Sa Pa town is a beautiful hill station in the north of Vietnam offering you a walk through beautiful trails across the mountains and stunning view of the famous Sa Pa Rice terraces.
My long narrative (For important information, please scroll down)
We reached Sa Pa at around 3 pm. With a wind jacket on, I got out of the cab and stepped into fog, and instantly got happiness shivers. And my friend had just one stole to protect her as she had lost her jacket in the previous bus journey. With jitter-ing jaw we walked into the Sapa hostel which was a 5 minutes walk from our drop off point. After checking in, we wore multiple layers of clothes to enjoy the cold better and headed out to buy a jacket and check the local area.
Go Sa Pa Hostel
There was no night market here, understandably! The place was more fogged now and had only a 20 meter visibility in all directions. As we walked towards the town area, a lady dressed in black and red clothing and a baby on her back, started walking with us. She gleamed a smile showing off a copper tooth. I got reminded of the home alone movie where the thug had a diamond tooth. It was a downhill walk and we were literally running into fog, driven by the cold and now by the presence of a stranger.
She kept pace with us and spoke in English. Excuse me madam, you go trekking tomorrow? I take you to my village, its beautiful, all rice terrace. Only 15 dolaaar per person, You go? Morning go, trek, eat lunce (That was a typical Vietnamese way of saying lunch) and return bike drop.. all 15 dolaaar.
You speak good English, what’s your name? She said ‘Maul’, I speak to tourist and learn English. Interesting lady, I thought. Being the careful (read paranoid) traveler, we wanted to make informed choices after comparing with other places.
We told her that we had just arrived and had not yet checked on the trek costs and will take time to decide. She then took out a small handbook and showed us the testimonials people wrote about her trek.People addressed her as Mao and she pronounced it as Maul. She had all good reviews from other travelers. Impressed by her selling skills we considered booking with her. We took her number to confirm later.
An open stage with a basket ball court at Sa Pa town
We had reached the main area now and the fog was still working on hiding all things. There was a huge basket ball court and it was a typical laid back hill station with roads going downhill besides both sides of the court. Although we had to climb back uphill later, for now we were just enjoying the fog and the blurred views.
After buying a jacket for my friend we went into an empty cafe, and had a Vietnamese coffee with french fries and free Wi-fi. In minutes the place was buzzing with people. We credited ourselves for being the crowd-pullers. Wonder how it would be if cafes identified the customers who bring them luck and give them a free coffee! I then had a brief day dreaming session of being treated royally by the cafe owners and them saying, oh no, we cannot charge you, its free! I was snapped back into reality by my friend who just got off her phone call. We sat talking of all the other times in the trip where we went into an empty cafe and the crowd followed. So we were lucky for the restaurants, or may be we went in just before their peak time. We chose to believe the former was true 😉
After this wishful day dreaming session, we left a now crowded cafe and walked back in the dark and colder night. At the hostel, the rice terrace trekking rates were the same and we decided that we should go with the lady for it would be authentic to go with a local or may be because she had already marked her impression. So we called Mao on her cell phone and confirmed the timing for next day.
We had dinner at the hostel in the common area which had few missing walls (by design) and was super cold. I had my entire wardrobe (all clothes from my backpack) on me, and still was not able to handle the cold. The hostel had a fireplace in the wall-less common area. I foolishly tried to get warm in the fire. It did not even reach a finger in spite of sitting centimeters away from it. Finally, my cold brain decided that curling into the bed would be a better option. The restrooms were outside and going there meant a 3 minutes walk and a long procedure for me! Get down from the top bunk bed without falling off or making noise, then walk through the freezing common area and get one stairway down! It was a torture to a sleepy brain to wake up in the night and then completely get awake by the mercilessly cold air (not to speak of the cold toilet seats).
Morning weather was a little better, so I showered and wished I had not. The wind in the shower rooms attacked before I was in my war-clothes, and I pledged that I will never take bath in Sa Pa again. Only to break it, the same evening after the hike!
A new friend from the hostel joined us on the trek. A French girl who had been traveling through Australia for a year and was now traveling Southeast Asia. Mao walked us from the hostel, walking just ahead of us while the 3 of us followed. The morning view was clearer, and we were praying that the fog completely moves out so that we get a good view. We reached the market area and now we could see the basketball court clearly. Some men shouted something in Vietnamese.
Mao laughed and translated to the French girl, ‘They say, who is that beautifoool (singing) lady’!
Used to this attention by now, our French friend smiled and said thank you!
We walked behind Mao on a twining road still within the town limits. I saw a pavement on the left side and decided to walk on the other side. It had not yet set in that it was right-handed driving in Vietnam and so people were right oriented when walking unlike India where we walk on the left side. While I crossed and just hopped on to the pavement, a two-wheeler guy who had overtaken another vehicle was almost on the pavement so I ran in further. But he lost balance fearing he will hit me and fell far behind where I was. There was a man, woman and a child on the vehicle. They were not hurt (so we thought).
