Sapa: A Mountain Escape

Sapa is a great break from the sweaty heat of Hanoi (and most everywhere else in SE Asia, honestly).  I spent a total of five days there, trekking, biking, and relaxing.  I took the night train from Hanoi, timing it just right to get in a nice spa treatment and good meal beforehand (hunted down the cha ca fish I’d heard so much about).  This time I got a soft sleeper, and man what a difference it made – it felt so luxurious!  

Sleeping in style!
Sleeping in style!

There was a young family in my cabin, with a super smiley and adorable kid (probably 3 years old).  So I offered to give the mother my bottom bunk so she could be across from her husband and baby.  I actually prefer the top bunk, so it was win-win.  The only snag was that the A/C was super strong up there!  When I went and changed into a long sleeve shirt the father noticed and apparently trying to be considerate asked the conductor to turn down the air.  It was a sweet gesture but of course I then woke up in pool of sweat in the middle of the night.  Thankfully I was able to successfully pantomime to the conductor that I was dying from the heat, and he turned the air back up.       

Unfortunately no matter how well I sleep on a night train, I’m always groggy the next day.  So my first day in Sapa I just walked around and explored, scheduled my trek to start the next day, and had a really good dinner at the one nice place I could find, the Hill Station.

Sapa Sapa

The square at night - a good gathering place.
The square at night – a good gathering place.
The trekking company I went with.
The trekking company I went with.

I did run into my first inconvenience in traveling in the third world – I couldn’t find contacts solution anywhere in town.  I tried every pharmacy and the local woman at the trekking company (Pen) even tried to help me track some down.  I managed to cobble together enough – between the last little bit I had, eye drops, and solution from my trekking mate – to make it work.  Since I’d had no such problems up to that time I had become reliant on being able to find whatever I needed when I needed it.  It was a good reminder to be a little more forward-thinking.

The next morning I set off on my two day, one night trek north of Sapa, with a homestay in Ta Phin village. It was me and the two Brits (Jay and Roz) I’d actually met in the minibus from Lao Cai (where the train stops) to Sapa.  A minibus that I’d actually forced my way into to avoid being ripped off by the guy who insisted on arranging transportation for me at more than triple the going rate. 

The trek wasn’t too hard, but challenging enough.  Plenty of hills involved.  We walked through lots of rice patties and fields, had some H’mong women befriend us (and of course try to sell us their handicrafts), and saw lots of livestock (pigs, chickens, ducks, water buffalo, etc.).  We eventually made it to our homestay – even though our guide (Pay) got a little lost trying to find it in the village – and were greeted by the matriarch, her two children, and several of her nieces and nephews.  We then basically just hung out and relaxed, snacking on corn on the cob, until it was bath and dinner time. 

I'm trekking!
I’m trekking!
A farmer with his buffalo.
A farmer with his buffalo.

Sapa Sapa

One of the H'mong women who befriended us.
One of the H’mong women who befriended us.
Well, hello there, Mr. Buffalo.  Please don't let me disturb your mud bath!
Well, hello there, Mr. Buffalo. Please don’t let me disturb your mud bath!
I'm in a rice field...what?
I’m in a rice field…what?
Our homestay.  Love the use of bottles for structural support.
Our homestay. Love the use of bottles for structural support.
The kids playing cards.  The owner's daughter seems to be quite the card shark.
The kids playing cards. The owner’s daughter seems to be quite the card shark.

The bath was pretty amazing.  The mother boiled special herbs for hours – a special mix she wouldn’t disclose to us.  The water was grey and smelled amazing.  It was like taking a bath in hot tea!  The bathtub was just a big plastic bucket – big enough to fit in squatting, but not big enough to stretch out in.  I wish I’d gotten a photo of it; Jay actually did and the photos were hilarious since he was clearly too tall to be super comfortable in that bucket.  I spent far too little time in the bath and didn’t even think to bring in soap.  But those herbs have magical properties . . . I actually felt like I had gotten clean and my skin was so soft I didn’t even need lotion. 

Boiling the herbs for our special baths.
Boiling the herbs for our special baths.

Dinner was a huge meal of many different dishes.  The father actually did most of the cooking, stir frying dish after dish on the open flame with expert precision.  Once we sat down, the parents quickly broke out their homemade rice wine for us.  We drank toast after toast, with them goading us that it helps with digestion = drink more, eat more! 

 

Me and Roz sitting by the fire with the kids (a smoky shot).
Me and Roz sitting by the fire with the kids (a smoky shot).

 

Making chips for the white folks.
Making chips for the white folks.

After a day of trekking we were predictably ready to pass out after dinner.  Now, the beds in Asia are all pretty hard, but these take the cake.  They were wooden slat beds with just a ½ inch foam pad thrown on top.  That was when I wished I’d been successful in my repeated attempts to train myself to sleep on my back!  At least I’d had enough rice wine to knock me out.

