Sapa – Peering Through the Bamboo Curtain

After the beauty of Halong Bay I honestNatahsa travelsly thought that I’d seen the best that Vietnam had to offer…however, I hadn’t counted on Sapa!
Plenty of tour operators in Vietnam offer tours to Sapa but after the Halong Bay tour, Amy and I had an urge to go it alone and forgo the regimented constraints of an organised tour. First stop was the train station and an overnight train to the lofty slopes of Sapa.

The overnight train was a bit of a calamity. All signs were in Vietnamese and trains were everywhere. A Vietnamese man came along to show us to our train and, assuming that he worked for the train company, Amy and I turned over our bags to him and followed him cautiously over the train tracks, dodging the odd oncoming train. Upon reaching our compartment the man demanded money and we realised that he didn’t in fact work for the train company, just himself. Having learnt a valuable lesson, Amy and I walked into a six berth compartment and entertained the four Vietnamese people inside by trying and failing to climb onto our narrow berths. Finally managing to clamber up, we promptly fell asleep as the train set off towards Sapa.

The first thing that strikes you about SapSapaa is the mist. The second thing that strikes you is your ears popping as you travel high into the hills and mountains that make up Sapa. The third thing you notice as you’re hurtling up a country road is how fast the bus is travelling on roads that have sheer drops on each side – talk about a white knuckle ride…

If you head to Sapa I’d strongly advise you to take a jacket. Being so high up can be quite chilly and the frequent clouds of mist and rain provide a huge contrast to the heat of Hanoi. Things never really seem to dry out in Sapa – something that the bed in my hotel room could attest to. Damp can be a problem for some hotels so make sure you have a look at the room before you pick a hotel out!

On our first day in Sapa Amy and I decided to walk up the hill that made up the main road of the town. What we didn’t count on was the women of the Hill Tribes. Dressed in colourful, handmade clothes, the women of the Hill Tribes wander the streets trying to sell handmade goods or entice you to go for a ‘Home Stay’ – basically, you pay to go and stay in the hills at their house.

Once you’re engaged in conversation, it’s very difficult to escape these women without being impolite. Don’t get me wrong – they’re lovely to talk to and very interesting, but after such a long journey to Sapa, we just wanted to wander aimlessley, taking in the sights. So Amy and I decided to nip in a restaurant to have lunch and shake off the women – only to peer out of the window and realise that the women were waiting outside for us to finish our lunch!

Picture this: Amy and I walking as quickly as possible in as much of a nonchalant manner as w could manage out of the door. We quickly walked straight past the women and set off at a supersonic pace back to our hotel. Sneaky looks behind us showed the Hill Tribe women following, picking up the pace. Like some kind of slapstick comedy film, our pace increased until eventually we were jogging to our hotel with the Hill Tribe women jogging a few paces behind us. Breathless with laughter and the thinner air, we made it to our hotel where Amy promptly fell ill. One doctor’s visit later we received the news that she had shingles -just our luck!

Day two in Sapa was a washout while Amy recouperated. As we were only staying three days, we decided to forgo one of the longer mountain treks we’d been planning on doing and instead do a short tour of a couple of tribe villages in the hills on our last day.

Now, should you ever go to Sapa, listen very closely: A gentle trek to a couple of villages is not actually a gentle trek: When the tour operator is asked if you need hiking shoes and replies no, flip flops will be fine, don’t believe them. Our gentle tour of the villages turned out to be a six hour trek up hills, through bamboo jungles and walking along narrow clay paths during a rainstorm with sixty foot drops on either side.

The trek started out easily enough. A bus ride into the hills and a stroll through the first village, little Hill Tribe children following you with bangles to sell and amazing views of tiered rice paddies and rivers. After an hour or two the trek got a little bit harder. Another hour after that we were caught in an intense five minute rainstorm. At this point we were walking on tiny, steep paths made of mud and clay. The rain and the clay mixed until it felt like we were trying to ice skate instead of walk anbd doing it all in flip flops didn’t help. Had it not been for the group of Hill Tribe women with us, I’m certain a couple of us would have been lost forever down some steep mountainside. As it was though, we all managed to make it through.

Covered head to foot in mud and clay, sweating, gripping the hand of the Hill Tribe woman who’d helped me through, I couldn’t help but laugh. Scary as some parts were, you just can’t help but feel the thrill of adrenaline and when you’re stood overlooking the endless vista of hills and forests, you get the feeling that life doesn’t get much better than this.