03/12 – 06/12
After a 17 hour journey from Luang Prabang, I finally arrived in Sapa. As Julia and Tobias, who I met in the train, haven’t booked any accomodation either, we were let out of the minibus near the tourist information in the centre of Sapa.
Again, we immediately got the flavour of what to expect for our stay there – you are not even out of the bus you are already surrounded by the women from the minority villages asking if you want to trek or buy something. I didn’t even have time to look around where I actually was. As we had our big bags with us , it was actually easy to get away from them by stating we just arrived (as if this was not obviously when getting out of a bus!?!?!). After they left us I actually realised that Sapa was indeed a bit colder than the previous places I visited. I already missed the warm weather. I didn’t know then that this was actually the good day weather-wise.
With some space we tried to get some orientation where we were – we even found a map of Sapa near the big square. Obviously it was of absolute no use if you don’t know where the guesthouses are!!!
So we started to walk into a random direction, and at the first corner a guy approached us with a card for a guesthouse, telling us the room starts from $15, and it is nearby. Well, why not, we can at least check out the room. Sapa is located on a series of little hills, so sometimes you have to walk up and down little streets. He lead us down one of the hills, and after a short while we arrived at the hotel. It looked very nice, but the rooms with a fireplace to keep yourself warm started at $25, not $15.
This meant walking up the hill (not too much fun this time) and after checking a room where you could smell the mould 20 metres away, we were on the main road with all bars and restaurant (downhill again – thankfully). At the bottom of that street we found the Lotus Hotel. Being slightly off the street, set 1 or 2 floors above street level, we checked out the room, and they were decent size. Including a heater per room it was 260,000 Dong ($12). We were on the top floor, and from the shared balcony you had a nice view to one of the mountains (which we could actually see on day 1).
After a short rest we headed out to get breakfast. For some reason we ended nearly at the first hotel we checked, and saw the dining area of a guesthouse that offered a nice view, and walked in. The staff was probably not expecting any customers for breakfast, so it took a few minutes to get things ready and to take our orders. Well, at least we were rewarded with some nice view. Well, at least for a minute or so at the time – because we had the pleasure of incoming fog. This led to a nice game of catching the view. From time to time fog always gave way to some view of the mountains – but usually only for a minute or less. So we had the cameras ready, and when the fog got lighter, we took pictures of the surroundings. Unfortunately the fog got a bit heavier, which meant less views. It was quite strange though – the fog actually came into the dining area through the window. It was like the scene from one of those horror movies. Thankfully, we all survived the fog attack and the food (my pancake was ok, but never order noodle soup when the kitchen just opened…not worth it). At least I got my first (of many) ice coffee Vietnamese style. From Laos I was used to getting a glass of coffee with milk and ice. In Vietnam it is much more common to get a little cup where you can see the sweet milk at the bottom, and the hot coffee dropping slowly from the little steel filter into the glass. You have to mix it and pour it into a glass with ice (or as I did at the start, putting ice cubes into the small glass – not very clever I know!!!).
After breakfast we walked a bit around Sapa, which is actually a pretty little town. Unfortunately you can only enjoy it while women from the minority villages constantly approach you shouting ‘Buy from me, buy from me’ – it really got tired after a while, as a simple no was usual not enough!!! After a while I just replied I have no money (some were laughing, others look slightly offended). And when one woman was still following me I just stopped, opened my backpack, took some items out and responded to her ‘Buy from me buy from me’. I actually got some rest from them for a while… Maybe not the nicest way, but I got a bit annoyed.
We then finally decided to look around for a trek. First we went to a company I read online about, Sapa O’Chau. It is owned by people from a minority village, and help the villages with the income. I contacted them online before, but we went to their office to check their 2 day options. It sounded interesting, and price was around $190 for the three of us. Something to consider.
The next stop was the tourist information centre. One of the employees showed us two different options. He explained one was a very popular trek south of Sapa, which lots of tourists do. The second option would be less busy, and would bring us to the north. This option would be more expensive as well (~$180 for all three of us).