The next day we had a big breakfast, but the family insisted we sit and have a second meal of village chicken and liver, and more rice wine before departing.  Although being drunk for the trek didn’t see like a good idea, a couple shots of rice wine (always in an even number, mind you) actually hit the spot. 

Some more rice wine for our trek!
Some more rice wine for our trek!
A shot of crew before heading out.
A shot of crew before heading out.

We then hiked to a cave, had lunch in another homestay, and made our way back to the highway where we were picked up and driven the final stretch back to town.  All in all it was a little over 30kms trekked in two days.  We felt like we’d earned ourselves the beers and chips we had when we made it back to town! 

Loving how cool it is in this cave!
Loving how cool it is in this cave!
Sitting on a rock overlooking the valley (me, Jay, and our guide Pay).
Sitting on a rock overlooking the valley (me, Jay, and our guide Pay).
The view from the hilltop.
The view from the hilltop.
A rare white water buffalo!
A rare white water buffalo!
Me and our guide.
Me and our guide.
Testing our balance walking through rice fields.
Testing our balance walking through rice fields.

Sapa Sapa

Pigs and a dish.  Just cause you live in the boonies doesn't mean you can't watch your stories.
Pigs and a dish. Just cause you live in the boonies doesn’t mean you can’t watch your stories.
The cute kids playing in a hammock at our homestay lunch spot.
The cute kids playing in a hammock at our homestay lunch spot.
Yep, I'm in Asia!
Yep, I’m in Asia!
That is one big pot!
That is one big pot!
Working in the fields.
Working in the fields.
Hard to see, but this guy was carrying a pet bird on a stick in the fields.
Hard to see, but this guy was carrying a pet bird on a stick in the fields.

The next day I got a scooter and ventured out to the waterfalls.  Funny enough, this time the scooter didn’t even come with enough gas to get me to the station; but thankfully I was only a block short and could push it the rest of way easily enough.  First stop was Silver Waterfall (Thac Bac), which was right off the road and a quick stop.  I then kept going, passing Love Waterfall (Thac Tinh Yeu; I went on the way back), and driving until I went over the Tram Ton pass, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam.  A snaking two lane highway hugging the mountainside, with intermittent waterfalls peeking out from the lush green foliage.  It really was a beautiful ride!   

Silver Waterfall.
Silver Waterfall.
A view from the road.
A view from the road.
Cruisin' (don't worry, the highway was empty enough that I could pull over to take photos).
Cruisin’ (don’t worry, the highway was empty enough that I could pull over to take photos).
Highway through the clouds.
Highway through the clouds.
Watch out - if the fall doesn't get you, the water will!
Watch out – if the fall doesn’t get you, the water will!
A view of the road over Tram Ton Pass.
A view of the road over Tram Ton Pass.
A view of Tram Ton Pass.
A view of Tram Ton Pass – that bend is the actual highest point.

 

My "hog."
My “hog.”
Pit stop.  Seriously, would you identify this as a pee place?  This is the female version of a urinal.
Pit stop. Seriously, would you identify this as a pee place? This is the female version of a urinal.

With no real plan ahead of time, I decided to just go as far as the next town on the roadside mile markers and have lunch there before turning back.  This was about 40km out of Sapa.  But about 3km from my destination I came to a crossroads that didn’t tell me which way went to this mystery destination.  So I figured I’d come far enough and had lunch at a random place on the side of the road.  I ordered “cóm” and finally figured out that it’s simply fried rice.  I ate my lunch in the company of a stick bug trying his best to camouflage into the carved wood furniture, and the owner’s daughter who was napping in a hammock with her teddy bear.  

 

Lunch break!
Lunch break!

On the way back I did stop at Love Waterfall, it was a bit of a hike back to it.  I also hiked up to the lookout tower, which actually didn’t have as good of views as the road itself offered.  But when I went to leave, I realized I’d lost the scooter key.  I put it in the pocket of my windbreaker and very stupidly didn’t zip the pocket!  So, I knew just what had happened, it fell out who knows where.  The guard helpfully tried to use another key to start the bike, but I knew it was no use.  So I retraced my steps back down to the waterfall, hoping to find the key but also running through the worst case scenario in my head: I at least had the phone number of the rental place (a first!) and would just have to pay whatever kings’ ransom the owner demanded for the lost the key and rescue effort.  But luckily I found my key laying right in the middle of path almost all the way back down at the waterfall.  I felt extremely relieved and really lucky!  I’d been debating whether to remove the now very decayed string bracelet a monk gave me, along with a blessing, during Thai New Year.  But, hey, maybe it is bringing me good luck after all!    

 

At Love Waterfall (after a bit of refreshing rain).
At Love Waterfall (after a bit of refreshing rain).

 

A bell in the observation tower...why not?
A bell in the observation tower…why not?

 

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