Sapa: My Favorite Place in Vietnam
// October 27th, 2010 // Vietnam
Vietnam was a tough country for me to travel through. There were a few towns I really liked, (Dalat and Hoi An) but excluding hotel workers, I didn’t find the people to be overly friendly, and it was mass tourism everywhere. Our last stop was in northern Vietnam in the mountainous town of Sapa- and what a way to conclude our trip in the country. It was gorgeous! Many people come here for trekking, village tours, and village homestays. The dramatic landscape has to be one of the most scenic places I’ve ever been to, and if it weren’t for the fact that we were short on time, I would have stayed much longer.
We took an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then a minibus to Sapa. We got in just before 7am, and it was pouring down rain. The weather was not ideal to search for the perfect place to stay, so we followed a tout and soon found a woman from the Hmong tribe tagging along. It turned out to be a good decision because we haggled for the top floor room of the hotel with spectacular views and a large balcony for $12/night. The rain didn’t let up and kept us indoors most of the day. We were happy to have a reprieve from the heat in this cooler climate and just enjoyed the magnificent surroundings.
The following day we left around lunchtime (after the rain finally let up). We wandered through town, inquired about some village tours, turned away plenty of hill-tribe women who tried to sell us stuff on the streets, and decided to take a walk out of town. As we got to the edge of town, I hear someone yelling, “Laura!” It was the Hmong woman that walked with us in the rain when we arrived the first morning. She ran up, we greeted her, and she asked if I remembered her name. By some miracle I did- her name is Che. We weren’t planning on buying anything from her, and we tried to make that clear so she didn’t waste her time with us. She insisted on walking with us. We asked her about the direction we were headed. and it turns out it was towards her home village Lao Chai. At this point, I asked her if she would take us to her village and show us around for a nominal fee. Che agreed almost immediately, (as long as it wasn’t mentioned to tour companies back in town) and we set out for a new destination. I really just wanted her to show us the way to the Hmong village, but her guide skills were top-notch. She pointed out the best vistas and spots to take photos and also pointed out various plants and trees (ahem, including marijuana). After paying our entrance fee to the area, we got off the main road where all of the tour buses come through, and hiked through the hillside on the locals’ path.
I can’t tell you how much fun we had with Che. Her excitement spilled over when we taught her the art of a jumping photo. She made us little heart-shaped trinkets out of a plant and joked like we were best friends. The village was charming, and we saw how the Hmong make their clothing, including the dying of fabric with Indigo. As our tour concluded, we took two motorbikes back to Sapa with some slightly intoxicated drivers. They dropped us off at the edge of town, we bought a few things from Che, then met her younger cousin Xi (pronounced ‘zee’). At 19, Xi was hilarious; I’ve never laughed so hard in my life. We agreed to find them in town later that evening.
After washing up, we went to dinner and ran into Che and Xi almost immediately. They took us each by the arm and led us away from the restaurant scene into the local market. We dined on some pork and noodle soup dish. There was a table of tourists next to us and one young man, who had had too much to drink, started talking about his ‘man boobs’. This set Xi over the edge, who giggled about his ‘man boobs’ and chided him quite a bit. After that, we went to check out the Love Market, but it wasn’t very happening. We said goodbye to the girls and told them we’d catch up tomorrow; after all, Xi was curious and intrigued to take her first jumping photo as well.
Although we had plans the next day to visit a Red Zhao village north of Sapa, it rained nonstop. It kept us indoors until we couldn’t take it anymore, and we took a short walk in the rain. Because of the inclement weather, we did not find Che and Xi again. I wish we could have said our goodbyes but had a great time with them nonetheless. If it weren’t for being short on time, we would have stayed a few more days and visited a few other villages.
Many travelers I talked to have really enjoyed Sapa. Some can’t stand the constant hassling by the hill-tribe women in town trying to sell you goods. While I understand where they are coming from, as the women can be very persistent, it doesn’t bother me. They’re trying to make a living just like everyone else, and I was polite but firm with them. And when you get the chance to know some of them, such as a Red Zhao seller who was genuinely very sweet, it’s not so bad. For me, Sapa is one of the most beautiful and breathtaking places in the world. I’d love to see it again and explore it further.
To see the rest of my photos of Sapa, click here.