The Undiscovered North: H’mong the Hills in Sapa, Vietnam
Sapa. Four letters, vivid greenery, endless trekking and nearly unspoiled Vietnamese culture that’s begging for any tourist to visit.
I signed up for a tour to Sapa with the feeling that this was going to be the most authentic part of my trip to Vietnam. Turns out my instincts were right. The amount of joy I felt during the three short days I was there was enough to turn my entire perspective of Vietnam upside down.
If Hanoi is the livelihood of the day, Sapa is the calm and tranquillity of the night; cold, foggy, soaked in culture, isolated, quiet and almost untouched by western influence. It may not sound like your cup of tea, but it’s surely one of those experiences that everyone needs to give a chance, regardless of how much you like your wifi, private hotel rooms and hot showers. Sapa is to a foreigner what the rest of Vietnam was five or so years ago. In other words, it’s a place you want to see before everyone realizes how unique’ it really is.
Booking a Tour:
When looking into booking a tour for Sapa, we were faced with the dilemma of which company to go with. We could make our way there on our own, but the idea of going with an organized tour seemed far more appealing as the end of our three month trip approached and we grew tired of dealing with the logistics of trip planning. In the end, a mutual friend recommended that we book through a hostel called Hanoi Rocks: The tour was called H’mong the Hills. We honestly didn’t know what we were signing up for, but the $76 CAD price tag we paid was worth every penny in the end.
The tour left from Hanoi Rocks Hostel in Hanoi at 9 p.m. on a sleeper bus. It was the first of two sleeper buses we took during our entire trip and I have to say, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. We had heard horror stories from friends of 12 hour bus rides turning into 24 hours, or having to sleep on mats on the floor instead of proper reclining chairs. The bus gave us a bottle of water and a blanket and we were able to almost fully recline our chairs to a comfortable sleeping position. Although there were times when the bus’s horn would wake me up or the person in front of me was snoring way too loud, by the end of it, I was decently rested and ready to start our trek.
We arrived in Sapa at 4:30 a.m. and stayed on the bus until 6:30am to sleep until a smaller minibus arrived in Sapa town to take us to our homestay. Forty-five minutes later and we were eating breakfast at our homestay and gearing up for our first 15 km (six hour) trek through the hills. The pictures of Sapa were impressive, but in person, we struggled to take it all in.
Fifteen kilometres doesn’t sound like much, but by the end of the day, I was exhausted. I was in awe of our 25- year-old guide, who told us that she treks 7-15 km every single day.
The trek itself was pretty hilly, but I wouldn’t say you need to be a fitness fanatic to make it through to the end.
Tip: We rented rain boots from the homestay for both days because the trek was very, very muddy at times. If you don’t want to have to wash your shoes after or want to avoid falling in the mud, it would be a smart idea to do the same!
Throughout the hike you’ll pass by and through bamboo forests, small villages, a waterfall and spectacular views. You’ll be accompanied by the local Hmong people along the way, but be forewarned because as kind as these women are, they will want you to buy some of their handmade clothing. The thought is that after helping you through the mud and the puddles, you are expected to help them out in return and purchase items from them. This isn’t wrong, because I get it, everyone has to make a living. But it did make some of us feel awkward when we didn’t buy anything.
Expect less and discover much, much more:
For meals you’ll sit around a large table with everyone else on your tour for a family style breakfast, lunch, or dinner with a variety of home cooked Vietnamese dishes. You’ll get to know everyone better at this point and it’s a great way to catch up after the day. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, make sure you tell the staff when you arrive so they know to make you special dishes before they begin cooking.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have electricity at this point in the day. If not, you’ll have the privilege of eating your meal by candle light until it comes back on (at which point the hot water will come back on too). It may sound cheesy, but the atmosphere felt a lot more genuine when we didn’t have electricity and wifi. When it all came back on at 8:30 p.m., things shifted a bit and it wasn’t quite the same. Your experience will differ depending on whether or not the electricity comes on or not. I kid you not, it’s really just a game of chance.
In the evening after dinner, you can buy beer for 30k dong and you’ll have plenty of time to relax and socialize before the exhaustion kicks in. All of the beds are upstairs in the loft and you’ll be thankful for the thick duvet and decently comfortable mattress when bed time finally rolls around.
The second night you’ll trek 7 km (three hours) and have lunch before you head back to Sapa town to catch a sleeper bus at 4 p.m. You’ll arrive back in Hanoi at 10 p.m., just in time to cash in your free night’s stay at Hanoi Rocks Hostel that comes with booking your Sapa tour.
Sapa is one of those destinations that you can book yourself and still have an incredible time regardless of where you stay or who you trek with. I have to say though, being with ten other like minded backpackers made our tour much more enjoyable. In the end, we actually continued to travel with the friends we made on the tour until the end of our trip.