Sa Pa was breathtaking. Massive luscious green mountains covered in hundreds of rice paddies crafted by the hardworking hands of the local farmers.
We spent two nights in this amazing part of Vietnam as we were running low on time, oh how we wished for more. We booked a tour through a company called Good Morning Sa Pa after reading extensively about the dozens of tours on offer – in this digital age, online reviews and word of mouth completely influence where and what we do! I’m not going to claim that it was the best, nor the best for price, as I haven’t been on every tour, but, we loved it! In total it cost us 2,722,947 Dong ($170NZ) each. This included all meals, two nights accomodation, two days trekking through mountains and villages with a free day at the end, an awesome tour guide and transport to and from Hanoi from Sa Pa.
For the first night we slept in a home-stay, Chien Yen Homestay, in the middle of Ta Van Village where our day trekking had brought us.
It was an awesome spot up high in the middle of the mountains where the air was clear, the people were friendly, the views were breathtaking and the locally brewed rice wine ran free (dangerous and not wine at all! Tasted like vodka gone wrong).
Ms Yen and her family lived there and had about 20 beds for guests to one side of their welcoming home. Upon arrival she cooked us French fries and brewed us some local jasmine tea. Once that was served, she went to work in the kitchen to prepare a big feast for dinner. This was the best food of the trip – the rest of the meals were all exactly the same as each other and not very exciting, but we weren’t there for the food so we didn’t mind.
The beds were comfortable, some were simply mattresses on the floor, but they all had mosquito nets – essential! We were expecting there to be no power, but there were outlets beside our beds and the showers were hot! This was lovely as it’s a lot colder in Sa Pa than any where else we’d been in Vietnam – we had to bust out our puffer jackets!
On the second night we spent the night in our own hotel room at the Auberge Dang Trung Hotel – what a treat, it even had a bath! A welcome change to our usual dorm rooms. Unfortunately, it was under construction while we were there so other than our room and the deck coming off it, the place wasn’t that relaxing. This is where they served the same food for each meal, which got old very fast – we skipped the last lunch and got something different in town.
TREKKING AND VILLAGES:
We left Hanoi around 8am after calling the bus twice to find out where it was – 40 minutes late. We learned very fast that communication was not something organised tours did very well. We never really knew where exactly to be or where we were going, but somehow it all works out in the end and we managed to get to and see the right places!
Sa Pa welcomed us to our hotel about 1pm, just in time for a late lunch before four hours of trekking. We left our big bags in the hotel storage after packing our smaller overnight packs with just the essentials.
The sun was shinning brightly when our local guide, Này, picked us up and we joined the rest of our tour group. There were only seven of us – a lovely size. It was a pretty muddy trek as it had been raining the day before. At one point Neil got both of his boots completely stuck in the mud, I had to laugh.
We were joined by locals for the first two hours of our walk, they chatted with us and made us love hearts and horses out of coconut leaves. But, as soon as we stopped for a break they brought out their handmade souvenirs to try and sell us – this was fine until they kept hammering us after we’d said no a dozen times. They have to make money some how.
The trek was mainly down hill (about 9km), with a little bit up at the end. Này took it very slowly so we never felt rushed and she didn’t mind us stopping every 20 metres to take photos. It was the most unreal surroundings with terrace after terrace of rice paddies – unfortunately, we were a month too early to see the rice growing in full bloom. The view didn’t let us down though! On the upside, when the rice has grown a bit and looks good, the rain often accompanies, taking visibility down to about 100m!
The fish farms fascinated us. Vietnamese love fish! Unfortunately for them, Sa Pa is a long way from the ocean, so they mix salt with the river water in big fish pools! So clever.
That night, after our feast, Này bought out two bottles of what looked like water, it was far from it! She explained that the locals brew wine from the rice, but she called it “happy water”. She put them on the table and poured us all a shot glass before shouting mot hai bai yo! (1,2,3, drink), we echoed and followed suit. Oh man, what a disgusting drink! But, what can I say? It was free and local. We finished the bottles and slept well.
The second day’s climb was a lot harder than the first. It was a shorter distance at 3km, but it was mainly up hill and some of it was quite steep and slippery. We set out just after Neil had cleaned all the mud off his boots from the day before, when, only five minutes in, he slipped and stood in a huge buffalo shit. You can only imagine my amusement.
We walked through more villages – one had built a soccer turf for the local kids! The rest were very quaint with small cottages and rickety bridges over the rivers, we had to dodge a water buffalo while crossing one!
There were also a lot of new houses being built by foreigners who loved the spot and wanted a holiday home. Này said it only cost around 1,500,000 Dong ($25,000NZ) to by a piece of land there and the government didn’t charge any taxes or rates – once you owned it that was final, crazy.
After two hours we made it to the pick up point from where a minivan took us back to the hotel for lunch and a rest before Này came to take us to Cat Cat Village.
The walk down to Cat Cat Village was beautiful, flower beds, colourful houses and shops, lots of animals running around and have I mentioned the local’s dress attire? It’s so bright and beautiful.
At the bottom of the valley was a waterfall, it wasn’t that big, but it was pretty and the water to it flowed through a bamboo village – this was fun to explore!
After all that walking we were pretty pumped for an early night, but first we ventured out of the hotel to see the main town at night and found they offered a lot of free beer on entry, Neil was stoked. I was too when we found mulled wine! And it was actually really good! We happened to be wandering in the middle of a power cut – apparently they happen a lot. The cafes all had candles for such a time – was a lovely end to our trekking. The local delicacies didn’t quite appeal for dinner, but Neil managed to find some buffalo biltong!
One of our favourite things about Sa Pa was our tour guide, Này, a 21-year-old beautiful, hardworking, woman. She’s spent her whole life in Sa Pa, going to school in one of the local villages all the while teaching herself English after school and on weekends by speaking to tourists. This helped her get her job as a guide straight out of school. She is now married with a 1-year-old baby girl, Suie. Này works seven days a week, about 14 hours a day and baby Suie often comes trekking with her strapped to her back.
When she is finished her tours, Này goes to work in her family’s rice paddies and veggie gardens, along with helping with the cooking and making sure Suie is looked after. She said, once all the work was done, she would sit down with her family and families from her village every night to drink rice wine. When we asked how that made her mornings she laughed and said, “you just start working and soon you forget about feeling sick”. The one thing that surprised me the most about this wonderful woman was her age and her positivity.
She was so much more mature and confident than any 21-year-old I had ever meet and she was always happy! I didn’t once hear her complain. What a gorgeous soul.
FREE TIME AND THINGS WE MISSED:
On the last day we had free time until the bus picked us up at 3pm. We wandered around the town, it reminded me of a smaller Queenstown, New Zealand – surrounded by mountains and very touristic, not to mention beautiful.
We found a little café called Café in the Clouds, what an awesome spot! It had good affordable food, free wifi that worked, and that view – amazing!
We spent most of the day in the cafe as the weather wasn’t that great, we had originally planned to catch a cable car up to Fansipan – the highest mountain in Indochina. It would’ve cost 400,000 Dong ($25NZ) for a round trip and we’d heard the view was amazing – but the sky was very cloudy and the day was full of patches of rain. There is also a two day trek you can do to climb up, another thing we would have loved – it looks like we’ll have to go back!