The most famous and most popular place for trekking in Vietnam is surely Sapa. Already being a popluar holiday place for the French during colonial time the region offers spectacular scenery and plenty of minority villages from different tribes. Add the fact that the highest mountain of Vietnam , Fansipan, is here, and you can understand why so many tourists visit Sapa. The downside of this is, that the area has become very touristy, and you get hassled by vendors most of the time.
Unsurprisingly you will also have so many agencies offering treks here, so finding the right one is very overwhelming. Just a few things to consider – prices vary from agency to agency. Some will offer homestay, which actually means staying in houses with other tourists. Some treks will follow the mass tourist trail – with more vendors waiting for you on the way. So you should check exactly what the trek includes. Two agencies that are mentioned quite often are Sapa O’Chai and Sapa Sisters. Both are owned by members of minority villages, and look after the villages even when not sending tourists there. Unfortunately they are not cheap, and Sapa Sisters charges $45 extra for a real homestay. That actually put me off. The Tourist Information also deserves a mention here – after getting some information there we spoke to one of the local women from the villages, when the man from the Tourist information came out to tell us it is forbidden to use them as guide. So he spied on us, and came after us. This is such poor behaviour, and can there fore only recommend to stay away from them.
An alternative is to get one of the local women who will approach you in Sapa – offering a trek and staying with her family. This is not seen favourable by agencies, and you will hear constant warnings not to do it. My opinion to that – absolute nonsense. If you use one of the local guide you directly support the family, and the money does not disappear in the wallet of an office worker or into some fancy furniture.
I was lucky enough to do my overnight trek with a local H’Mong woman called Tom Tom. She was absolute fantastic, and she made this a great two days despite the bad weather. The price for the 2 day trek, staying in her home, 2x lunch, dinner and breakfast was only $25 pp.
Unfortunately the excitement of the trek died down quickly the next morning due to the terrible weather – heavy rain, fog and it was rather cold. Thankgfully it is possible to buy any trekking gear in Sapa (well – none of the Northface items were original), so rain caots, thicker socks etc can be bought here. You can even hire wellies if you think your normal shoes might get too wet. Price is $4 for 2 days.
We met Tom Tom to start the trek – and 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.
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, only seeing the muddy rice paddies and some little villages we passed, 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.
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 pathes 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.
One popular present to give the guides are copies of the photos you took. There are a few places developing them for you – and the guide really appreciate them. Tom TOm actually had a book full ofpictures with her customers – I would recommend doing the same.
From some of the glimpse I got from Sapa and the surrounding area when the fog wasnt there on my first day, I can clearly see why so many people come here for trekking – it is just beautiful. Unfortunately the bad weather made my experience less perfect. The biggest issue for me is the constant hassle – even during the trek. The area around Cat Cat village – some of the groups I saw were surrounded by 10 vendors trying to sell anything – I saw one couple being chased. While it is funny to watch – it is not nice for the people experiencing this hassle. I have never seen anything like that before – hence I am not sure about this place.
However, I must say having a great local guide like Tom Tom helps to experience the area – even in bad weather. Learning about the culture of her village, meeting her family and experiencing how they live was a great experience. If I could get her as guide I would return to Sapa to actually see the area, maybe in Sepetember when the rice fields are golden. But anyone heading to Sapa should be prepared that they will experience some hassle. If you get easily annoyed or your enjoyment is affected by such thing – consider twice before visiting Sapa.
If you are interested using Tom Tom as guide please get in touch with me via the Contact section and I will provide her phone numer (not putting a phone number on a website). I can highly recommend her and others who I told about her were equally happy.