Travelling the length and width of Vietnam we came across all walks of life, weathers and landscapes. But in completing our original task of riding from Saigon to Hanoi we knew we had one last adventure left, and it turned out to be the best. After 2 gruelling but amazing days on the bike, passing through the amazing little villages of Yen Bai and staying with a wonderful family in a homestay, it was time to reach the picture perfect rice terraces of Sapa. Located in the very north of Vietnam along the border with China the weather was much colder and harsher up here. The mountains dominated the landscape and hill tribes, in particular the H’Mong and Red Dao people populated this rugged but beautiful place. To get the most out of this fascinating and stunning location we headed off trekking in Sapa with some of the H’Mong women for a 2 days that turned out to be the highlight of our 7 weeks in Vietnam!
Heading up into the mountains and seeing the landscape change
Gliding up the winding road from the city of Lao Cai where we had ridden alongside the Chinese border the air began to become thinner and with more bite. A perpetual fog clung to the mysterious town of Sapa that sat at the top of this mountain we were slowly climbing with each wilding and snaking contoured bend. Breaking through the mist it was like being teleported into a different land.
From the modern city below the roads were now filled with traditionally clad villagers, their dark black clothing decorated with colourful patterns and chains. Carrying machetes and hauling wicker baskets on their backs full of bamboo up the steep tracks it was like stepping back in time.
Looking over the thin roads to the steep drop below we eventually ended up in the cloud covered and chilly Sapa standing at 1500 meters (4,921 feet) elevation.
Meeting up with our local guide, a H’Mong villager and setting off up into the mountains
After a couple of days exploring the region ourselves riding around this wonderful town, through the terrace lined mountain passes and roaring waterfalls it was time for our trekking tour. Cloud had whisped its way over the town for the 3 days we had been here already, breaking only momentarily before it enveloped the mountain tops and swept through the valleys below like a creeping serpent. The weather in this region is a cruel temptress, changing hour to hour giving you a peak at the beauty hidden behind the mist that often accompanies such a high altitude location.
Luckily the morning of the tour, after a tremendous thunderstorm the previous evening, we awoke to blue skies and and the gentle chatter of the birds in the trees. It was almost like the first day of Spring had arrived and the whole place was awakening from its damp slumber.
We arranged to meet our guide, Mao and the rest of the small trekking group at the local market. Here we prepared for the hike to come with some local dishes and drinks in this noisy and pungent atmosphere.
Trekking for 18km through rice terraces and mountain passes whilst learning about the H’Mong ways
Our first day was a jump into the deep end of mountain trekking in Sapa, with a whole host of local tribeswomen in tow, including children and old women in wellington boots, we were well and truly put to shame! This steep and exhausting climb took up sharply out of town and into the mountain above. From our first real stop off we could see for miles, Sapa itself just an insignificant dot below and towering above us still was Fansipan, the highest mountain in IndoChina.
We trekked through so much diverse landscape in one day, from the wild mountaintops where nothing much grows to thick bamboo forests creaking around us to waterfalls, thick jungles and villages with wild pigs, ducks, dogs and chickens running around. Up here the only traffic we saw was the odd buffalo, trekking local and shrieking children shouting hello before running off through the maze of rice terraces. It was truly full emersion into village and H’mong life up here without another westerner or modern convenience in sight.
Spending a night in a tiny village homestay with our host: Mao
After a hard day trekking in Sapa it was time to retire to Mao’s lovely traditional home. Built on two levels entirely out of wood it was a simply but homely set up. As is usual the living quarters were below, where we would share a tasty and traditional meal together with the family, and the sleeping quarters were above. The arrangement was a small mattress on the wooden floors, a blanket, pillow and mosquito net, much more comfort than many of the locals have who often sleep just on the wooden floors.
As the light faded and the various animals and insects began their song we huddled around the family table, after such an intense day we had all firmly become friends and shared stories and tales from our various travels.
