Sapa is small town in northern Vietnam surrounded by mist filled rice paddies carved into mountain sides. It is also the one and only time so far that we’ve felt cold during our travels. It dropped 30 degrees (F) which makes a dramatic difference when you’re used to hot humid weather everday. It has a ski resort type vibe, mist covered mountains, cool air and because most shops are filled with North Face hiking gear (which you never see a local wearing). There are some nice restaurants, cafes and a market on the tourist main strip and locals set up on the sidewalks with plenty of goods worth bargaining for.
We took an all day bus journey staring in Cat Ba Island leaving at 9am and we arrived to Sapa at 4am! It was dark and very chilly, we were welcomed by taxi drivers and tour operators trying to book us up in advance, we don’t make decisions at for 4am so headed straight for the hotel. When we found our hotel and the door to the lobby was open and a key laid on the desk. We put two and two together and helped ourselves. Turns out, we weren’t supposed to sleep in that room. Whoopsie! They had us unofficially check out in the morning and charged us $5 for our early morning nap. I’d rather pay the money than have to sleep on the curb waiting for the reception to open any day. Win for Team MussMart.
That day we did what’s grown to be one of our favourite things to do; rented a moped and hit the open road. In our attempt to find the two main waterfalls outside of Sapa, we had a few hiccups. We started following the sign posts to the falls and realised after sometime that we weren’t going the right way (it was signposted wrong, so better to use a map than rely on signs). We ended up in a rehabilitation and conservation centre which was a nice surprise. We saw monkeys, deer, birds and more. There were some steep hills in the centre and our bike didn’t have the power to take us both up the them (that’s right, we’re blaming the bikes rather than the sizes of our rear ends). We asked a local where the falls were and he pointed us to a construction sight. We made our way through there, but we definitely shouldn’t have been riding through there. We nearly toppled over trying to ride through thick sand and dirt, but when you have mad skills like Musson does, there’s no going down without a fight.
The Silver Waterfall about 15km from SaPa, was nice but can easily be viewed from the side of the road. We decided to go on 2km further to the Love Waterfall. It cost $2.50 each and totally worth it. You hike to the giant waterfall and get to take in the natural sights of the great outdoors. It was beautiful.
The next day we rode through the mountains trying to find the indigenous villages that Sapa is renowned for. We rode through a few, but weren’t able to find the specific ones we were looking for (another sign issue). The scenery there is like nothing else we’ve seen. Not only do you see animals, mountains, rice paddies that go on as far as the eye can see, you also see all the villagers in their traditional dress.
Many of the village women walk through Sapa offering tours, home-stays and their handmade products. We were approached by Dong and Mimi and we negotiated a one day trip with them to their village. They gave us each a bracelet, branding us as theirs so we could ward off other villagers trying to sell us their services.
Trekking is a popular choice for tourists in Sapa. We didn’t really feel like walking up to 25km like many others choose, so we agreed with Dong and Mimi to drive part of the way and walk the rest to Dong’s home where the two lovely ladies would cook us lunch.
Dong’s house is a wooden hut with a dirt floor, slits and spaces between the boarded walls and doors. It is shared with several families and also home to many animals. The kitchen is off to one side with a huge wok in the corner where I’m sure the multiple family meals are cooked at one time. Closer to their living space than the wok is an open fire pit where smaller meals are cooked. They have no qualms about throwing plastic bags in the fire from their shopping and generally use the fire pit not only for cooking, but also for their waste management in general. Anything that’s consumable waste is given to the pigs just outside the front door. Also near the pig pens is the toilet. Not an official toilet or even an outhouse, but wherever you fancy pulling down your pants and going. So oddly, next to the pig pen is where I chose. It was the most hidden. Side note, culturally speaking, Asians on the whole seem to be much more comfortable sharing space and at ease with anything related to bodily functions than we Westerners. Something I’m still not used to.
Dong and Mimi started the prep and cooking for lunch. Stephen and I sat awkwardly wondering if we should sit and watch, try to help, ask questions about their living, or just be quite. We asked if we could help of course but they politely declined. Dong put on a movie with subtitles for us and we watched a very strange and unintentionally hilarious movie, it was as slow starter but ended strongly.
At one point, the children of the village came to the house while on break from school. About ten children strolled in, looked at us strangely, then pulled up in front of the tv to watch as well. They weren’t really too interested in us at all besides a few stares and giggles at the start. Soon after they all marched back to school.
When our lunch was ready Stephen, Dong, Mimi, their two husbands and I pulled our wooden benches up around the table. The benches varied in size with some just a few inches from the ground- which is what they use on a daily basis. Imaging trading in your favourite comfy seat you sit in to watch tv for a one piece of wood bench with your knees practically in your chest. We live good lives people. Perhaps too good.
Dong’s husband pulled out a plastic water bottle filled with a clear liquid. We knew it wasn’t water when to shot glasses were passed around. We shared lunch and homemade rice spirit which they called ‘happy juice’. Stephen asked how they make it and Dong said they use rice and add ‘something else’ and ferment it for 21 days. The ‘something else’ remains a mystery; ethanol perhaps? Oye. Dinner was served, we had 3 different dishes all vegetarian for me and all very tasty.
After lunch Dong, Mimi and a girl who must’ve skipped school for the rest of the day took a stroll in the mountains. It was so nice to be out of earshot of any motorbikes, tourists and hustlers. The views were spectacularly beautiful. The day was less a like a tour but more like a day in the life of a villager.
I couldn’t help but contemplate the vast differences between our ways of life. On the one hand we live in complete excess for what is necessary to live on a daily basis. On the other hand, perhaps they live with too little. I’m not sure how much of that is their choice and how much is because of their social and/or economic circumstances. They all seemed extremely happy and we were not confronted with any opportunities to buy products or asked to give any additional money than we had negotiated at the start. They were humble, generous, friendly and I think absolutely adorable.
We were happy we opted for a one day visit rather than an over night stay. However, I’m sure it would be a pleasant stay, be it a bit awkward at times. If you find yourself in Sapa, Dong has given us her number for any travellers to contact her (01698511221). Please do, we found the experience positive and educational.
Some more photos
Our time in Vietnam has come to an end. We absolutely loved our time here and consider it one of our favourite countries in our SE Asia travels. In retrospect we might have done what many others do- buying a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City, making your own way up the country and selling it off in Hanoi. Some of our fondest moments in Vietnam were riding through the country side taking in the epic scenery.
Next we are making our way to Laos, our 8th country in 5 months. Life is good my friends.