Sapa – a hiker’s paradise

By Nate

      There were a few options floating around.  There was talk of flying south and making our way north, then on to Loas and/or Thailand.  Another option was moving south by bus\train and making stops along the way before flying to Loas or Thailand.  Instead we choose door number 3, head north out of Hanoi and see what happens. 

      We had heard from fellow travelers, blog posts and a Vietnam travel book that Sapa had become saturated with tourists and had lost a lot of its charm along the way to becoming and international trekking hotspot.  (Not sure why, but it seems like worldwide, the word is “trekking” not “hiking”, so I’m going to try to assimilate.)  Despite the warnings of “too touristy”, we made arrangements to stay a few days, without the much suggested tour groups, and see what would unfold.  

      The easiest way to get to Sapa from Hanoi was to catch a ride with one of those tour group companies.  It was a 5 hour bus ride half filled with multilingual announcements and itineraries, but we made our way through the twisty mountain roads and into Sapa.  Upon arrival the bus was swarmed by, tiny, colorful Hmong women looking to hawk thier wears.  Apparently we found two of the more determined ladies.  You can read about that encounter here. After getting settled at the Golden Plaza Hotel, we went for a walk before sunset to check out the town.  There were several street vendors near downtown, a nice small lake and vibrant community that was clearly in the middle of an upgrade.  Buildings were going up all over the place to match what seemed like a pretty high demand for tourism.  

      There are a few hikes around town and there is always the possibility of going on a 2 or 3 day trek with stays at local mountain villages.  We’ve heard more than a few mixed reviews about the trekking homestays.  It seems to be about a 50/50 shot you’ll have a great experience or a cultural exchange gone wrong.  At the beginning of our stay, we didn’t know if we would stay in a homestay, but we both agreed that this is a sweet little mountain town that deserves some exploration.

      Our second day in Sapa was just gorgeous.  The morning clouds lifted to show far off mountains as a backdrop to some wild foothills marked by rows of rice platforms carved into the hillsides.  From the northwest end of town you could see Fansipan peak, the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia.  Because of this incredible view, we booked our next few nights at the Sapa scenery hotel overlooking that valley and great mountainscape. 

      We ended up staying at the Sapa scenery hotel for 6 nights and never had close to the view we had the 2 minutes we were shown the room.  After day 2 in Sapa the clouds came down and only receded in short bursts, never to reveal Fansipan to us again.  That didn’t stop us from enjoying the hell out of Sapa, in what ended up being our longest stay anywhere in the past 2 months.  

      On our clear day we ended up making the right decision to hike up to Dragon mouth mountain.  It followed, what is becoming, the normal pattern of nice natural attraction in Vietnam; buy a ticket at the gate, make your way through a gauntlet of local vendors, the path opens to gardens and obscure statues, then you’ll get to the main attraction.  In the case the main attraction was a hilltop with an observation deck giving a 360 degree view of Sapa and a great surrounding area filled with agriculture, tiny houses dotting the hillsides, all ringed by tall tree filled mountains.  Some of the more obscure statues I mentioned included a dragon water fountain, a ram, the CU buffalo (Rocky mountain showdown in full swing here in Sapa) and finally a Scooby Doo giving the finger; you just can’t make this stuff up.  

      Thankfully we got up and got ourselves a good view because like I said, the clouds were moving in.  A sign downtown read that you will experience every season in a single day.  Spring in the morning, summer in the afternoon, fall at dusk and winter at night.  The first 2 days that was right on the mark, but after that, summer was gone and spring and fall only came out occasionally.  I can’t say we were too upset, this may be the only time this year we’ll get to experience anything resembling winter.  I wasn’t trying to rub it in for those back home, I genuinely miss winter.  Maybe not driving in it, or layering up just to go get the mail, or shoveling snow.  Okay, I miss snowboarding and hot choclate, thats about it.

      Our first day at the Sapa Scenary hotel wasn’t very scenic. For our wonderful mountain view, there was about 20 feet of visibility. Fortunately, for us there was a nice waterfall nearby. The Cat Cat village and waterfall were a little less than a mile down the hill from the hotel. The further we dropped in altitude, the better the visibility. From down in the valley, the mist actually added to the effect of the small mountain village, set in a canyon, leading down to a river. Again, our day followed the ritual of buy a ticket then walk through the local vendors but, sadly, the only crazy statue was a tile dragon instead of a favorite cartoon companion giving me the bird. The waterfall itself was pretty neat but it was the mountain village in the mist/jungle that really made the day worthwhile. 