While Tobias and I were listening to the guy, Julia called one of the women of the minority villages that was recommended as a guide by someone they met during their travel. We told the guy from the tourist information centre that we will consider the options, and left the building to meet Tom Tom, the local guide, in front of the office. She offered a two day trip, with an overnight stay at her home with her family (which tour agencies do not offer, you will stay in houses build for tourist – unless you pay a heavy add-on (Sapa sisters wanted $45 more to stay in a real homestay instead of a guesthouse!!!!), all dood included, for $25 per person. Quite a difference. She was just showing on the map where we would go, as suddenly the guy from the Tourist Information came out and told us not to talk to these women as it is illegal to take them as a guide.
Wait a minute – did he spy on us after we left the building? And trying to stop us using someone else for the trek? I found that very rude, and absolute unprofessional. Well, at least I knew who not to hire as a guide. Anyone who spies after people leaving the office cannot be trusted as a guide for me. Fullstop!!!
To prevent Tom Tom getting in any trouble we said goodbye, and headed to a place to have another coffee to discuss our options. Well, we had two now – we all agreed we could not go with someone who shows such poor attitude. However, he raised some concerns in our head. Would it be ethical to take a local guide if it is illegal, and might have a negative impact (the guy mentioned kids not going to school and rather being a guide etc). But then again, the money we would pay would go to the local villages, and not people sitting in an office. Understanding that tourism can have a terrible impact on areas this was something I really had to consider.
But in the end the friendly attitude of Tom Tom and the prospect of a real homestay (and the much lower costs) helped us to make the decision. After a quick call everything was arranged – meeting at 9am to start the trek.
Happy with our decision we just explored the town a bit more, and found the entrance to a viewpoint high above Sapa. As it was after 3pm we decided not to do it today. In hindsight I think we should have done it. Instead we went back to the hotel to have some rest – well, and have a beer on the balcony to enjoy the partial view and eating some fruits and sweets. I also found a little snack I never seen before. It had the filling of a springroll, but instead of ricepaper it was covered by a kind of pastry. It slightly reminded me of a pie. I learned later that it is called Banh Goi and I found it throughout Vietnam – thankfully as it became one of my favourite food…
For dinner we went to a restaurant that was busy with Vietnamese, Gerbera Restaurant – located on the main road with all the restaurants. So having a choice between that place and restaurants that offers ‘real’ Italian food or having only tourists inside, it was easy to make the decision. As it got colder in the evening having a fireplace in the restaurant was actually nice. And what could be better in the cold than a nice hotpot? That is a rhetorical question obviously, as there isn’t anything. The starter of spring rolls and the mixed hotpot were all great, and we all enjoyed the food and one or two beer. We finished the night with another beer, though after loosing my games of Table-Fussball against both of them, I knew it was time for bed.
Next morning it was even more difficult for me to leave my bed than usual. Why this time? Well, it was cold in the room (you really shouldn’t leave a heater on during the night I guess), and I could hear the rain outside. My motivation for the trek was already a bit lower. Forcing myself up and getting ready, I was all set to go. The rain can be that bad, right? Well, wrong – kind of. It was rainy (not heavy rain, but rain to make you wet), but worst of all, I could hardly see anything. The fog yesterday was nothing in comparison to that. Great, the weather will improve when going up the hill for sure. For some reason I stayed positive (yes, this is actually possible…).
Tobias and Julia didn’t look as happy as yesterday either, but what can we do. We were able to leave our big bags at the hotel, which was appreciated. Then it was time to get some money to pay for the trek. Having some £ notes left, I thought I could exchange it into Dong instead of using the ATM. Once again I was wrong. The bank didn’t accept GBP, only US$. Great, the ATM it was. The problem of the ATMs in Vietnam is that they have some very low limits for each withdrawal. It can. As low as 2,000,000 (~$100 or ~£60), and obviously you get charged a fee for most ATM (plus fees from your own bank). You had to learn fast which banks provides the biggest withdrawal. I preferred HSBC (5,600,000) and BIDV (5,000,000). In Sapa you could only get 3,000,000 Dong each time.
