We did the 3-day 4-night trek in north Vietnam’s Sapa region. The following is our account of what happened along with some photos.
Just before both couples had our second kids, Nate and I traveled to Vietnam (last minute.) Here’s the story from 2012:
Our tour company sent someone to our hotel to escort us to the train. He immediately sat us down and said, “You know that you’ve chosen homestays with very poor people. It won’t be the Sheraton.” I guess he’s used to backpackers staying in crap hotels. We explained we wanted the full experience, and off we went.
Our sleeping cart had 4 beds (bunk style), of which we shared with 2 Scottish gals traveling Asia for 4 months. They were both nice, though 1 wouldn’t stop talking about her dysfunctional relationship. We were both exhausted from having barely slept after the long travel to Vietnam. And though the girls’ conversation over warm beers was fun, we regretted chatting for so long. The few hours of sleep we did get, were rough ones considering the train felt as though it skipped off the rails a few times.
Sapa Town & 1st Day Trek
We arrived in the early morning to another bustling train station where we crammed into a van full of Australians, French, and a few locals. After a 30-45 minute ride, we arrived at Sapa. Sapa Town is a beautiful little spot on the cliffs with great shops, markets, restaurants, and plenty of hotels. We had a few hours to kill, so we enjoyed some coffee and people watching. We met our guide around 9:30am, a young woman from the Black H’mong tribe.
We followed her, and 3 other Black H’mong followed us (at times literally on our heals.) They followed us for miles until our first stop to have lunch at a village along the way. They wanted us to buy something, and I guess they thought if they chatted us up along the way, we’d cave later. Well, we did. After getting over the paranoia of having them follow so closely behind us, we began to learn more about them and their lives in Sapa. We should have either told them to go away or bought something along the way because once we got to the village and bought, everyone and their kids tried to sell us something. Again, I blame jet lag on our poor decision-making. Oddly enough, after buying something from each of them, they told us to not buy from anyone else. Salty? Yes.
We had a nice meal with a good view along with plenty of other hikers. This was the most tourist-populated place we went (tourists began to drop like obese flies as we went further on.) We continued our hike along the side of mountains, through terraced rice paddies, and across bridges over the river. We even crossed over a waterfall. It was all beautiful.
1st Village Homestay
We eventually got to our village at around 1pm. We had opted to have our own personal guide in order to go at our own pace. I guess our pace was faster than most because our 7-8 hour hike ended up being only 3 1/2. Our guide took us first to her small home on the side of a cliff. There her 3 young children and husband were waiting for us. It was a bit of a shock for both of us to see how they lived. We knew we’d see poor living conditions, but this took the cake. Their home was a 1 room shack with dirt floors and a hole in the middle with a fire warming a kettle. It looked like all they owned were some blankets, a pan, a kettle, a few pairs of clothes, and some tools (they did happen to have a bong for tobacco. Seriously, they take tobacco bong loads! Not sure how they can handle that, but when you’re that poor, any head change is probably a nice distraction.)
The kids darted around, back and forth next to the cliff. The cliff had jagged rock, trash, and all kinds of unpleasant obstacles if you were to fall down it. Seeing kids play along the sides of cliffs became a pretty normal occurrence along our trek. I guess they must learn the hard way, or learn by watching another kid learn the hard way. Anyway, we were treated to a snack of soft bamboo, and we enjoyed watching their kids tear into some candy we’d brought. It was a bit disconcerting watching them toss the wrappers over the cliff, but I guess a few more pieces of trash on the piles below aren’t going to do much more damage. (Maybe they’re trying to soften the blow when they fall?)
After our shock from the reality of poverty had sunk in, we walked down to the main village area. It was a small village with plenty of animals roaming about. Pigs, ducks, geese, dogs, tiny kittens, water buffalo, and more. We arrived at our homestay, which was a much bigger than our guides home. It had at least 3-4 rooms with a TV, and a separate bathroom, shower, and shed for the livestock. It had a covered outside area for eating/entertaining, which was adjacent to a pond where they farmed fish. It was nice. Our beds were near the entrance in the main room. It looked like it could accommodate at least 10 people comfortably, but we were the only ones there.
We enjoyed some tea, then we walked around the town to have a beer at one of the local spots. We then took a beer down to the river and soaked in the cold water. It’s a beautiful river, but after seeing all the trash and what was being tossed up river, we decided against a full swim. Considering that we took showers with the same water, it seems foolish now that we didn’t. Anyway, it was a nice break from the heat. We spent at least an hour washing off our wealthy-capitalist guilt, listening to the water and just relaxing.
