ponchos.
Liem told us that local women were likely to follow our tour until we stopped for lunch. Local women frequently follow foreigners hiking in Sapa, even if the travelers are part of an organized tour group. The women check in with you during the more challenging parts of the hike, regardless of whether you need or want their help. When you take a lunch break, they try to sell scarves and bracelets. Their pitch is, “I helped you, so now you can help me by buying things.” Liem noted that the local government was trying to prohibit this practice but was unsuccessful so far. He made it clear that the women weren’t affiliated with the tour and that we didn’t have to feel pressured to buy anything. True to Liem’s word, a group of Black Hmong women peered through the windows of the hotel as we were getting ready and jostled to join us once we stepped outside.
The rain stopped just in time for us to start our hike. While our group wore sneakers and hiking boots, the Hmong women nimbly wove through the trail with slippers and rubber rain boots. They struck up conversation with each member of the group, asking us our names, ages, and nationalities.
After hiking for about an hour, it started raining again. I focused on keeping my belongings dry, so I didn’t get to take photos of the most scenic parts of the hike. Regardless, the rice terraces were lush and gorgeous, with varying shades of greens and browns.
We stopped for lunch about three hours into the hike, and the local women immediately chimed, “I helped you, so you help me.” Our group darted into the restaurant and didn’t buy anything. The women scattered after we entered the restaurant and didn’t pursue us again. I felt guilty leaving them in the dust (I’m a sap), but I wasn’t interested in buying anything, and I had no room in my bag for souvenirs.
The rain stopped after we finished a hearty lunch, so we were able to continue our hike more easily. We trekked through hills, rocks, and streams until we reached the home of a Black Hmong family, where we would be spending the night. The family consisted of three generations: a 52-year-old grandfather, his son, and his grandsons. They also had a dog, a couple of cats, a very pregnant pig, chickens, and water buffalo, which seemed to be staples for families in the region.
The dog was so sweet and somehow stayed asleep under our table as our group played games. Liem taught us how to lift a cup of rice with just one chopstick and disentangle a cup from a loop of string.
We had a wonderful dinner with our host family, and the son insisted on pouring us multiple shots of potent plum wine. Each shot was accompanied by a toast in a different language, including Hmong, Vietnamese, Spanish, French, and English. After tipsily doing some yoga poses, we went to bed. Frogs and crickets were out in full force that night, a welcome substitute for the sirens of New York.
We awoke to roosters crowing, the family dog barking, and a cat meowing. Liem made crepes for the group, and we said goodbye to our lovely host family.
The sun was shining on our second day. While the hike on the first day was mostly downhill, the course on the second day was largely uphill. Fortunately, there was a steady breeze throughout our hike, and Liem made sure we took regular breaks.
Our second day was a Saturday, so children were off from school. We frequently passed adorable young girls, who waved frantically at us and yelled, “Bye-bye!” We waved back and returned the “bye-bye,” sometimes throwing in a “hello” as well.
We finished hiking at around 2:00 PM and had lunch before getting on a bus back to the town of Sapa. After showering, I took a bus to Lao Cai to catch another overnight train back to Hanoi.
Although I didn’t get to take many photos in Sapa, I loved the striking scenery. I did my tour with Vega Travel, the same company that ran my Halong Bay cruise, and they did another wonderful job. Liem was very informative and kept us entertained with games and plum wine. Our host family was gracious and made sure we were well fed and rested. The accommodations were clean and spacious.
If you’re interested in a tour led by a local guide, I met some travelers who highly recommended Sapa Sisters. You can even find companies that offer home stays with wifi, if you want to stay connected during your hike.
As for the hike itself, my phone said I walked more than 10 miles and 40 floors on the first day and more than 8 miles and 160 floors on the second day. I have no idea how accurate these numbers are, but we walked for 5 to 7 hours each day. It wasn’t a relaxing hike, but it was manageable, even though I don’t exercise as often as I should.
My tour was during the beginning of the rainy season, which lasts from May to September. Winter in Sapa is chilly and can get into the 40s. Liem said it occasionally snows on the mountain peaks in the winter. As long as you have good shoes and a responsible guide, the hike is doable even in the rain.