The train ride actually arrived in Lao Cai (about 35 km from the Chinese border) at 5:30 am. You then need to take a bumpy one hour ride to finally arrive in Sapa.
Arriving at 6:30 am with no hotel reservation is not an ideal situation, especially when it’s cold and wet. After seeing one hotel room that was freezing for 15USD, we picked the Bamboo Sapa Hotel for 49USD, which is more than double the cost of any of our other hotel stays in Vietnam. It’s easy to agree on any price when you’re promised some heat! After a short nap, we went down to reception where angry French people were checking out and were very upset about the lack of hot water. One man pointed out to my Routard and promised that they would get a poor review next year. The Boyfriend still tried to have a shower later with negative results. I didn’t even try.
We went by the Handspan office to book a trek and fortuitously ran into a British couple. The woman showed us rain boots she had bought and how dirty she got; her husband’s feet, on the other hand, were too large and wasn’t able to find any boots. We scored on some rental boots for 15,000D; that’s right, even The Boyfriend with his gigantic 10.5 size feet. We also bought some socks for extra protection.
The main attractions in Sapa are the views of the perfectly aligned rice paddies, the lushness of the bamboo forests and Mount Fansipan (or as I like to call it, Marzipan), the highest mountain in South East Asia. Unfortunately, a lot of it was covered by fog. We weren’t even able to get a peak of Mount Farsipan. As well, another big attraction are the many villages around Sapa, where ethnic minorities live, such as the Hmong, Tsay and Dzao.
Our hotel entrance where many Hmong women await outside for tourists.
Equipped with hats and gloves that we bought in Hanoi (that’s right, count on us Canadians to find the coldest spot in Vietnam to visit…), we followed our guide on our trek. Leaving the hotel, 5 persistent Hmong women followed us, one with a baby and one in sandals. The first part of our trek was quite foggy. We hit a house where 30 kids were selling bamboo walking sticks. You’re literally surrounded by kids screaming “Buy from me! Buy from me!”. It’s so hard because a lot of them are SO cute and they totally use it to their advantage.
Hmong kids selling bamboo walking sticks for 5000 D.
The Hmong women helped me as we were going down muddy sections. I had a hunch that I’d have to pay them back later! These women are quite small but very strong. Whenever they grasped my hand for support, it actually hurt their hold was so strong. It was only when we reached our location for lunch that they started to try selling their wares. And buying from just one of them is not sufficient! We had to buy from all 5 women!!
View of rice paddies.
We visited the Hmong village of Lao Chai. They farm the rice paddies and vegetables in the summer. They also make artistic wares to sell. After lunch we saw some Red Dzao women. They wear traditional red scarves around their heads and are not as aggressive at the Hmong. The recently married women have a shaved heat to prevent other men from flirting with them. The Boyfriend suggested I shave my head too!
Red Dzao women hitting up some tourists.
The five hour trek was enjoyable. Although the boots were uncomfortable, they did prevent our feet from getting wet during the trek.
The next day, we went to Cat Cat, another Hmong village, on our own. Similarly to the previous day, you spend the first half of the trek going down hill and then you have to go up. My calves were killing me! On this trek, a very nice waterfall awaited us. This was about a two hour trek.
Waterfall in the Hmong village of Cat Cat.
I had misgivings about encountering ethnic minorities. On the one hand, it’s so interesting to see them. Their costumes are very nice and it’s amazing to see people live so differently from you. On the other hand, I didn’t want to treat them like animals in a zoo, snapping pictures like crazy. I have to admit I did take some pictures. They put themselves out there, mainly because they’re quite poor. You feel so bad but you can’t buy from everyone. Now I have some trinkets I don’t need.
A Green Hmong woman I met at the market. She's 30 just like me!
I did get a 2 minute encounter with 2 Hmong girls, literally as we were about to leave, that made me very happy. They just seemed like two happy girls, ready to chat and their English was quite good, which was not so with the women following us on our trek. I asked if I could take a picture and they said yes. When I showed them the picture, they said it’s beautiful! I asked them their age, 10 and 16. They knew a bit of Vietnamese and even how to say Bonjour. As they turned the corner, they said goodbye and to look them up the next time we visit. They didn’t ask us for money or to buy anything which was definitely a first!
The two lovely young Flower Hmong girls I met during my last hour in Sapa.