The kid was fine, the man and the woman kept swearing in Vietnamese. I asked if we should take them to the hospital. They blamed it on me completely (although they were the ones speeding at a curve). Mao was on our side. However she could not handle their aggression. Mao said that they wanted money or they would punch me. And then Mao called her husband who was in the city, to sort out the issue as they were his relatives. We spent an hour at this scene and finally walked away while the lady continued swearing and threatening to punch me. I followed Mao closely, imagining the ‘what if she chases me and hits me scenario’. After a little while on the trail and meeting more smiling ladies with a copper tooth and cute kids along the way, I forgot about this new fear. Except for the times when the girls had a laugh saying, ‘you are on the wanted list in Sa Pa now’!
Sapa hike trail
We walked through mud trails curving up and down, with trees all around and then a valley of green fields. The Fog was in competition with us, it was traveling ahead of us all the while. From a distance we would see the beautiful rice terrace views and when we got closer the fog was already there to embrace the terrains before our eyes could.
So all along, the terrain kept playing hide and seek with us, hiding often behind the Fog. So this made the views even more precious and memorable. After around 16 km of walk, post afternoon the fog gave way completely to let us bask in the beautiful views of the rice terraces. We could see the step cultivation on all the hills as far as our eyes could reach, some curved inwards and some outwards. Some fields had water shining in the sun while others beamed dark green. We sat in silence watching all this, refreshing our minds and souls, with this combination of man-made and nature’s immense beauty, called the rice terraces.
Sa Pa Rice terrace
Sa Pa hiking Trail
We walked ahead to Mao’s village, the tribe was called Muong tribe and the dialect they spoke was Muong language. Mao taught us a few words in Muong. Konyo hai was hello. I kept singing this to all the villagers we passed, ‘Konyo Hai’, ‘Konyo Hai’ amusing them more than myself. We stopped for lunch at Mao’s house at Hau Thao village.
Mao’s husband was supposed to have cooked before we reached, but he hadn’t finished. Mao joined in to help him. After about 30 minutes we had the tastiest vegetarian meal of Vietnam. This feedback came out of a hungry stomach, so don’t hold me to it. However I can assure you that Mao had made the best spring rolls, they were simply out of the world!
Lunch at Mao’s
Their living room was well-lit with a sunlight roof, with chairs and a dining table on a mud floor, reminded me of my grandma’s place, back in India. Made out of all things nature and closer to the earth. The touristy addition to this was a wall filled with tons of pictures of hers sporting her copper tooth, and her family and travelers. This combination of nature and commercialization was perfect for her business. She was given these photographs by the backpackers who stayed with her. They would click the pictures and print it out in town and leave it there for her to pickup. Because she did not have a postal option for her place.
She also offered stay options, so people can trek up, stay at her place for 1 or 2 nights and then go back to Sa Pa. This was a better arrangement because you get to stay closer to nature and be a part of their farming tasks and other routines as well. The only trouble was surviving the cold at night without a heater. I made a mental note however, to stay with Mao, on my next visit to Sa Pa.
Living room wall at Mao’s
Mao has 3 kids, her mother-in-law lived with her, helped with the kids and also weaved clothes, which she insisted we buy. And I noticed that Mao, did not for once try to sell it to us. We were her customers and while she allowed cross-sell opportunity to her mother in law, selling was not her work. That was a nice-to-see professionalism in a village farmer turned guide.
Mao walked 16 km everyday to the town in search of business, she took care of 3 kids, cooked, cleaned and participated in farming too. While her husband did the bike taxi work (except for days when Mao played the guide). She had recently converted into Christianity and when I asked the reason for it, she did not mention change of faith or any such revelation! She was a smart lady and knew her benefits for sure. A true business woman in all sense, driven by her family needs. I also awed at the focus of the missionaries on their purpose, if it were me, I would have lost that purpose to the beautiful views and such friendly innocent villagers.
Mao’s mother-in-law bidding us goodbye
We headed out, bidding good-bye to the grandmother and the baby tied to her back. I shouted out in Muong, Konyo guummm (means goodbye). When I was a kid, people would hide toys and say gummm (meaning its gone, invisible!). In some way this meant the same, gone or good bye. Konyo gummmm! So that is how I remember this word now when writing it down.
Cannabis growing in a kitchen garden
Walking downhill was easier, but I felt sad walking out of the beautiful trails and stunning views of the rice terraces. We hiked down half way through, made the payments and got the customary Sa Pa wrist band as a token of Mao’s affection. This was a hand weaved band made out of cannabis stems that grow in natural abundance there.
Cannabis plants were growing like wild weed, in fenced gardens of almost all houses in the village. And it was normal for all the women to weave traditional clothes out of the Cannabis, for themselves and to sell as souvenirs. I did not know this before, that clothes are weaved out of cannabis! The wrist bands were their token of appreciation, if you hiked with them or bought any of their other hand-woven articles.
Sa Pa Cannabis band
After this Mao asked for our testimonials on her little handbook. And then she extended out her visiting card which said ‘MAO TOURS’, asking us to recommend her to other travelers at Hanoi. We were working our way from North to South so she wanted us to advertise to the ones making their way up from the South. And so we did! (whenever possible).
