After Halong Bay, our next mission for overnight trips from Hanoi was to get to Sapa. We checked out all of the packaged tours, but didn’t see any offering the type of trip we were craving. We wanted to get off the tourist trail and have the most authentic experience we could, so decided to go with a highly recommended private guide who was a native Black H’mong. We spent 3 days traveling around Sapa with him, learning about the culture and landscape of the region, and got a chance to sleep in his native village. Definitely worth it. Even if we had to eat weasel…
Our trip began with the overnight train to Sapa. Since the train rooms had 4 beds, we crossed our fingers for quiet, but friendly, non-snoring bunkmates. The couple that showed up were even better. A friendly, older couple from The Netherlands, they had tons of stories from their country, and shared their box of Chilean wine with us. Fell asleep after an hour or so of talking and drinking.
Arrived to Sapa at the fresh hour of 4:30am, with the train station shrouded in complete fog. Stumbled off and found our driver quickly, and hopped into his car for the hour drive into town. Within 10 minutes, I was already fearing for my life as the roads tight curves bent around the mountain and you could barely see 5 feet in front of the car due to the fog. Thank god I had taken motion sickness pills.
When we arrived in town, we met up with our guide Dat to have breakfast and plan out our trip. We decided to go for a longer hike the first day, ending in his native village where we’d stay the night in his house with his family. On day two, we planned to take motorbikes deeper into the countryside for a chance to see more of the landscape and villages. For day three, we planned to take a short hike down from Sapa, and then do some shopping in the local markets.
During our excursions on this trip, we learned that the native people, at least in this region of the world, weren’t as foreign and isolated as we’d imagined. They lived day to day like many other cultures in the countryside, farming, selling their goods in markets, taking care of their families, and stalking tourists to guilt them into buying souvenirs. Most of the people we encountered were very friendly, more than willing to try and talk to you about their life, if you would then buy one of their wares in return. After a group of four Red Zha tribeswoman walked and talked with us for an hour they wanted us to purchase something from each of them after we reached our destination. They almost convinced us until we noticed the scarf one woman had “stitched herself” and spent “hours and days working on” had a Made in China tag on it. Nice try, but no thanks ladies.
When we arrived to our guides’ village that night, we were impressed by the sturdy wooden house he said he’d built in just a few short months. His family was a gracious host and we enjoyed playing with his adorable children. That night we were surprised that an animal we’d seen sitting in a trap in his house would actually be served for dinner that night, after we thought our host had been joking with us the whole time. The animal was some sort of weasel, and the people of Sapa considered it a delicacy to eat. We should have been flattered, and I guess we learned our lesson for next time that when asked by someone in a foreign country if there’s anything you don’t like to eat, you should make some specifications.
Over the next two days we explored the tremendous countryside, but like in Halong Bay, a heavy fog clouded our view of the vast scenery. We glimpsed views of cascading rice paddies, streams trickling down into waterfalls, and people farming among their water buffalo and potbelly pigs. The weather was also uncharacteristically cold for that time of year, so in addition to us trudging through freezing mud, greatly under dressed for the chill, farmers lost some of their water buffalo because they weren’t ready for the cold either. Unfortunately, to lose a water buffalo in Sapa is a great loss since their farming depends heavily on them, and they can’t sell the meat for anywhere near what the animal is worth.
Traveling through Sapa, we learned a great deal about the fascinating culture of the region from our native guide. The only thing we wished for during the trip was warmer weather and clearer skies, but it’s definitely a destination in Vietnam that can’t be missed in between its sprawling cities and fast-paced life.