How To Make The Most Of Your Northern Vietnam Trek Through The Rolling Rice Terraces Of Sapa.
Sapa is a frontier township and capital of Sapa District in Lào Cai Province in north-west Vietnam. Its entry point Lào Cai is on the border of China and is easily accessible. Sapa is home to many minority groups including the Hmong, Dao, Giáy, Pho Lu, and Tay.
On this trekking adventure, we travelled with 2 other families of which the youngest child was 5 years old and the oldest was 10 years old. We trekked for 2 days to scenic outlooks, cascading waterfalls, plunging valleys and through the famous rice terraces. For us, it was a journey worth taking but it wasn’t easy albeit being prepared. It’s all about managing your expectations and ensuring you’re well equipped.
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Time of the Year. The best time of the year to visit Sapa is essentially Spring or Autumn. The weather is the most stable from March to May with relatively clear skies giving way to sunny days and cool nights. September and October is the most scenic time to trek as its harvesting season and the rice terraces are at its most lush.
If you prefer the warmer weather, you can head to Sapa in the summer months. It is however nowhere near to being as hot as its Southern counterparts with an average temperature of 20-25 degrees during the day. But with the warmth comes the rain and the typhoons. Many treks do get cancelled as its simply not safe to traverse the muddy slopes.
We were there in January, their winter. Although it was their dry season, we were categorically congratulated on getting an unusually sunny and warm day. Day 2 and 3 rained continuously for 24 hours and it did not let up the entire time. I would hate to see the rainy season! It got relatively cold and we were greeted by the thick mist encasing the mountain peaks in the mornings and evenings. The day after we left Sapa, it snowed for the first time in 3 years.
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Sapa Town. Prior to arriving in Sapa, I had read ample articles and reviews warning me to reign in my expectation of finding a charming and quaint town. I must admit I am so glad I did my research because delightful it isn’t. And in my conflicted state, I understood that we as travellers and tourists, did this. Holiday makers have allowed the town to develop faster than it is regulated, in a bid to grab a slice of the tourism pie. Construction aplenty combined with zero injection of funding on public infrastructure, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
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Getting There. There are several ways you can do this with the main exit and entry point from Hanoi. You can get on a 2 night 3-day tour from Hanoi of which everything is organised for you and you don’t have to worry about transport or accommodation. There is an abundance of private tour operators so it’s not difficult to find one.
If you prefer the bus, you can hop on a sleeper bus from Hanoi and the journey will take approximately 10-12 hours. Vietnam however is notorious for their reckless driving as they weave in and out of traffic like they were playing a video game. There have been enough accidents on these long haul trips to make you think twice before you go.
We went on the overnight train and this was the best decision ever! There are essentially 2 trains that take this route of which 40 companies have rights to a certain number of carriages. When you’re selecting which company to go with, it really doesn’t make much of a difference. We went with the Orient Express Train and we were delighted with the quality of the berths. It costs USD$35pp for a 4 berth or $70pp for a VIP 2 berth. As we wanted privacy, we paid for the 4th berth in our cabin so we wouldn’t have a stranger sleep in with us. The advantage of that was we also had space to put our luggage. As you can imagine it isn’t built for an abundance of suitcases! The children loved the experience and they slept like babies.
The only disadvantage of taking the overnight train is what to do all day before you depart and where would you go when you arrive at 5am in the morning and you can’t check in yet. You can opt to put your luggage in the storage at the train stations or you can pay for an extra room night at the hotel each way.
Oh and don’t be late. It’s a government run train so they wait for no man, woman or child. We made our home bound train by 2 minutes! Stressful? Extremely!
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Transfer. Upon arriving at Lao Cai train station, you will need to find transport to Sapa, which takes about an hour. There are plenty of drivers vying for your business upon your arrival so I wouldn’t worry too much if you hadn’t already organised your transport. We got our hotel to organise ours. Make sure to allow for ample time to get to Lao Cai train station on the way back. We were stuck in bumper to bumper traffic all the way down and as mentioned above, we nearly missed out train.
And it is on this leg of the journey where I have continued to kick myself for not being more prepared. I didn’t realise, although in hindsight…. duh…. that the 1 hour shuttle ride to Sapa was a windy climb up the mountain. As you may know, Hannah is prone to severe travel sickness and oh my…. sick she got. In fact, 2 of our travelling friends also vomited on the drive up.
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Accommodation. I won’t delve too much into this because if it’s one thing Sapa has a lot of its hotels. With over a 100 hotels of varying quality, you can easily get something more than comfortable on a small budget. On the other end of the spectrum, eco lodges and resorts and spas with spectacular views of the mountains are also readily available.
If you wish to get the true cultural experience, there are plenty of homestays to select from whereby you can immerse your family to how a member of the Hmong Tribe lives and thrives. We stopped for lunch at a homestay on one of the days and it was spacious, extremely clean and orderly and relatively comfortable.
We stayed at the Sapa Diamond Hotel for about AUD $160.00 per night. It would have been a good stay as it had very spacious and comfortable rooms and exemplary service had we not been sandwiched between 2 construction sites. The cranes and tractors got in the way of an otherwise superb view.
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Clothing. It goes without saying that you have to be well prepared for the trek. The one overriding element is possessing clothing that is weather proof and water resistant. The cultivation of rice requires a substantial amount of water which is why this high rainfall region is ideal for the paddy fields. You don’t want to be wet at the start of a 10-hour trek, especially in the winter months when it’s cold. The thin nylon jackets and pants we bought from the usual outdoor adventure shops worked a charm of which we supplemented it with thermals and fleece linings to keep us warm.