Through out our Southeast Asia trip, we saw tons of people wearing cannabis bands, and we would ask ‘Sa Pa’? And the answer would be, Yes!!
Mao’s husband and his friends dropped us off on 3 motorbike taxi’s and it was a ride to remember for a lifetime. The roads had a lot of potholes, or should I say the potholes had few rare leveled spots of land. I thought of my travel insurance, and was also trying to recollect if I had mailed it to anyone in my family. But oh god, I had not mailed it to my friend! She would be the first one who will need to have my insurance, in case I have to be hospitalized.
This was the second death threat in one day. First, the angry lady Rambo who could be still on the lookout for me in Sa Pa town and now this lean, mountain man who thinks he is inside a 3D game. And I thought, first thing I would do, is to send an insurance copy to my friend, if I reached Sa Pa alive! I thought the ride will be over in 5 minutes, but it was a much longer ride. So, finally I just decided to have fun and enjoy the road rash game! If not for the potholes, the thrill ride would have been more appreciable by my back too.
We reached Sa Pa town just before dusk, we enjoyed the last of the sunlight, walking to search for a different cafe, and ended up back at yesterday’s cafe and then a dinner stop before calling it a day.
The next day was a relaxed lazy day around Sa Pa town, trying out local food. Later in the evening we left to Ha Noi by a nice bus which had Wi-fi too.
1. Sa Pa is very cold compared to the rest of Vietnam. So plan your packing list accordingly. If this is a short stay you can easily manage by layering all your clothes. Just ensure to carry full length pants and at-least one full length t-shirt or a jacket.
2. Plan to stay in the village home-stay for the rustic experience. A lot of agents book it for you. However, I would recommend you book directly with the local village women. Or you could contact our guide Mao [+84 (0) 1292 98 12 14] and book her place. If you have the time, you can hike with her and then decide after seeing her house.
3. A day hike across the rice terraces, is a must do in Sa Pa. The path is a combination of uphill and downhill trails and one can complete the hike slowly even with average fitness levels. If you do not want to hike, there are smaller walks from where you can still get good views of the rice terraces.
4. Ha Noi is only 5 hours away by bus from Sa Pa, even with stops. So plan to go their during the day or else you will end up reaching their at unearthly hours at night.
5. Local Vietnamese food is amazingly good. There are many vegetarian options, if only you can communicate in the right Vietnamese terms. Local food to try – Fried Vietnamese spring rolls, Pho Ga (Ga means chicken).You can ask for veggie variation of it. (Good luck with that).
6. A normal local Vietnamese meal is a spread, containing a Soup (which is probably beef soup, so skip that if you are a vegetarian), steamed rice, some steamed tofu and vegetables or egg or meat on the side. All served separately, so its easy to just take what you want. Highly recommend to eat at your local guides place at the village, it was my yummiest meal in Vietnam.
7. Bus ticket from Sa Pa to Ha Noi costs 230000 VND and takes around 5 to 6 hours with stops.
1. Language gyan: In Muong language: ‘Konyo hai’ means Hello, ‘O chao’ is thank you and ‘Konyo gummu’ means Goodbye.
In Vietnamese: ‘Sing Chao’ means Hello and ‘Cam on’ is thank you and ‘Tam Beit’ means goodbye
2. I love being in cold, but I still could not handle the cold because I belong to place with the most pleasant weather, back home. After the initial acclimatization period I enjoyed every bit of the cold weather. So, however cold a place is after the initial few hours/days, our bodies get used to the weather. That’s a marvel in itself! How quickly we adapt to a weather and also enjoy it. So all the ‘I cant’ and ‘I wont be able to’ is not feedback from the body, its just in the mind!
3. When I looked at Mao, I realized that one doesn’t need a formal degree or a course in Entrepreneurship, on how to execute or buy any of the planning and performance tools or read the tons of online blogs on how to be a great Entrepreneur. Not all entrepreneur venture need a structure. Don’t spend tons of time on reading about Entrepreneurship. All you need to develop is a mindset, that the only way you can earn additional money is by executing your idea (whatever your idea may be). Just get out there and get started!
Itinerary: 2 days and 2 nights at Sa Pa, Vietnam
Stayed at : Go Sapa hostel, 25 Thac Bac Road, Sa Pa, Vietnam
Short review : Location at a 10 minutes walk to the main area. I would not recommend this hostel as the common area is roofless and they have an alarm set for the hot water and it turns cold in 3 minutes. If you find a similar budget hotel stay there, or even better stay at the village with the locals if you can take the cold.
Travelers: Two female backpackers
Loop: Laos -> Land Travel -> Sa Pa -> Ha Noi -> Ha Long Bay -> Phong Nha-Ke Bang -> Hoi An -> Ho Chi Minh Duration: 15 days. Refer to review of Vietnam to create your itinerary.
Country Loop: North Thailand -> Laos -> Vietnam -> Cambodia -> Myanmar -> Malaysia -> Philippines -> South Thailand