So I’m sure you all know that I love to mix up the scenery on all my trips. Well our itinerary for Vietnam was no different. We combined the city (Hanoi), the mountains (Sapa) and the water (Ha Long Bay) into one trip. After a couple days in Hanoi it was time to move on to our next stop, Sapa. Sapa is north of Hanoi and is famous for its rice terraces. So what is a rice terrace? Well the terrain in Sapa is very mountainous and hilly, this makes it difficult to have flat areas in which to plant rice and to properly irrigate the fields. Because of this, the farmers created graduated steps in the mountain side, which are also known as terraces. This way the farmers are able to use these terraces to plant their rice and reduce erosion and runoff since rice needs to be heavily irrigated.
Classy Travel also arranged our trip to Sapa and we were set to take the 10:00 PM train from Hanoi Station to Lao Cai Station (about an hour drive from Sapa). We had never taken an overnight train, so we figured this would be a fun thing to try.
Classy Travel picked us up from the hotel and took us into the station. Each compartment has 4 single beds with a lock on the door and the train car has a shared bathroom with a toilet and two sinks. We had asked for a private cabin when we booked the tour, which basically entailed us buying out the other 2 beds in the compartment (it wasn’t very expensive to do this). Let me tell you that we were very happy that we spent the extra money as the compartment is quite small and I’m not sure where 2 other people’s luggage would have gone. Plus the bunk beds above fold down and seem slightly precarious in my opinion. The travel agency had also prepared some water, tea, and beer for our train ride. I was surprised at the cleanliness of the train compartment and the beds were pretty comfy too.
When the clock struck 10:00 PM, the train was off, we couldn’t believe how LOUD the train was. I mean really you could hear everything and also the train was quite rocky. Let me just say that this train is incredibly old. It was definitely a challenge to get some sleep, but I was able to do it (Scott however was not so lucky). If you want to save money on 1 night’s hotel and can sleep through anything, or you just want to experience the overnight train, then definitely do it. But remember that Scott’s sleepless night is definitely the norm, don’t expect to ride the train and arrive to Sapa refreshed and ready for the day. I would personally save any hardcore hiking for the next day.
The train pulled into Lao Cai at 6:00 AM and our tour guide, Sei (pronounced “say”) was there with a nameplate waiting for us. Then it was an hour drive by van to Sapa.
We arrived to the Sunny Mountain Hotel and were welcomed by the staff. They informed us that our room wasn’t ready, but that we should go enjoy the breakfast buffet and that we could check afterwards to see if a room was available.
The breakfast buffet has quite a few options and the coffee of course was very tasty. After we finished, we were told our room was still not ready, but we were provided keys to another room to take a nice hot shower. I thought that was a great touch and really helped us to perk up and get ready for the day.
Here is a map of Sapa town, it’s not very big and there isn’t a whole lot of things to do, pretty much everyone is here to hike.
So after our shower, our guide picked us up to trek to Cat Cat Village. Along the way, we met a lot of animals, chickens, pigs, water buffalo, dogs, and more! I of course was all over taking pictures of the cute critters, our guide had no idea why I thought they were so unique. Chalk it up to not growing up in a rural area.
During our walk through Cat Cat Village, we saw a lot of Hmong women with colorful scarves wrapped around their heads and learned a little bit about the Hmong people. They are often called Black Hmong and are one of the ethnic minority tribes that inhabit this area of Vietnam (as well as other areas around Asia). Contrary to what you would think based on their name, they are not Black Hmong because of their skin color, but because of the dark blue (indigo) clothes they wear and the stain on their hands from working with the indigo. There are many stands selling their wares, as well as women walking around with large wicker baskets on their back full of purses, scarves, toys and more to sell.
After our walk through Cat Cat. we went back to the hotel and rested a bit before dinner. Our guide recommended that we try a local specialty, duck with honey. The duck was served on a hot platter and it was pretty tasty.
The local beer here is the Lao Cai.
There are many villages in the area to hike to, depending on what you want, there is definitely something for those who want a more simple hike and those who really want to cover some ground.
The next portion of our itinerary took us to Ta’van Village, which was where we would be staying overnight. We were scheduled to stay with a local family in their home, but had a ways to go. Make sure you bring a small backpack with you so that you can bring a change of clothes and leave the rest of your luggage behind at the hotel. There are a lot of people on the trail, so definitely be prepared to run into some fellow hikers.
As soon as we began our trek, our guide asked if we wanted to walk on the road or if we wanted to take a short cut. We opted for the shortcut, but let me mention to you, that this requires some off roading and walking down pretty steep inclines. These steep inclines also involve a lot of loose dirt and gravel, so definitely be cautious if you do not have good balance. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up covered in mud or even worse, buffalo chocolate “aka buffalo poo”!
Two Hmong women joined us on our trek, and they helped me a lot along the way (but keep in mind, that as they walk with you and help you, they are hoping when you arrive at your destination that they will be able to get you to buy something from them (oftentimes, the prices are quite inflated). But in my case, I was happy they were there to lend a helping hand! By the way, the two Hmong women who came with us were in little plastic sandals….I have no idea how they can have such firm footing in such poor footwear! I mean there were times were were walking on the edge of the actual rice terraces!
