Trekking Through Sapa
January 29th-31st, 2017
We arrived in Lao Cai early in the morning. My pre-coffee Vanessa face was definitely kicking in, so when taxi drivers started offering their services I couldn’t help but sharply turn them down. We got picked up from the train station and taken to Sapa Hostel. We were given a room to clean up and shower in. All of which I did reluctantly because of how cold it was up in the mountains. Then they gave us breakfast and some much needed coffee.
We met our guide Neu (spelling unsure) and started our trek. We walked out of Sapa and then cut off the main road onto a path that led to a field and mountain area. After a bit we got a full view of the valley: mountains and rice fields galore. That first glance was soon followed with a peaceful “ahhh”. I had finally gotten to see the reason why I had come all the way to Sapa.
There were other groups out trekking as well. I’m sure it is very popular to trek in Sapa during the winter because the heat in the summer would kill. We kept walking until we got to a village. We ate lunch there, had a little rest, and then we were off to the next village. We kept walking through the mountains and along rice fields. We were quiet most of the time, with a few conversations here and there. I spent a lot of time just thinking about a million different things while enjoying my view (and trying not to trip). The last part was downhill and it killed my knees, but thankfully we arrived at our homestay shortly after the last stretch.
We relaxed a good part of the afternoon and evening. It wasn’t hard to do with access to wifi. We were in the middle of a valley, surrounded by mountains, and we had wifi! I connected my phone to the wifi and started checking my messages. That was when the weird passport incident took place. I got a message saying that the hotel had given Amanda the wrong passport when we left the previous morning. Amanda checked her passport and confirmed that it was true. Then they continued to say that the girl needed her passport because she was leaving Vietnam the next day! I felt this panicky feeling in my chest because there was nothing I could do. I barely knew where I was after all! Eventually, I got it worked out with our host mother and she made some phone calls. Soon, the passport was taken away on a scooter to be put on a bus and transported back to Hanoi. So crazy! We never found out if the girl made her flight; I sure hope she did.
Later, our homestay mother had us help her make ‘nom’. They looked like spring rolls but they were longer and bigger. We ate dinner together and it was delicious. I pigged out. At the end of the meal our homestay father poured us some “happy water”. The closest thing I can compare it to is the moonshine of Vietnam. They poured it right out of a water bottle, so who knows. Haha!
Once our meal was finished we cleaned up and then settled in for the night. I took a hot shower and then huddled under my big blanket. It was really cool outside and we were in a cement building, but that blanket was amazing. I watched some videos and then passed out. Best sleep I have had in ages.
We woke up to a beautiful morning in Sapa Valley. Our host mom made us a delicious breakfast. It was like a combination between a pancake and a crepe with some honey nectar on top. Yum! With full stomachs we said goodbye and trekked through the mountains into more villages. Many of these villages had a lot of children running around enjoying their break from school and preparing for village festivities. Whenever we would walked by the kids they would always say “bye” in the most enthusiastic way possible. Has no one ever taught them “hello”!? One village we walked through even had a Christian church. I definitely wasn’t expecting that. For the most part everyone was just going about their daily life, whether that was running a shop, washing clothes, making food, or tending to the farm animals. Everyone had simple homes, but then flat screen TVs and satellite dishes. I couldn’t quite put my finger on this unique mix of old and new. But if it is functional for them than who am I to judge.
We arrived at our second homestay in the afternoon and we had plenty of time to leisurely walk around the village. Later on we had dinner. Another huge meal of delicious Vietnamese food. I was stuffed, but then our host mother pulled out the “happy water” and I instantly knew what was going to happen. After a New Year’s toast we were warned “if you don’t eat more, you drink”. Well I ended up drinking and eating more because I couldn’t handle the after taste of each shot. “Happy water” does not lead to a hangover, so that is a plus!
Our guide was going to leave for the evening, but before she left she asked us if we would like to accompany our host mother to “dancing and singing in the village” that evening. Amanda and I agreed and soon after we were walking two blocks away to a shaman’s house. Upstairs we were greeted with a room full of local women, a shaman ceremony area, and mats with snacks and tea. No one knew how to communicate with us, but the amazing hospitality needed no words. The women had inviting smiles and jolly laughs. I felt at ease yet so lost at the same time. They began dancing in circles and chanting while the older shaman called out the prayers. Amanda and I were invited to join in the circle and before I knew it we were dancing along and waving scarves, as if we had been to the shaman’s house many times before. Once the ritual was finished we all gathered together on the mat and snacks were passed around. Of course our host mom wanted us to eat as many snacks as possible. I was convinced that she wanted me to be five pounds heavier by the time we left the next morning. We walked back to the homestay. As I huddled under my blankets I relished over what an amazing opportunity Amanda and I had just experienced.
In the morning, we had another delicious breakfast of pancake/crepe things. After breakfast our guide took us up to one last village. The locals were very nice and there were cows walking around the village. Just a normal day. There was club music blasting out of one home. Such an odd mix of techno music and cows walking around on a misty morning. We passed some of the last rice fields we would be seeing on our trip. It was bittersweet. My legs were happy that I was finished trekking, but my heart and mind were yearning for more time to think and walk around.
Back at our homestay we ate our last meal in the village and then were whisked away in a van to Sapa. Between the fast driving, bumpy road, and terrible fear that we were going to drive off the side of the road and careen to our deaths at any moment (I wish I was being dramatic, but I am not) that van ride left me feeling sick. I’ve never been so happy to get out of a van before.
We had some free time in Sapa before a car was supposed to take us back to Lao Cai. We walked around and ate snacks at a restaurant. Feeling like we had wasted enough time we went back to Sapa Hotel and took showers. I took a nap in the car on our way to Lao Cai. I am lucky because Amanda said that that drive was terrible as well. Yikes!
In Lao Cai, we had another delicious meal. I swear all the food on this trip was amazing! We waited for our overnight train and then we were off to Hanoi. This time we shared a room with a couple from Denmark. They were traveling for three months. (I was slightly jealous of them.) We swapped travel stories for a bit and then settled down for the evening. I was able to sleep a lot more on this night train and was very grateful for it in the morning. Back in Hanoi, we said goodbye to our fellow trekker. She was off to other parts of Vietnam. (Also, jealous.)
It felt surreal being back in the noisy city after having such wonderful, peaceful three days in the valley and mountains. Sapa was truly beautiful and I am so glad I went. Looking back at the pictures just makes me fall in love all over again. I am so very grateful to my trekking partner, Amanda. This was our first friend’s trip together and I loved every second of it. She is like the cool, older sister that I never had. As I get older I start to appreciate the advise and knowledge that people share with me. I can only hope that she enjoys half of the nonsense that comes out of my mouth as I enjoy spending time with her.
Love you Sapa; never change.