Sa Pa is a popular travel destination in Northern Vietnam, well known for its dramatic mountainous landscape and colourful ethnic minority groups. The Sa Pa District lies 350 km north-west of Hanoi towards the Chinese border. Unlike flatter coastal areas, Sa Pa is heavily dominated by the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, housing Vietnam's highest mountain, Fan Si Pan (3,142 m above sea level). The town of Sa Pa – the District’s namesake capital – lies at an altitude of around 1,600 m and has a population of 150 thousand.
Sa Pa is easily reached from Hanoi by either bus or train. Both call at Lao Cai, from where onward travel – usually a minibus – can be arranged. Scores of minibuses stand touting near the Lao Cai train station, especially before a train is due to arrive. Train was by the way the option I chose to take. After all, it was meant to be a RAIL discovery of Vietnam.
Looking online, there initially seem to be multiple trains serving the Hanoi – Lao Cai route. A side note here is that some of those are in fact different cars of the same train – the only difference being quality, number of people you are sharing with and, consequently, price.
I got an upper berth in a compartment of four, on Hara train – a modest yet comfortable option. An Australian family of three took up the rest of the beds. Those guys were heading from Vietnam to Cambodia to Japan – yes, the very north of JAPAN – in the course of two weeks. Therefore they had packed a clothing range to cover temperatures from -20C (Japan) to +30C (Cambodia). I am always amazed by Australians. So much enthusiasm for travel! I could possibly challenge them on the number of visited countries per week, but would never cram quite that many climates into a fortnight.
The long flight from London, slight jetlag and two active days did their job – as our train gained speed into the night, I switched off my own engines. The next morning was starting with a 4am awakening!
Day 3: First day in Sa Pa
The minibus from Lao Cai dropped me off on the market square of Sa Pa around 6am. December and January in Sa Pa are winter months well known for lengthy periods of low-hanging white mist and occasional snowfall. The start of the day looked promising though – the fresh rays of the morning sun shone softly on the mountainous scenery, and I prepared for a busy photo session.
By the time I checked into my hotel and had a well-deserved shower, however, most of the clear morning delight was over. The notorious mist emerged, in all glory, out of nowhere – covering the surroundings I barely had a chance to see. I packed a torch, an umbrella and gloves into my bag and began an uncomplicated descent into my first ethnic minority village of the day – Cat Cat.
Owing perhaps to its proximity to Sa Pa, Cat Cat turned out to be a cluster of handicrafts stalls run by H’mong minority people. Humid mist continued to hinder the view, and I had to watch closely not to slip into a stream of water– or trip on one of those black pigs wandering around rather unrestrained.
After Cat Cat, I got back to central Sa Pa and spent some time exploring the town market, the principal one in the region. The merchandise around was visibly targeting the few tourists in town. I got the impression that the Vietnamese did not really fit the non-capitalist image their country has in the rest of the world. The basics of demand and supply were certainly very well understood here. What would weary trekkers most likely wish for? Sa Pa's shops were swarming with fake hiking gear (North Face being by far the most popular brand – for merely 30 USD I found a wind stopper jacket identical to the one I bought in London a week before! For 200 USD, though) and massage parlours (foot massage being a clear favourite).
The picture would not be complete without the numerous ethnic minority people wandering around and offering their handiwork for sale. It seemed like all of them had been taught by the same English teacher! Their limited vocabulary did not go beyond the "What is your name", "How old are you" and "Where are you from". None of those were used as frequently as the classic "Buy from meeeeeeee" punch line though – calling out from every corner, it was indeed the common song of Sa Pa.
I got quickly familiarised with the popular "hitch-a-moto" system. Rather than hiring a motorbike and risking my life on Sa Pa's steep mountain roads, I found it incomparably easier to hitch the many passing motorcyclists to drive me from A to B instead. A bunch of idle bikers were casually hanging around Sa Pa town's main square offering rides to anyone remotely foreign looking.
In this manner, I got a ride to Ta Phin – a village 12 km north of Sa Pa populated by Red Zao people. Hoards of them ran towards me as my motorbike rolled into the village. It was a bit overwhelming; perhaps, in the words of the Kazakh man I met at Ha Long Bay, "I just have a kind face".
The sun was by then shining nicely through the clouds; the morning mist had all but evaporated. I walked most of the distance back to Sa Pa, taking endless pictures of flowing, layered rice fields. Vietnam is the second largest rice exporter in the world, Thailand being the first. I would find out later that the main rice harvesting region was indeed the south of Vietnam, around the Mekong delta – but even Sa Pa’s rice fields looked impressive for an average European.
I randomly picked up my next destination. "Su Pan"? – the name of the village on the map looked strangely interesting. The biker man drove to a small path running uphill some 15 km from Sa Pa and left me there. In front of me must have been one of the hiking paths recommended by Rough Guide: running from near Ta Van village to Su Pan and ending in Ban Ho.
For the next two hours I walked the evasive dirt path – which took me longer than implied by its length because of the endless photographic activity. The scenery around me was amazingly beautiful. Water-filled rice fields reflected the newly clouded up bluish surroundings, all sorts of domestic poultry was claiming my path as their own, and occasional H’mong children waved to greet me. I did not see a single foreigner there though.
