We thoroughly enjoyed our Halong Bay cruise to Cat Ba Island and our days in Hanoi, but Liz and I were excited to stretch our legs with a multi-day hike in Vietnam’s “Gem of the North”. Our next off-the-beaten-path juant took us to the lush, rolling, rice terraces of Sapa, an overnight train trip from Hanoi. We traveled a bit in style this time. No more third-class wooden benches for us (remember the infamous overnight train in Thailand?) That awful (yet enlightening) experience wasn’t happening again!
It was well worth the extra $4 splurge on an actual sleeper carriage -with padded bunks- and we wound up with four very kind businessmen as bunkmates. Liz and I had the very tip-top bunks on either side – the very best location for bunks on trains – even though we could only sit in a half-crouch type of posture when changing clothes and preparing for bed.
Though quite comfy in our swaying bunks, we both slept restlessly with nightmarish dreams in which our train careened right off the mountain’s railroad tracks (or it could have been the chloroquine pills affecting our sleep). Also, there was no snack cart where we could grab a yummy Vietnamese milk coffee in the morning. However, the view from Lao Cai’s train platform of cloud-covered, emerald hills and the crisp mountain air was enough to put a skip in my step as we tromped off to find some transportation.
A local bus dropped us off near our guesthouse, and after dropping our bags off and grabbing some fresh Vietnamese spring rolls from a street vendor, we located our travel agency and joined our trekking group. We would have a few days at the end of our trek to thoroughly explore Sapa, but it was off to gallop through the rice paddies for now. I was surprised to meet our very young guide, Mi-Mi. She was about a foot and a half shorter than me (which actually wasn’t a shock as I’m taller than most people in Vietnam), but Mi-Mi appeared to be about 14 years old. Great skin genes or child labor?
We later found out that Mi-Mi was actually 18 years old, but she had started guiding a few years earlier when she was 15. She explained that having a position as a guide with one of Sapa’s trekking companies was a highly sought after position, and local girls were eager to learn English in order to gain this type of employment. Mi-Mi’s sister was also a trekking guide, and together they supported their entire family on their combined wages. We were very pleased with the trekking company we chose as Mi-Mi was extremely knowledgeable about the villages and local tribes.
Hiking in Sapa, Vietnam – Sapa’s weather was idyllic. With Mi-Mi in the lead, our group spent the first half of the morning hiking to Giang Ta Chai village, where we had lunch before setting off for Supan village, located lower in the valley. If it had been raining, trekking down through the rice paddies would have been much harder…and much, much dirtier. Many times, we were actually walking through pure mud and cow dung. However, the view was so amazing that we soon forgot about the mess and just enjoyed the mountain air and scenery.
Afternoon rain showers managed to find us soon after we finished lunch, but we were prepared to face the storms with our thirty cent ponchos. Not waterproof by any means. More like “water resistant” — Vietnamese style. Trekking in rain isn’t easy. We spend much of the afternoon hours actually sliding down the muddy hills on our bottoms because the terraced dirt steps were so slick, or just non-existant due to floods of water washing them away.
Several hours later, we arrived to our homestay and and met our host family. We shared tea and warmed ourselves near the kitchen fire. Then, ignoring our protests and offers of help, we were shooed outside to “play” while Mi-Mi cooked dinner. Our group was quickly attacked by the local kids and they urged us to buy their bracelets, trinkets, and earrings. We didn’t have any money with us at that time so they soon gave up and decided to join us in our exploration of their village and a game of hide-and-seek.
Dinner was mouthwatering and delicious! Rice, tofu, vegetables, and some local rice wine to top off the meal. Mi-Mi, in fact, guzzled the wine while I was only able to take several smallish sips. They make it quite strong in the mountains! Following our yummy meal, we sat around the warm hearth and played card games. Mi-Mi recognized many of the same games that my American, Canadian, and Australian hiking partners knew, and we stayed up late into the early morning hours telling travel stories.
The following morning, our group headed off to another village with much the same story as the previous day. Excellent views, gorgeous waterfalls, pure mountain drinking water, and manicured slopes stretching in every direction.
Go to Sapa – if only to witness where Mother Nature’s artistry truly shines.