Hill tribes and rice terraces

Our arrival to Sapa was a little bit uninspiring and abrupt. Looking at the grey sky and the dark clouds we were already anticipating that Sapa was going to welcome us with rain… We were hoping the weather would have some mercy, but it didn’t, and as we were reaching Sapa it started to rain heavily. Seriously, such a strong storm that we couldn’t see anything 2 meters ahead of us, it felt as if buckets of water were falling from the sky. Soaking wet we checked in at the first hotel we found with a spare room. There isn’t much to do in Sapa when it’s raining, so a bit disappointed and hopeless, we decided to wait for the sky to clear up having breakfast in our room. Surprisingly one hour later, we were gearing up and getting ready to start trekking around the valleys of Sapa!

On the first day we headed towards the villages of Lao Chai and Ta Van. Although the route between Sapa and Ta Van is supposed to be well defined, we found ourselves a bit lost and walking along the muddy paths (specially after all the rain) in between rice fields. But after cheekily following a group of people who was trekking with a guide for a few minutes, we were back on track. On our way over we walked along the east side of the river, where we run into many tourists, mainly from organized tours. We also met many tribe women along the way trying to sweet-talk the tourists hoping to sell their handicrafts. It really did surprise us how they were able to speak quite a bit of English! On our way back we took a different route, along the west side of the river. This area was far less touristy and much more authentic. Locals had a smile in their face when we passed by, they were more focused on carrying on with their tasks than on selling anything to us. And unlike in Lao Chai and Ta Van, they were happy of being photographed without asking for money.

Despite the grey start of the day, the sun shone for most of the afternoon. In total we walked in between 6 to 7 hours and 20 km, and though we were wrecked by the time we arrived back to Sapa, we enjoyed it tremendously. We had the opportunity to enjoy the charm of the mountains and the beauty of the landscape, to walk along the rice terraces, and to discover the diversity of tribes living in the area and the uniqueness of their colourful costumes… Though is not yet the best season to appreciate the majesty of the rice terraces covering with a lush green the slopes of the mountains we were able to get a good grasp of its beauty. Back in the village, and after a nice dinner we ended the day cuddling up in bed with the heat of the electric blanket in the cosy hotel room. It felt like heaven! Our tired muscles really felt the benefited from the warmth of the blanket. New to the marvels of the electric blankets now I wonder how I survived the cold Irish winters without one.

The route we planned for the second day was easier, much shorter and far less gratifying. We headed to Cat Cat village, just 4km away from Sapa. We had to take the train back to Hanoi in the evening, so we couldn’t afford going really far. As we were reaching the ticket office (yes, I forgot to mention that we had to buy a ticket to visit the villages), we started to realize that we were not going to see much of a rural live in Cat Cat… There is very little left of the old farming village, all there is to see is an artificial trail made of concrete that brings you through dozens of souvenirs shops. So if your are planning a trekking trip around Sapa, skip Cat Cat. However if you are more interested in shopping local crafts, Cat Cat is the place for you.

Sapa itself is a cute hill town close to the border with China. It did remind us a little bit to the villages that can be found near ski resorts. Though in the past its people mostly relied on the land to survive, they pretty much live from the tourism nowadays. The streets are crammed with hotels and restaurants and crowded with tribe women and children dressed up with their traditional costumes trying to sell souvenirs and trying to offer their services as guides.

Sapa and its surroundings are mostly known for its beautiful landscape, the rice terraces and the picturesque hill tribe villages. And that’s exactly what we saw, leaving aside Cat Cat’s tourist trap, the visit to Sapa and its gorgeous mountainous scenery is really worth it!

Visit our flickr gallery for more pictures!

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Accommodation

Pumpkin Hotel – Cosy hotel in the heart of Sapa village, near many restaurants and cafes. Our room was a big double room with attached bathroom and hot water. We had free wifi and breakfast was complimentary. The best of the room… the electric blanket! We paid 315,000 dongs for the one night.

Transport

From Hanoi to Lao Cai by train (9h to 10h) – Train is by far the best option to get to Sapa. Trains fill up fast, so we had to buy the tickets a good few days in advance. We took an overnight train and this time we traveled in hard sleeper, sharing the compartment with another 4 people, but it was comfortable enough. Surprisingly most of the carriages of the train belong to private companies such as Livitrans. We paid around 750,000 dongs per person for the return ticket. The only downside of these overnight trains is that you reach your destination very early in the morning. We arrived to Lao Cai at 5am and Hanoi at 4am.

From Lao Cai to Sapa by bus (1h) – Getting to Sapa from Lao Cai train station is no problem as there are plenty of buses waiting outside the train station. We paid 50,000 dongs per person. The only downside is that buses won’t leave until they are full. On the way back the hotel arranged the bus for us. We paid again 50,000 dongs per person. Buses leave Sapa at 5pm, well or they start picking up people at 5pm.

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