While I got money the other two were looking for rain jackets. But not the ones covering your upper body, but long ones covering most of your legs too. Great thinking – that might actually make life easier and more comfortable (it really did). Getting one was a typical experience of negotiations in Vietnam. Knowing the need of these jackets, the shop owner asked for 500,000 Dong (~$25) for one fake North Face jackets. The price went down to 200,000 each. Still not happy with the price Tobias walked away (we followed), and suddenly she offered us 3 jackets for 300,000. While their were not real, they did the job very well. But the lesson learned once again – never accept the first price quoted when buying things in Vietnam.
After a quick breakfast, and getting some snacks and water for the trek, we met Tom Tom. As the rain got a bit heavier she asked us if we would prefer having wellies to keep our feet dry. I was happy with my hiking shoes, but Julia thought tit might be a better idea (it kept her feet dry, but she was sliding more than the rest of us did…). So off we went to a place where you can rent wellies for $4 for 2 days (which meant walking down a steep hill – I was hoping we don’t have to walk up again – but we had to!!!). As we were a bit late the choices of sizes were limited. I changed my mind, but they had none in my size left. Julia was luckier, and got her wellies.
So with some delay we headed off. We were joined but three more women from the same village. After a short stop at the market, we finally left Sapa, and started to walk up the first hill. Thanks to the rain it was a bit slippery, and slightly more difficult than usual. And to make things worse, you didn’t even got a view over Sapa because of the fog. Great.
To make things even better I managed to drop my camera, and the lens came off. I really thought the camera was broken. But thankfully it was still working, but the pictures taken didn’t look very good. Well, because of the humidity the filter and the lens below were steamed. Well, I only died 5 heart attacks.
With no view over the surrounding areas (which is one of the reason to come to Sapa), and still raining, we all walked passed several rice fields, and some Hmong villages. Throughout the walk Tom Tom told us about the life in a minority village, the schools, the traditions and other very interesting aspects of their daily life. villages. The various minority groups have a different language, different traditions, and they usually learn Vietnamese as a second language. Others then learn English either in school, or like Tom Tom, by talking to tourist. It was great just talking to her and the other three women. While we walked both adults and kids were waving at us, and unlike Sapa no one tried to sell anything to us. This is a big difference when walking to the slightly less touristy route north of Sapa (and apparently the route with the better views – but how could I judge that with all the fog).
Unfortunately when we passed one section we were surrounded by kids trying to sell bracelets and other bits. I am never happy about that, as they should be in school, not trying to sell something to tourists – and as a principle I do not buy from kids (or randomly give them gifts).
We had the same at the little place where we had lunch (rice and meat – simple but good. Tom Tom pad for the food, we only had to cover the drinks). But at least they leave you alone while eating. Hence eating slowly gives you more rest.
The second part of the journey was the same – foggy to prevent us from having any views, but at least the rain stopped. But the path was still very muddy, and as we had to walk up and down some steep sections, it was not easy to keep your balance. Here I was glad that I was not wearing wellies. My hiking shoes gave me some traction – which you could tell Julia didn’t. The locals though had no issue walking in these conditions wearing flip flops.
Around 4pm we finally arrived in the village Tom Tom lives – except of one little slide down by Julia, we all arrived in one piece. The Hmong village was actually a bit bigger than the others – apparently around 600 people live there. Tom Tom lives off the main street, and we soon arrived at her home – which was a little wooden hut. And behold, the fog got suddenly a bit lighter, and we could actually see the valley in front of her house. This must be an absolute beautiful place when the rice fields are green.
Tom Tom’s home was very basic. It included the main room with a fire place to cook and to keep the hut warm (without proper ventilation, so it was a bit smoky in there, and all your cloth smelled crom the smoke the next day), some little wooden chairs around it, a bed in the corner, a little room with another bed, and The Vietnamese style toilet outside.
We also met her husband and two little kids, oh, and their little puppy as well.