As we walked back up to the homestay, we ran into our Scottish train friends. They were homestaying at a different spot in the same village and told us to cruise by later for some rice wine and to meet their new friends. We went back to our home for the night, and the very friendly proprietor and her husband had made a feast! We all ate as much as we could and enjoyed plenty of their homemade rice wine. It was a little harsh, but still tasty. After dinner, we walked down to our friends, and found about a 1/2 dozen people all having a blast eating. We joined them for some rice wine and a few beers. The group consisted of a funny German couple, a trippy israeli-french woman, the scots, the proprietor and his family, and their loud guide. We exchanged traveling stories and scooted home before there was any risk of a hangover. We debated visiting them at all because we were so exhausted from lack of sleep, but the possibility of us missing out on a cool Sapa moment was not in the cards. It was worth the extra few hours to meet more travelers.
Night time was very cold, and the huge blankets we were given were blessings. It was the first good night sleep in some 80 odd hours. Blissful. We got up around 7-8 and had a breakfast of crepes and fresh fruit, which again was delicious!
2nd Day Trek and 2nd Village Homestay
We began our 2nd day of trekking by continuing down along the river. We stopped for lunch at a little hole in the wall where our guide cooked us a meal from what she was carrying. It was a delicious Pho with egg. The only thing that made the meal not as good was the stink-eye I was getting from these 2 french lesbians a few tables away. Not sure why, but they hated me. (Maybe they could read the future?)
We made sure that we didn’t have any entourage by telling all followers “NO BUY!!!!” It seemed to work after a 1/2 mile or so each time. We trekked down to a much bigger village with some kind of a power plant next to a mining operation. It was a little odd, but the village was beautiful. We stopped at a little cafe along a bridge over the river for a beer, and really enjoyed reflecting on our experience so far. Again, we took some time at the river to soak again (this time much more needed since we were a bit sore.)
We arrived back at our homestay, which was a 3 story home made from mostly unstable bamboo and loose wood. The bamboo floors were very loose and a little sketchy. The whole place smelled of manure, but the people running it were very nice. As we approached the dining area, we found our new friends: a New Zealand couple and an Australian couple with their fun/obnoxious local guide. The whole group had been powering down beers and rice wine for some time, and it showed. We immediately felt like family. And so began a long night of great food, too much rice wine, and a lot of yelling. Drinking turned into drinking games. Drinking games turned into broken shot glasses. And did I mention the yelling? Anyway, we had a blast and really enjoyed our new group of friends. Our host got pretty tipsy too (see photo). The only ones that didn’t quite share in our mirth were the 2 angry French lesbians (loudly proclaimed as “Lezbots” by the not so PC Aussies/Kiwis.) I don’t think they appreciated my bad French and our keeping them up all night (especially considering that we shared the 3rd floor loft with them.)
AMAZINGLY enough, we woke up after another great night of sleep with very little hangover. Their homemade bathtub rice wine must have some kind of Vietnamese voodoo ingredient.
3rd Day Trek, Sapa Town again, & Final Overnight Train
After some more crepes and fuzzy-brained good byes, we began our hike back along the same route. It was all uphill, and not very long. We stopped at the same hole in the wall spot for our guide’s meal, then took a bus back to Sapa. Along the way, we stopped along a dirt road on a cliff (probably to pick up more trekkers.) At one point, our driver decided to do a 3 point turn on the narrow cliff road, which nearly ended in disaster. When he got to the cliff (hanging precariously high over a river), he would burn-out kicking up dirt. He didn’t quite understand how this wasn’t helping our situation. We went to get out, and he told us to stay. We somehow managed to get out of the van (even with a broken door), and helped push the vehicle to safety. Luck would have it that we found a ride with a different driver in a weird, packed bus with plastic bag seat covers. This ended up being just as stressful considering our driver liked to pass every other bus on very narrow cliff-top dirt roads at high speed. After getting off, we tipped our guide with a months worth of Vietnam salary, and thanked God we’d survived the ride.
Once we’d eventually made it back to Sapa Town, we relished in our finally discovering true Vietnamese Coffee. This single-serving-brewed-mud-like sludge dripped over a sweet condensed milk, which eventually turned into something truly glorious. It was fantastic. As we poked around Sapa doing some shopping, eating the garliciest bread ever, and drinking more beer, we ended up running into every person we’d met on the trip. The Scottish girls were still discussing their dysfunctional relationship (of which I began nodding and ignoring their gabbing after the 2nd meeting), the Aussies/Kiwis were all still hungover and real quiet, and the French were still angry. We took a bus to the train station where we ended up running into them all again.
At the train station, we went for a beer, and walked around to check out the weird Amsterdam-style architecture. Once on the train, we met our cabin-mates: 2 American guys from New York and California. They were bright, interesting guys that looked as tired as we were. We got the impression that their trip was more about finding sufficient “Boom-Boom” than anything else. We exchanged some stories and crashed for the night. Unfortunately, I was the only one that got less than a few hours sleep.
And that’s about it! We got back to Hanoi in the morning, showered up, and headed back to the Old Quarter for more amazing local food and sightseeing. We recommend this trip to anyone, but keep in mind that it’s not exactly what you might think it to be (for better or worse.)