Sapa: full of smiles and splendid views

Riding the night train to Lao Cai in Vietnam’s north was like being rocked to sleep as a baby. The following morning we emerged from our compartment a bit bleary eyed and ready for the remaining hour drive to Sapa.

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If you ask anyone who has been to Sapa what they remember they will surely say the stunning views of rice paddies spread along the rolling hills of the valley, providing the weather was kind to them. That and “what your name?”.

The local Hmong women are the most persistent salespeople we have ever come across. In Sapa town they will walk with you for a few minutes asking “where from”, “how old”, “souvenirs, shopping?” and “you buy from me, yes?”. Luckily for them it’s impossible to hate them for it. They are wonderfully cheeky and always have a smile on their face.

Our hotel staff were also ridiculously friendly. They upgraded us and when they found out we were on our honeymoon they sent up a fruit platter and bottle of red. Vietnam’s wine isn’t really worth writing home about, but it was the thought that counts, right?

We booked a three day trek through the surrounding villages of Sapa and this was the absolute highlight of our time in Vietnam. As far as treks go the walking was very easy. Between 12-14 km each day, with plenty of  flat terrain and stops along the way. Of course, great people to chat with always helps time fly by. But just incase we needed the extra energy our gorgeous guide Ping bought us some sugar cane to chew on as we went. Niall enjoyed it but for me the concept of chewing on a piece of tree branch to get sugary juice out, then spitting the remains on the floor was indeed very odd. It tasted ok though. Ping was incredible, a mother of four with another on the way, she spoke fluent English which she learned just from chatting to tourists. She had a wicked sense of humour and will probably continue to lead groups until she’s eight months pregnant, crazy!

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Each time we stopped during the first day we were met with kids or women trying to sell traditional bracelets, bags and such. If we thought the women in Sapa were persistent we were about to be corrected. On day one and two of the trek women from various villages would walk with us for over an hour in the hope that you would warm to them and buy something. In the Lao Chai village we watched the process for creating the material, it really is quite extensive. As well as spinning the hemp, they use the dye from local plants like indigo. I had blue hands for days from crushing the leaves as we walked.

As we arrived at our first night’s homestay in Ta Van our guide’s mobile rang. It was our hotel staff checking that we were enjoying ourselves. It was like having parents checking in on us but kinda nice. We strolled around the village by ourselves before dinner and a beer which was delicious. Then the hosts brought us out three bottles of homemade rice wine. We thought we might manage to get through one but before the night was out we’d gotten through all of it. Our new German friends introduced us to the easiest yet most anxiety producing drinking game we’ve ever played- blowing cards. Yep, just like it sounds. You pour the booze into a cup, put a deck of cards on top and take turns blowing them off. If you can’t blow any, or blow all of them off then you drink. Seriously, so nerve racking.

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We all woke up fine the next day. We have a sneaking suspicion they watered down the last bottle. As soon as we’d finished breakfast we were off again, along with a new set of locals to keep us company as we walked through the picturesque rice paddies.

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The further we got from Sapa the more authentic, or less effected by tourism, the villages became. After lunch in Giang Ta Chai we said goodbye to those that had opted for a one night homestay and continued on towards Ban Ho. The last stretch was all downhill, cutting through farm land which really got the legs working. The cold shower awaiting us was more than welcome.

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That night featured more homemade wine, this time made from cassava rather than rice. Despite Ping’s encouragement, we decided against introducing the drinking game to our new roommates. Speaking of which, one guy was from the US. When he found out we were from Australia he exclaimed ‘Oh, we met a couple from New Zealand the other day’. Ok? We were very tempted to reply that we had also met someone from Canada that day but bit our tongues with a grin.

Before heading to Sapa everyone had told us how cold it would be, after all it was made a retreat by the French escaping the heat of Hanoi. However, the weather was lovely while we were trekking and was particularly hot on our third day. The last day was also the most peaceful and beautiful part of the trip. We walked to a nearby waterfall, then onwards to the next village where the local kids were keen to have our empty water bottles.

Extremely sweaty we returned to Ban Ho for lunch before heading back to Sapa. At any break each of the guides would pull out material and start stitching their intricate designs while chatting away. It’s a nice memory and just one of the things we’ll remember about our enjoyable experience in the Sapa region.

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Next up,  slightly more strenuous trekking in Nepal.

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