Sapa is located near the borders of China and situated up in the mountains, thus, the weather was very cold, but refreshingyly so. To get here, you take the train to Lào Cai which is a nine hour journey from Hanoi and then another hour drive up to the village near the tops of the mountain. We took the overnight train which has beds, pillows, and blankets provided in cabins of 2 bunk beds (so four passengers per cabin). This train had the minimalistic comforts as per Vietnam standards- one toilet with no toilet paper, cabins the size of Hogwarts Express compartments, and I very much doubt they change/ wash the sheets often unless it becomes too obviously dirty. We were prepared for the Sapa weather and dressed warmly, but the cold slowly seeped into our bones whilst sleeping on the train.
We arrived at the bottoms of the mountains at about 4am, and boarded a van with an entourage of similar bleary-eyed visitors up the long, winding road to the main village. A thin shroud of mist envelops the mountains, continously swirling and drifting around, allowing you glimpses of the towering heights you’ve reached before concealing them again. We did a lot of walking during our time thus far but it would be more along the lines of shopping-walking, whereas in these mountains, it was definitely a hiking kind of walk.
If you’re not prepared for the cold weather, never fear because there are countless shops supplying quality imitations of The North Face and the likes. With my mum’s skilful bartering, my jacket came to a princely sum of $30 NZD. This jacket was a huge relief- it was light, flexible for movement, and insulating compared to my thick and heavy coat. Add on my backpack containing my camera/lenses/batteries and bottles of water, the weight piles on quickly. Hell, I’d brave the journey to Sapa again just to buy these jackets. If you’re going trekking down the mountains, buy the hiking shoes too. Your life will depend on it.
Fully equipped, we set off with our tour guide and a few accompanying natives- the H’mong on a 4km walk. The natives are easily identified in their native black clothing with colourful nordic prints and are fluent in English, having naturally picked it up from the frequent swarms of tourists. They’re very friendly, but beware as they are also ruthless at guilt-tripping you into buying their wares as they know that foreigners = money. The children especially are trained with a PhD degree in the art of cajoling visitors with puppy dog eyes. We bought 2 big bags of snacks and candy to give to the children we encountered along the way but I did notice that this was a common thing for tourists to do, since the children would scramble to hide their accumulated treasure hove and immediately assume their piteous expressions when seeing a new group approaching. What smart, cheeky lil buggers! But it is still heartbreaking seeing how hard life is there, and I was once again reminded of how easy I have it (though they do seem happier than most bratty kids I know)..
They live quite simply like…. Amish folk? You’re thrown back to an old fashioned lifestyle, back into the good ol’ days before supermarkets and technology existed. Until you go back to your hotel with free wi-fi that is!
The stories they have to tell are fascinating since their lifestyle is so different and they are fascinated by ours in turn.
The next day, we went on a four hour trek down the mountain. The hardest part was probably holding in the need to pee. Yeah, I said it, there’s no point beating around the bush, my goal is to be as honest and as insightful as possible here! The D’zao (another native group of Sapa) were like mountain goats as they nimbly hopped over the rocks and tree roots with sure and sturdy footing, lending us strong support despite the steepness and slippery mud that threatened to tumble us hikers all the way down to the depths of the mountain.
After we got back to the main village in the top part of the mountain (a van took us back, and words will never express how grateful I am at not having to walk UP the mountain), we explored the markets. The almonds in Sapa are out of this world, and dirt cheap. They’re unshelled but come in vanilla flavoured, or salted but we got both because we’re greedy like that. We bought 1kg to take home but somehow they didn’t make it to the end.