The train arrived almost two hours late at Lao Cai station. In the UK this can happen on a 30 minute journey. It was slightly more acceptable here though as we had been on the train since 2030 the previous night, but it was 0720 before we finally pulled to a stop and the doors were opened. We had taken the overnight train from Hanoi and it was supposed to arrive at 0530 on Thursday 7th November, but the two hour delay meant that we would be able to enjoy the next part of our journey – the 38km, 1 hour bus ride to Sapa – in the daylight and be able to take in the views of the mountains, rice terraces and local villages as we passed. As is quite often the way when travelling around poorer areas, the bus driver conned us into paying over the odds for the journey, although this was later rectified by the manager in our hotel.
Arriving in Sapa we were dropped at out hotel and were able to immediately check in to our room, despite it being only 0900! Sapa is a hill town and lies at an altitude of 1600m in the shadow of Fansipan Mountain, the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3143m. The region is home to many different ethnic tribes and this can easily be seen as you wander around the town and see local people in the various traditional dress. After the buzz of the motorbikes in Hanoi, the quiet streets of Sapa were a welcome relief.
Our first stop was Sapa O’Chau, the only local tour company run by people from the H’mong tribe. Money raised by the company is used to fund a local school for H’mong children and for training new H’mong guides. With our time in Vietnam to date largely being spent in cities we were looking forward to getting out into the countryside for a walk or two. We settled on a walk to a viewpoint above town, called Heavens Gate, for tomorrow morning and then set off in search of lunch. We found a restaurant called Nature View and were able to sit by a window that offered stunning views out across the valley. After lunch we returned to our hotel and spent most of the afternoon catching up on the sleep we had missed on the train last night. We had beds on the train, but these were shorter than the ones on the trains we had taken up the coast. Consequently we both struggled to get much sleep. By 1700 we were feeling a bit more human and so went for a walk around town and found a small restaurant to have dinner.
We had to be at Sapa O’chau by 0900 for our walk to the viewpoint, so it was another early start. Waking up was made easier for us, however, by the building work in the buildig next to our hotel starting at 0640 – it sounded as though they were drilling and banging on the wall behind our bed!
We were at the office just after 0830 and set off for our walk before 0900. We walked through the town and then up lots of stairs towards the viewpoint. On the way up we passed a garden containing models of the Chinese year symbols, with a couple of additional Disney models thrown in for fun, and a beautiful flower garden. We stopped at a cultural hall to watch a traditional dance show and then continued to climb to the viewpoint, learning about H’mong tradition from our guide as we walked. After squeezing through a narrow tunnel that only cane up to waist height, we were reached the top and were rewarded with amazing views over the city and into the valleys beyond. We were back at the Sapa O’Chau office by 1100, said goodbye to our guide, dropped some stuff back at the hotel and then headed to a cafe called Baguette et Chocolat for lunch. The food wasn’t amazing but we enjoyed sitting for a while and doing some planning for Thailand. From here we walked around town, popping into a number of different tour agencies, and looking at what other trekking trips were available. In the end we returned to Sapa O’Chau and booked a day trek for the following day along the Muong Hoa valley. The rest of the afternoon was spent back at the hotel – Lindsay writing her journal and me researching elephant organisations for northern Thailand. For dinner we headed to Nature Bar and Grill, where we sat next to a log fire drinking mulled wine – the first time we felt like we were in winter 2013!
We enjoyed a lie in on Saturday morning as we didn’t have to be at the office until 0930. There we met our H’mong guide for the day and set off down the valley. As we walked out of town, it seemed as though almost every other tourist in Sapa was also on a trek along this road today! Leaving town behind we were able to see rice terraces across the valley, under the shelter of Fansipan mountain. It wasn’t long before we turned off the road and started to thread our way along narrow paths between rice terraces on this side of the valley. The further we got from Sapa, the number of tourists around us decreased as the groups took different routes to their destination. In this part of Vietnam it is only possible to produce one harvest of rice per year – it had been harvested in September. As such, the valley was not the vivid green colour that would be seen while the rice was growing but the views were still amazing. We made it to the village of Lao Chai just after noon and enjoyed lunch in a restaurant there. After lunch we continued down the valley and turned up a path which took us through some back ‘streets’ to the next village. It was more like a muddy footpath than a street, but it was the only access to the houses that lined this part of the hillside. As we walked we learnt about growing rice and more about what life is like living in the places that we passed from our guide. We reached Ta Van village and walked amongst the many homestays down to the river, across which our minibus was waiting to take us back to Sapa. We had walked 15km in about 5 hours (including a lunch stop) and had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Back in Sapa we dropped our stuff at our hotel and headed to a restaurant, called Lizard, for dinner.
Sunday was an early start as we were getting a bus to Bac Ha for the famous Sunday market there. One of the big things to do when you visit Sapa is to go to this market. When we were researching how to get there we were both shocked when we discovered that it is more than 110km from Sapa! That is like saying one of the must-do things when you visit Brighton is go to Borough market in London! We had booked seats on a minibus for the drive to the market – a journey which takes more then three hours each way! Once at the market it is easy to see why everyone recommends it – it is huge and very brightly coloured due to the traditional clothes worn by the various ethnic groups that make up the local community. We had two and a half hours to explore the market before heading back to Sapa. It seemed as though anything you could want is sold at this market – cooked food, fresh fruit, veg and meat, handicrafts, clothes and home wares right through to live buffalo, cows, chickens and dogs! We enjoyed wandering around looking at the wide variety of stalls, although the souvenir stalls all seemed to sell exactly the same range of goods. We met the rest of our tour group at a restaurant (seemingly the only one in Bac Ha catering to the hordes of tourists that descend every Sunday), had a small lunch and then boarded the minibus. We were driven to a local village, which we took a walk through, and then set off back towards Sapa. En route we stopped at the Chinese border on the edge of Lao Cai for a photo opportunity, dropped some of the group at the train station so they could head back to Hanoi and then we continued onwards to Sapa, where we arrived around 1700. After dropping our stuff back at the hotel we headed back to the Nature Bar and Grill for dinner and mulled wine by the fire.
We had a lazy start to the day on Monday – we didn’t have a lot planned except for getting the train back to Hanoi that evening. As such, we decided not to rush and didn’t have breakfast until gone 0900 and spent the rest of the morning sorting out of stuff and packing before checking out at midday. We headed back to Baguette et Chocolat for a coffee and to spend some time writing the blog and our journals. Two hours later we decided we had been there long enough and walked to the Nature View restaurant for a late lunch / early dinner whilst enjoying the views looking out across the valley. At 1730 we were picked up from the hotel by minibus for the hour long drive to the train station on Lao Cai. We didn’t have to wait long at the station as our train was the first one to leave that evening, at 1930, for the nine hour journey back to Hanoi.
Photos from Sapa can be viewed below or at http://photos.andywicks.com/Sapa