McKayla bartered her way into a nice little necklace. By barter I mean that she walked away slowly while the girl shouted lower and lower numbers until it would have been silly not to buy. McKayla also discovered the local headbands. While the hilltribes are clearly masters of sewing, we have no need or space for blankets or huge scarves… but headbands… headbands could be bought in bulk, tucked away and be nice reminders of these aggressive little mountain women for years to come. Though we only found one at Cat Cat, we now had a mission to find more. Also while in the village, we sampled some of the Sapa street food which included grilled corn, eggs and sweet potatoes, as well as buffalo jerky. The grilled sweet potato tasted like a potato straight off the grill; I shared with a local dog. The jerky was pretty good, she warmed it up on the grill then took a hammer to it, literally, to tenderize it a bit. The result was warm, peppered jerky – a little chewy but tasty. 

      Climbing out of the valley and back into the cloud, we stopped at a little art studio to sample some homemade wine. Neither of us was brave enough to go with banana wine but we did share a glass of apple wine and a glass of plum wine. Though sweet, I’ll have to admit the plum wine was slightly better than my own attempt at making plum wine… slightly.  

      The combination of bad weather and the persistence of the locals had us second guessing a homestay trek. I’m sure we could’ve found a good one but neither of us really had the drive to find a good homestay or the willingness to put up with the weather and a potential 48 hours of “shopping?”, “you buy something” or “where you from”. Instead we decided to focus our efforts on summitting Fansipan, finding the other 2 waterfalls near town and buying ourselves a Jiangxi (a combo of a hacky sack and a shuttlecock that is all the rage here in any open area where kids gather to kick around the ole Jiangxi).

      There ended up being a couple of days of wandering around different parts of Sapa and ducking into cafes when we needed a warmup. Even shrouded in fog, Sapa is still a pretty beautiful spot. When walking around, we got to know the town a little better. After a couple days, it was easier to shake off the hilltribe women – don’t make eye contact, give a firm ‘no thank you’ and keep moving. We found a grocery store that sold Laughing Cow cheese spread, crackers and dark chocolate. All things that have been a unavailable or have gone undiscovered for the last two months; sometimes, it’s the little things. We found a local market inside an old bus station where we could get fruit and dumplings. We even became regulars at a local restaurant that had good food and a cozy fireplace. 

      Love waterfall and Silver waterfall were about 10 miles north of town so we hired a taxi the day we went there. Again, it was a fairly foggy morning, and the ascending road didn’t help at all with that. Just below the highest pass in Vietnam, the taxi dropped us off at the entry to Love waterfall. As it turns out, it is also the trailhead for the hiking route to Fansipan. The waterfall was nice, pretty tall with some good foliage cascading down along with the water. The only down side was having to share it with four of the more obnoxious Asian tourists we’ve come across (I’ll spare you the obnoxious Asian tourist rant, I’ll just say that some stereotypes exists for a reason).

      After Love Waterfall, we found a hill, climbed it, rang a gong and continued to Silver Falls. Our taxi decided to wait for us, which was probably a good thing since the fog was so thick you could chew it and the road leading back to Sapa was long, windy and fairly busy. While Silver Falls was worth the dollar entrance fee it wasn’t more than a looped staircase around a rocky stream. 

      One of our days was dedicated strictly to finding hand woven headbands and getting a Jianzi (I know – busy, busy). We found both, and then some. We only got a few minutes into our Jianzi alley before McKayla was interrupted by a little old lady; this is what happens if you don’t keep moving (Zombiland rule #3).  While McKayla “shopped”, two local guys came and helped educate me in Jianzi. I only kept up slightly but it was still a good time. Meanwhile, McKayla got herself a new bracelet for 40,000 dong, paid with a 50,000 note and was given her change in the form of 2 woven bracelets. Although McKayla insisted on the money, the old woman insisted right back that the bracelets were money. So now she has one metal and two cloth bracelets. It’s hard not to feel taken advantage of in a situation like that, then you have to laugh at yourself and realize that 50,000 is a little over 2 dollars. 

      It came down to the last day – would we get to hike up Fansipan? the clouds hadn’t lifted but they might… After a cool cloudy morning we came to the conclusion that without a guide, low visibility, a muddy trail and a 9 mile hike with over 5,000 ft of elevation gain was going to have to be a no go. Instead there’s a tram that turns that 5,000 ft climb into a ride along with a 500ft stair climb to the summit. I’d never thought I’d hear myself say/write this but I’m glad we didn’t climb that mountain. Along with all those reasons I listed earlier, there wasn’t a difference in price if you took the gondola one way and that last 500 feet of stairs contained construction and a shit load of Asian tourists that would’ve certainly dampened an extreme effort. Thankfully, as it turned out, the Ndola ride was so spectacular, it deserved a round trip. The summit itself was crowded and stuck in a cloud but the gondola rode in and out of the clouds to reveal amazing views just above mountain forests and to well over 2,000 feet above the valley floor.   

      For as much as people warned about the lost charms of Sapa, we really enjoyed ourselves. Whether it was a little reminder of home from the mountains  and the cold or whether it was that we avoided the pre-packaged Sapa experience, I’m not sure. But I do know that I found it a great place to visit both for scenery and culture; I just don’t want any goddamn bracelets. 


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