The last image that stayed in my mind was of another rice field in the fading light of day. Its only difference from other hundredfold such fields I saw was the little boy. The little boy doing a hard adult job labouring in the field – strangely alone.
Day 4: Second day in Sa Pa
They had correctly warned me to dress appropriately for mountainous Sa Pa. The temperatures must have dropped to around zero overnight; not equipped with any heating, my room got bitterly cold. I nicked the blanket from the second (empty) bed in my room and blasted the electric sheet on mine to full power. It became blissfully warm – but even a quick trip to the bathroom was a painful arctic adventure.
I got up around 5:30am – 10 hours of sleep had been more than enough – and began my first great walk of the day. The sun was shining again. This time I decided to walk south, towards Lao Chai village and eventually end up in the larger Ta Van.
Running across endless streams, over suspension bridges, alongside rice fields, up and down green hills – the walk was a fantastically photogenic experience. All along the way, cute Vietnamese children were emerging from little turns of the road, smiling shyly at first – and bursting into relaxed laughter as soon as they'd see their own images on my camera.
I took a couple of wrong turns before some settlement began looming in the distance. A group of playful kids from a local school I passed pointed towards it, and there I headed my steps – assuming it was Lao Chai. The long walk made me wish for a quick rest.
Barefoot children and local women were sitting at the end of the muddy uphill path leading to the village. The place looked strangely isolated for the developed hiker stopover Lao Chai was meant to be. None of the locals spoke English; but, after a short sign language session, I was explained that the village was called Y Linh. Which meant that I had gone off-track, and that there was at least a 30-45 minute hike to Lao Chai.
The problem was that I had no idea where to go. In every direction out of Y Linh, muddy rice fields seemed to be stretching out endlessly. I could of course trace my steps all the way back to Sa Pa, but that would be impractical – let alone an unglamorous retreat.
I started walking along one of the less threatening rice fields, eventually ended up on a fake path and soon ran into a deadlock. There was no other way. Disappointed, I tossed my backpack on the ground to rest my back a bit.
The backpack turned over. And over. And over. Before I, stunned, had a chance to say a word, all my possessions were halfway down a hill – a hill that was substantially steeper than I had ever imagined. Heading very pointedly towards a rice field at the bottom of a valley.
I screamed and ran downhill after my bag. It must have been a comical sight, but I was deeply distressed. My body was shaking all over as I finally caught up with my bag. It was hanging viciously over a muddy rice field. What stopped it from plunging right into the water? Aha – one of the straps caught a small branch just inches away. Now was that lucky or what.
I looked around. The amok sprint downhill left me somewhat disorientated. I still wonder how I did not hurt myself, jumping like a goat over bushes and grabbing feeble looking plants with bare hands. There I was – in the middle of nowhere, alone and unsure where to go. At least my bag was safe.
But was I really alone? A pink figure appeared in the distance and ran towards me. A closer look revealed a young H’mong girl in a pink sweater and, strangely, a single long black sock instead of the two H’mong women usually wear. "Lao Chai", she said, graphically pointed south and then at herself. She was obviously offering to show me the way – wherever the way was.
I agreed. For goodness sake, my other option would have been to tread right through rice fields like a human tractor. Or just settle there, amid the hills.
Ngoun (I am probably misspelling my new acquaintance's name) certainly knew her way around. On and on she led me through the hills, jumping like a little goat over endless puddles. My shoes quickly covered up in mud but Ngoun knew no rest and continued seeing a path where a foreigner like me would only see bushes and stones. Rather satirically to all those foreigners with the latest hiking equipment, she was doing wonders in her rubber flipflops.
Finally a village came into sight. Ngoun pointed me towards it, then at herself and back. She had to return. I gave her more money than I would have willingly given to any guide in Vietnam. She really saved me that day.
The wide clear path from Lao Chai to Ta Van – another popular Sa Pa village – was a walk in the park (quite literally) compared to the previous experience. I sat down briefly to have lunch and rest. Two women from Minnesota I met on the way opened their eyes wide when they heard I was travelling on my own – pretty much like everyone else I met during the two weeks in Vietnam.
Finally I crossed a river and clambered back into the main road, from where it was already a usual moto-hitching procedure back to Sa Pa. Quite an adventure for a single morning and afternoon!
I used my remaining two hours in Sa Pa to make a quick trip to the more remote Ban Khoang village. Bang by the Chinese border, it was visibly undiscovered by any sort of foreigners; blaming perhaps the long and dangerously winding 15 km road there. The white mist had totally covered up the elevated area, and I feared my trusty driver and I would soon plunge into the zipping abyss below. I closed my eyes and prayed on a number of occasions – but somehow we both survived. And, albeit not massively interesting, the Ban Khoang village could certainly attract a crazy visitor (or two) with its remoteness and serenity alone.
The mist seemed to be intensifying, as did the sticky chill outside. As the minibus drove the few of us towards the Lao Cai train station, I could not help thinking the timing was good to leave. Sa Pa was amazingly beautiful and a great discovery, but I was looking forward to moving on – on to Hoi An, on to the new adventures!