Sapa town is riddled with shops selling outdoor clothing with North Face being the most popular. Some say they are fake whilst other say there are sold on the black market as North Face is produced in Vietnam. Whilst I’m not encouraging you to support the fake market, I did have a need to buy a new jacket with a full fleece lining for the next leg of the trip. It costed me USD$26.00 and it was an excellent buy whilst it withstood the elements easily. Many travellers purposely wait until they get to Sapa to stock up as its well known that one can pick up cheap items. The variety for the tween age however is not so great. I didn’t find anything for Hannah’s size.
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Shoes. The rain causes the route to be constantly wet and muddy. Well, it certainly was a slippery slide for us when we went. Proper water proof hiking boots are a must. There were some sections where it was completely flooded which unfortunately meant that water did seep into the shoe from the top. Ankle high boots may be a better choice if you are going during the rainy season.
The local Hmong guides wore calf high gum boots. Although it was the perfect way to keep them dry, I’m not sure how much grip there was. They are in abundance in Sapa, so if you decide that gumboots are a better choice for you, it’s easy and cheap enough to grab a pair on the fly.
Again, you can also buy your boots here if you wish. My friends didn’t bring hiking shoes and when the weather turned they had to go and grab some and can I say they were seriously good! USD $30 a pair. We couldn’t find smaller sizes for the 5-year-old however so perhaps you may have to get those before you get there.
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Trekking guides. There is a plethora of choices when it comes to finding a guide to take you on your trek. I knew from the onset that I wanted a local guide from the Hmong Tribe to give us an authentic experience. I settled on a company called Sapa Sisters and I couldn’t have made a better choice. They were quick with their responses, tailored treks to suit the needs of our families and we were bestowed with a charming little pocket rocket of a guide, Chai. Her English was excellent despite never having been to school in her life, is now the bread winner of her family, opinionated, ambitious, and strong.
Chai was generous with the information she provided us and was ever so patient with our myriad of inquisitive questions and the antics of the kids when they got tired. She told us of her life as a woman of the black Hmong Tribe and how she was in a conundrum about how tourism has changed her homeland. The rolling terraces are her natural backyard and she fails to see why us city folk from all the around the world find it so spectacular. She was refreshing and honest without glossing over facts just to entertain tourists. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
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Leeches. And by this I don’t mean the creepy crawly type. I am unfortunately referring to the locals who stick by your side in hope of acquiring some of their wares. They are everywhere and it irritated me to no end at the start until I became accustomed to the fact that it was ok to ignore them completely.
On the trek itself, 3 women, one of whom was carrying a baby, followed us for the entire 4 hours. Their tactics incite friendship, empathy, and helpfulness. They will try and strike up a conversation in hope of becoming friends by the end of the hike or unwillingly help the children across difficult tracks with the view that you may repay them by purchasing something you will never need.
Upon one of our visits to a Dao tribe, the locals set upon us like vultures as we exited the shuttle van. They came up to us with great big smiles and very strategically encourage you to take photos with them. The weak will feel the need to repay this so called hospitality.
I had been informed that winter sees the least number of panhandlers due to the cold. Beware in the warmer months! Especially the young kids with their baby siblings strapped to their backs. They come out in force!
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Car Sickness. I mentioned briefly above that Hannah suffered severe car sickness on the climb up the mountain. If you are engaging a driver for any part of your trip, know that all of Sapa is windy as the roads follow the natural terrain of the mountain. It is full of twists and turns and on our trip to the Dao Village, our second guide vomited! She’s a local and still susceptible so do be prepared.
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Food. I must start by saying that coffee is horrendous in Sapa! Even the local Vietnamese coffee is extremely bitter and thick and no amount of condensed milk can make it drinkable. Even our Vietnamese companion couldn’t cope.
North Vietnamese cuisine is very plain and more of Chinese heritage than Vietnamese. The quality of the meats is tough and pungent. The vegetables on the other hand are fresh and delicious! Stick to the noodles in hot soups, vegetable dishes on rice and anything deep fried. Don’t even try Western cuisine no matter how desperate you are. Sapa certainly isn’t known for its culinary prowess.
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Tours from Sapa. We did not venture on any other tours outside of Sapa with the popular ones being the Bac Ha markets and the Love Market. We didn’t even check out Cat Cat Village. What was once a place for the locals to trade, meet people and make a living, it has apparently turned into a tourist trap. After being exposed to the unsolicited locals following us everywhere, I was simple not in the mood to explore any areas that possibly had a congregation of women and children touting their goods.
In saying that however, please do not let me deter you from going. I do have a friend who went to Bac Ha, stayed a couple of nights and that was her highlight of her Vietnamese holiday. Perhaps avoid the market like a plague! Another friend went to Cat Cat village with the teenage kids and enjoyed it thoroughly. Perhaps she has a greater tolerance than me!
Overall, the unanimous consensus of the 3 families, adults and kids included was that Sapa was awesome! If you’re able to bypass its haphazard development and desperation of the locals, you really must add this to your list of things to do in Vietnam. The real charm are the lush fields and to think that we went at the least prettiest time and still thought it was stunning, it’s worth doing. Hannah had a great time and she genuinely loved everything she experienced on the hikes. As for me personally, I would go back. I’d like to see it at the height of its beauty.
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