After getting changed we decided that we need beer. TT’s husband was so kind leading the way to the shop – which was a good 10 minute walk on some non-existing path. Getting beer and snacks (I tried one small dried meat stick, and ended up eating a few more – they were so good. Didn’t find them outside of Sapa…), we headed back to the house in the dark. On our way we encountered some aggressive dogs at one of the more posh houses. Staying away from the terrace of the house I thought we were fine, still one was snapping at me – and thankfully missed. He should be careful doing that in Vietnam – or he could end up on a bbq…
The evening with the family was fantastic. The food was plentiful, and absolute delicious. No meat, just vegetables, rice, and a special tofu dish made by TT’s mother. This was probably the best tofu dish I ever had. All three of us were absolute happy with the food served. The rest of the evening was lovely – staying in the same house makes a bit difference…
It was strange though that we used the two beds (Tobias and Julia stayed in the little room) and the the family of four slept on the floor. They also provided us with two thick blankets to keep us warm in the night (and it got really cold – the fire in the house kept us warm during the evening).
After a good night sleep (thanks to the two blanket I didn’t even felt the cold of the night…) we were treated to another big meal for breakfast – more rice, vegetables and omelette (prepared with chopsticks – if I would try that half of the dish would be on the floor). Our bellies filled we were off to continue our hike.
Unlike yesterday, when we walked a more off the beaten track, we headed south towards the more touristic part of the area. The good thing was that the road and lathes were mainly in much better conditions, also thanks to the lack of rain. However, we saw now much more tourists – apparently doing a one day trek as they arrived by minibuses.
Thanks to the slightly better weather we could enjoy the scenery a bit more – everything looked greener and more colourful (though still through a foggy lens). And there was no need for a rain jacket…
This time we also passed villages of the other minority groups, and in some there were shops selling souvenirs produced locally – the quality was actually very glad and worthwhile to do some shopping there…
After a while we arrived in the probably most touristic of the villages – Cat Cat village. You got immediately the feeling that the place was more geared towards tourists, including the ‘homestays’ houses for tourists, shops, and unfortunately, many women trying to selling souvenirs. Thanks to Tom Tom we were left alone, but I saw some poor tourists surrounded by 10 women, who actually followed them all the way down to the village. Seeing that I was so glad that we didn’t stay there.
Later on in the afternoon, and after walking up a rather steep hill, it was suggested to drive back the last few kms, as the weather seems to become worse again. So three motorbikes were waiting for us on the main road. Wait, three bikes? But we were 4 people. The solution was that the women would both sit behind the driver. Well, I was glad to be on my own with the driver on the bike. And even more when I realised how foggy it was on the road. Visibility was very limited, and after nerve wrecking 20 minutes I was very very happy that we arrived in one piece back in Sapa.
As a present for Tom Tom Tobias and I went to a shop to develop some pictures we took for Tom Tom and her family (she has a little album with pictures of her guests) while the two girls brought back the rented wellies. It was great to see a big smile in her face when she saw the pictures.
And that was it – our time with Tom Tom was over. The weather was bad, we didn’t experience the great views Sapa is famous for. But thanks to our guide, and a real homestay experience we all still had a good time.
We headed back to the Lotus Hotel to get rooms again for at keast one mkre night – as we considered visiting of one the local markets in the area.
That evening we decided we need to relax, and headed to one of the massage places to have a herb steam bath (the heat was great in the cold weather..) and a massage. While I enjoyed the bath the massage was very poor (the other two were luckier). Well, you cannot always win.
For dinner we decided to head back to Gerbera Restaurant as the food was very good there. I had bbq wild boar with yoghurt, which was very good. Tobias and Julia enjoyed their meal as well – so after having two dinners there I would highly recommend this restaurant.
The next morning had the same terrible weather as the days before – foggy, wet and cold. As the rooms didn’t get very warm it was actually not very pleasant, and we decided that staying longer wouldn’t be the best idea. So I wouldn’t see the local market – but I really didn’t fancy another night here. So instead, we had to check how to get back to Hanoi.
Going back to train using one of the agencies looked a bit expensive. The second option was taking a bus that goes to Hanoi using a new highway. I have heard quite a few horror stories about the roads in Vietnam. But I thought you probably have to experience it. Besides it was cheaper (250,000 Dong vs. 600,000 Dong for the train), and it took apparently only 4-5 hours, and left from Sapa. So we booked our seats for the bus. I was hoping I will actually see Hanoi in the end…
As the bus left only around 5pm, we had a bit more time to explore Sapa a bit more. We went to Sapa Lotus for breakfast first. They offer a 50,000 Dong breakfast buffet – and for that price it was great. Freshly made omelette and pancakes, some Vietnamese dishes (rice and pork), bread, sausages, bacon jam, coffee and juice. A very good way to start the day.
