We arrived in the north-west Vietnamese township of Sa Pa at 6am to rain and mist. After the burning hot days we had experienced in Hanoi, the mountain temperatures in Sa Pa made us shiver for a few minutes, but were a welcome relief.
We had come to Sa Pa on a 2 night/3 day home stay trip, where we would trek through the mountains and beautiful rice paddies. We had a group of about 15 people for the first day of trekking and were led by a local H’mong woman from the village where we would stay that night. Before leaving the bus station, everyone bought ponchos, rain jackets and umbrellas in the hope they would stay somewhat dry in the torrential rain. The trek began and we quickly realised that staying dry was impossible, as we walked through mini rivers that were forming with the downpour.
For the first 4 hours of the trek we saw nothing but white mist all around us. We knew that those beautiful views were out there and the mist hung like a thick veil, teasing and taunting us. At the start of the trek we had formed a mini group of 7 and it became a pretty hilarious experience between us all. Slipping in the mud and holding the hands of the local women for dear life as we maneuvered up and down the slippery slopes.
Then, the mist cleared a little.
We were all euphoric. The views we held in our minds were now in front of us. I swear we almost jumped for joy.
For the next hour of the trek we had more of a bounce in our step (or we would have if we weren’t going downhill in a mud pile literally having to grip as hard as we could with each step) and we made our way to our home stay for the night in the village of Hau Thao. We were lucky in that it was just the 7 of us who stayed with a wonderful woman named Su and her beautiful family. Her home was simple and lovely. We slept up in the loft on mattresses, which all had a mosquito net and bed linen.
Su cooked us the most amazing dinner. Pork, chicken, vegetables, rice and the most DELICIOUS spring rolls we had ever had in our life. Honestly, so good. Then, she brought out the ‘happy water’ (aka rice wine). She told us the more ‘happy water’ we drank, the sunnier it would be the next day. Shot after shot, we polished off a couple of bottles between us all and eventually all stumbled into bed after a long, wet and wonderful day.
We awoke the next morning to clouds and looming rain. 3 of our group were heading back to Hanoi later that afternoon, so it would only be the 4 of us heading to the next home stay. Su cooked us another awesome meal and we were on our way. The weather was much kinder to us and we were able to appreciate the full beauty of Sa Pa. So green and so beautiful.
While trekking in Sa Pa you will most certainly be approached by the locals, whether that be the older women or younger children. Most of the conversations will start out the same – ‘Whats your name?’ ‘Where are you from?’ and will then quite quickly turn into ‘You buy something from me’ and you will be presented with bracelets, bags, clothing etc. Whether you buy anything is up to you, but be warned – they are very, very persistent. The handicrafts they are selling are beautiful and it is how they make their living, but there are only so many bracelets you can buy (Tim and I have a few on our wrists).
Also, if you have received any ‘help’ from any of the women while trekking (holding their hand to balance etc), they will expect you to buy something from them when you reach your destination. We were more than happy to buy a couple of things on Day 1 as they had actually helped us so much in the mud and rain – but it’s just something to be aware of.
Later in the afternoon, we reached the village of Ban Ho, where we would spend our second night. We met our hosts, who only spoke a couple of words of English and they were absolutely lovely. I loved the simple set up of their home and the views of the mountains all around. They cooked us a fresh and delicious meal and then the ‘happy water’ came out again… another awesome night.
I think all the ‘happy water’ we had consumed over the previous couple of days really helped on the weather front as we awoke on Day 3 to sunshine. Su was waiting for us when we woke up and we went for a walk around the local area and to a beautiful waterfall nearby.
We had a quick lunch at our home stay before we were in a car and heading back to where it all began – the Sa Pa bus station. We caught the 4pm bus back to Hanoi and it was awesome seeing the views on the way back – definitely recommend doing at least to/from Sa Pa in the daylight.
How to get there: bus or train
The train takes about 9/10 hours and then you have a further hour on a bus to Sa Pa. The bus takes 6 hours from Hanoi and is a hell of a lot cheaper. I would pick the bus every time. It is a sleeper bus, so you get a flat seat and although the bus arrives into Sa Pa at 4am, you are allowed to sleep until 6am.
Picking a trek
When you arrive in Hanoi there are a BILLION travel agents trying to sell you a trip to Sa Pa – all range in price. You can just organise a bus/train to Sa Pa and pick up a local guide when you arrive, but we booked in advance. We booked through Lily’s Travel Agency in Hanoi. Lily is AWESOME. She is so friendly and genuine and you don’t feel like you are getting ripped off. We did ‘Trekking with Mao’ and it was exactly as Lily described to us. Sa Pa has become overrun with tourists, so the route we did was less crowded (we hardly saw another tourist) and the views were stunning. We were also able to stay with local families, which gave us an insight into their everyday life.
We paid US$72 each for this trip. This included: return bus from/to Hanoi, home stay accommodation for 2 x nights, all meals, local guides & A LOT of ‘happy water’. Definitely recommend.
What to pack
We packed pretty light for our time in Sa Pa and left the rest of our luggage at a hotel in Hanoi. You will have to carry whatever you pack, so keep that in mind.
- Bare minimum on toiletries, literally just a toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, some face wipes, sunscreen and insect repellent should do you.
- Shoes, of course. Tim and I both have hiking boots, which was great for the trek we did. There were a few people who did it in trainers and they struggled a lot as their shoes didn’t have any grip. We also bought our thongs, which were good for when we got to the home stays and needed footwear but didn’t want to put our boots back on.
- Clothes, obvs. We brought 2 fresh shirts each. I wore the same hiking pants for the whole time (I thought they were waterproof, turns out they’re not), fresh undies is always nice and a dry pair of clothes (the ones we wore on the bus to Sa Pa) to put back on for the trip back to Hanoi. We also each bought a jumper as it can get very chilly (we were there in summer.. it snows in winter!)
- Socks… Oh the socks. I only bought 1 pair of socks, Tim had 2, but only used 1. We had to put on wet, smelly socks each day and it was pretty horrible. However, our boots were SO wet that it didn’t matter if they were dry or not.
- Camera and phone – Tim had the camera, I had my phone. There is no Wifi around, but I used my phone to take photos.
- Valuables, passports, money etc – I carried our passports in my little bag that was on me all the time, which also held our money. ATM’s are non existent in the villages and although you don’t need much cash, you need a little for beers, water, bracelets etc.
- HATS! We both wore our hats the whole time. If they weren’t keeping the rain off our faces, they were protecting us from the sun.
- Water. You will need to bring a bit of water, but you can stock up and buy more on the way.