On our walk we learned a bit more about the rice terraces. In Sapa, their climate only allows for one rice harvest per year, so they really need to make the most of the land that they do have. The rice is not grown to be exported or sold, the majority of the rice is grown to be consumed by the families who grow it. During our visit, there was a heavy layer of fog blanketing the terraces, as you can see from the photos. Also, planting season wasn’t beginning until April, so if you want to see those beautifully green fields that you see on travel website and instagram, you will want to visit around July/August. Then in the fall, is harvesting season and you will see the fields turn yellow and that’s when the rice is ready for the picking. I’ve heard that fall is also a beautiful time of year to visit. I think that the fog was interesting to see and gave the mountains of Sapa an air of mystery.
This is the clearest photo I got during our trek.
Along the way, we stopped in at a house to see how the fabric the Hmong use is made.
The fabric is made of hemp and they take the husk of the plant and twist it into threads. Then those threads are woven into fabric and then they are dyed with indigo.
Designs are hand drawn into the fabric before dying.
One of the breaks we took on our trek included a sampling of some of the local sugar cane. Someone had already shared a piece with a local girl and she was loving every bite.
The guides worked to shave and cut the sugar cane into pieces for us.
It was Scott’s first time trying it! If you haven’t tried it before, you basically take a bite out of the sugar cane stalk and then just chew it to get the sugar cane juice out, then you spit out the pulp. It’s not attractive, but it’s delicious!
We stopped for some lunch at a Hmong Restaurant in Lao Chai (one of the small towns before Ta’Van). The two women who had been walking with us asked to show us their wares so that they could head back to their homes. We did buy some small things from them and they went off on their way. We were cautioned by our guide not to purchase things from children, as the children will decide to abandon their studies at school to make money instead.
Here are some of the interesting facts we learned about Lao Chai (not to be confused with Lao Cai). There are 2.700 Hmong people that live in this village and each boy in the village gets a portion of land to farm the rice for their family.
We stopped in at this family restaurant. They definitely don’t starve you in Sapa, all this food was for 2 people!
Of course we had to get some coffee too.
Upon arrival to Ta’Van, we were taken to Homestay Kim where a Belgian couple was also staying. Most homestays house a lot more people than that, but we had requested a quieter homestay. The owner of the house, Kim was very friendly, but spoke little English. The house was set up basically like a hostel.
The sleeping areas were on the first and second floors. The areas were filled with beds on and each bed had a pillow, thick blanket, and a mosquito net.
The bathroom and shower were communal, but it at least they had a western toilet, toilet paper, and hot water. Definitely a plus.
Here’s their kitchen area. They actually cook on a fire!
And no village home is complete without a pool table right? This was a fun way to pass the time for sure though.
After we dropped off our stuff and rested for a bit, we walked around Ta’Van, it is a very small village and mostly comprised of homestays. There was one place that was a cafe and we stopped in for a passion fruit mojito, fresh beer and a rousing game of Connect Four!
That evening the family and our guide made us a home-cooked meal and here we are all enjoying it with a shot of homemade happy water, aka rice wine (that stuff sure is super strong)!
On the menu:
Pork with mixed vegetables
Chicken with mixed vegetables
Fried Spring Rolls
Boiled Bamboo Shoots
Sautéed Napa Cabbage
French Fries with garlic
There was plenty of food for all of us, but they told us that typically, Hmong people don’t eat meat at every meal. They eat a lot of vegetables and rice. Rice is the primary staple and it is eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The house was pretty cold at night, and Scott and I doubled up on the blankets. Luckily there were a lot of blankets to choose from. So we put down our mosquito nets and snuggled up and actually had a pretty decent nights sleep.
When we woke up, Scott said that he felt very nauseated, and we think he was pretty dehydrated. So definitely keep that in mind, while on your trek and also at night. The homestay fed us European pancakes (very thin compared to American pancakes), with honey, sugar, chocolate sauce, and fresh pineapple for breakfast and we started our trek back towards Sapa.
Towards the very end of our hike we saw a bunch of children wielding KNIVES! We were very concerned, but our guides said that these children know how to use them safely. I still have my doubts.
Once we reached the next town, we were picked up by van to go back to our hotel. We again used the shower at the hotel to freshen up and said goodbye to Sei and Sapa, then hopped on an express bus back to Hanoi. The express bus had seats for 9 people, but it wasn’t all that comfortable as the drive was long. But after the overnight train, we were pretty happy to be on the bus. We left at 4:00 PM and didn’t arrive until 9:15 PM at our hotel in Hanoi. We were super excited to be back in Hanoi!
I really enjoyed the scenic views in Sapa, but I wished we could have had some better weather (definitely nix the fog and rain). We definitely learned a lot about rice terraces and the ethnic tribes of Northern Vietnam, and who knows, maybe we’ll be back to see the bright green rice fields in the future.