Mao herself again told us of the traditional H’Mong ways before encouraging us to drink way too much rice wine or “happy water”, a home brewed moonshine that resembles paint thinner in taste! It did however help keep us warm and allowed a good nights sleep to be had by all, maybe these H’Mong people are on to something!
After a traditional breakfast we trek again, into villages and yet more stunning scenery
The second day of trekking in Sapa was a little less intense on the legs that the first, after a long trek and night sipping rice wine we were all ready for the refreshing mountain air. This time we would traverse the mountainside, heading deeper into and across the rice terraces that characterise this area rather than being above them as we were the day before.
This gave us a much better chance to see these incredible feats of traditional engineering up close. Some of these rice terraces have been providing work for local families for thousands of years, the same methods employed today as their ancestors would have done before them. The landscape here is tough to tame, steep and unforgiving and yet these hardy people have survived and thrived here and yet it’s remoteness has allowed the tribes people to retain these unique and fascinating cultures.
Wandering through the many tiny villages up here Mao would often chat to those who we passed, she was a well known character in these parts, villages spread several km’s apart where everyone knows everyone and their business! She explained to us along the way, waving to a man in traditional baggy H’mong dress who she told us was her brother, that family life is still very traditional up here.
People here are farmers, they tend the rice fields in the warmer and wetter months and usually have animals too. They eat almost anything, from dog to snake, it is about survival. However she did say those two were off the menu for her these days after having a pet dog as a child! She married early and had children by the age I was packing up for university. Trekking in Sapa offered us much more than great views, but great insights too.
It is just a way of life, the girls are often uneducated as they will go and live with their husbands family and tend to them, she was lucky to have been able to pick up English from the passing tourists. Many here don’t even know Vietnamese until they are much older, a girl of around 12 washing her families clothing in the river as we passed by had no clue as to what we were saying when we greeted her with “Cin Xiao” let alone “Hello”. It was both shocking and refreshing for someone to be so isolated from even the most basic words that most know anywhere in the world in many different languages.
Tourism in these parts is a double edged sword, in many ways it is diluting the culture here, making it more sterile and prepackaged for visitors. But at the same time it brings hope to the many women and girls of these tribes. No longer tied down to their husbands wishes they can make money on their own from trekking and selling their wares. They can learn English and all about outside cultures, breaking free from the isolation many of them were condemned to for years.
Mao expressed her hope for her own daughters, now they could receive a proper education and maybe wait longer before getting married, maybe even travel and take advantage of the many opportunities that simply weren’t an option for her at their age. Though at the same time she is also hopeful they will keep the H’Mong traditional alive, however with tourism booming up here it seems that with the hunger of visitors to observe these ways it will keep going for generations to come.
The best way to experience this amazing place and get up close to the unique culture here!
Reflecting on trekking in Sapa it became clear it is an absolute highlight of our time in Vietnam. We not only saw some of the most stunning landscapes in the country, having access to areas we would never have known about, but were able to see the local tribes and villages in a much more personal manner. Visiting these types of places it can often feel hard to interact and truly immerse yourself in their guarded culture, this trek allowed us to become part of the family instead. We also met some amazing people too, both local and fellow travellers, many of which we have kept in touch with and met up with afterwards.
How to do this trekking in Sapa tour yourselves:
Getting up close to these tribes and their REAL way of life rather than just the touristy stuff on show in town is something not everyone has the chance to do whilst in Sapa. This isn’t so easy to organise yourselves so thanks to the wonderful people over at Lily’s travel agency we were able to have such a wonderful and authentic Sapa experience.
We went on the 2 day one night “Trekking with Mao” tour listed here, which costs around $65:
As well as trekking in Sapa Lily also organised Ha Long Bay tours, trips up to Ha Giang, Ninh Binh and elsewhere as well as transport around the country and internationally and budget options such as boat tickets to Cat Ba.
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Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by Lily’s Travel agency. As always, all opinions are our own!