Next stop was the market to look around. You can buy a variety of souvenirs there – shirts, toys, scarves etc. Some of the women can be a bit pushy as usual. After having a bit of banter with one I bought a traditional hat – and was able to get a picture taken with her. I was wearing the hat for the rest of the day – for some reason locals and other tourists were looking at me the whole time. I guess they were just jealous!!!
For higher quality items you can also visit some the shops selling times produced in the various villages, i.e. hand made table runners.
Later we walked back to the entrance to the viewpoints as the sky cleared up a bit – but it got very foggy when we got there. Nonetheless Tobias and Julia decided to walk up. I was as usual lazy and thought I am not walking up for now views. So instead I walked around Sapa, got one more of the lovely special spring rolls, and was slightly surprised when I saw some locals burning money – and the notes looked like US$. They must be quite rich if they can afford burning money. I was told later one that tese are fake notes sold to be burned – which has something to do with bringing luck if I remember correctly – but I am probably wrong.
After getting another coffee to enjoy a seat next to a fireplace, I met up with the other two. To annoy me they showed me the pictures they took from the viewpoint – they actaully got a great view above the fog. No, I really wasn’t jealous at all – just cursing my laziness!!!
I think this was a fitting end for my stay in Sapa, as we had to get to our bus, which was one of the sleeping buses I read about. Instead of four seats in a row, the bus had three beds in each row – though on two levels. Your feet was beneath the seat in front of you, and it looked a bit like a coffin. The driver pointed us towards the last row woth 5 beds with no space between them. I was just smiling at him and made it quite clear that this won’t happen. After a short discussion and a call to the agency we got the three bottom seats. I just about got comfortable in them. If you are over 1,80m however, you might struggle.
We left Sapa and I was surprised how carefully the driver drove down to Lao Cai – what a difference to the minibus driver on our way to Sapa. After a short stop in Lao Cai (last chance for a toilet break) we were on our way to Hanoi. I was actually able to sleep on the bus (ok, I woke up a few times). We arrived on some road in Hanoi around midnight, after a 6 1/2 hour journey (instead of the 4 hours scheduled…
Overall I have mixed feelings about Sapa. I knew the weather in December wouldn’t be good, but I was unlucky that it was so foggy (apparently a week before it was 25 degrees with the sun shining). The other negative side of Sapa is the hassling by the local women trying constantly to sell you something. I saw some tourists chased by a group of them. It is not pleasant, and makes you feel rather uncomfortable. Despite the bad weather the highlight was the trek – thanks to Tom Tom. She was just fantastic, and was able to explain a lot of the traditions in this area. And she also offers a real homestay, which was something great to experience.
But I think I would only return to Sapa in August or September when the rice fields are green, and will offer a beautiful view. Otherwise I think Sapa is not worth the hassle.
The Lotus Hotel was ok for the price. Room was spacious, and you have a great view from the shared balcony. Just check the room first as some were a bit mouldy. And make sure to get a room on the top floor for the view. In the winter a small heater is provided for an extra charge – though room was still cold. They store your luggage in a locked office when you are doing an overnight trek, which is very helpful.
The main thing I would recommend is to bring patience. You will be constantly asked to buy anything. Be firm, and walk away. Rather buy from the market than from the street vendors.
If you want to do a trek, I would rather use a local guide instead of one of the agencies. Firstly because you will experience a real homestay, and not stay in a tourist house (and you will be less likely part of a larger groups. I would recommend Tom Tom in a heartbeat (I did it a few times, and heard some great feedback – so she must be good).
For dinner Gerbera Restaurant offered great food, and it was the only place where I saw Vietnamese eating. The hotpot is something worthwhile to try with a group.
Sapa Lotus offers fantastic value for money for the breakfast buffet. The food was actually good, with a good variety of food available for the buffet