Set in the far north of Vietnam, for many, Sapa will conjure images of vibrant, green rice terraces, incredible mountain backdrops and endless trails with each twist and turn revealing a view more astounding than the last. But, as my mate Sam and I twisted and turned on an uncomfortable sleeper bus with cheesy Vietnamese pop music blaring over the speakers and large boxes poking us in the sides, the picture perfect idea of Sapa couldn’t feel further away. For the budget-conscious traveller or those short on time, these sleeper buses represent one of the most time and cost-effective ways of getting around Vietnam. The trouble is, they can be extremely hit and miss and as it so happened, we had the distinct displeasure of being cooped up in an overcrowded, smelly sleeper bus as it hurtled from Hanoi to Sapa at alarming rates.
The train would have definitely been a better option. Eventually, our bus rolled to a stop and we were dumped into a freezing cold and misty car park on the outskirts of Sapa in the early hours of the morning.
We chugged herbal tea in a small cafe to keep warm as we waited for our transfer and before long we were on our way into the heart of town and our starting point for a few days of trekking, the Grand View Sapa Hotel. Despite the name, the view was non-existent at this point because of some extremely dense, low cloud which shrouded the entire town. It was here that we were introduced to the rest of the group and our guide for the next two days, Na. Short and shy, but incredibly friendly, Na was a local who had been guiding for four years, having started when she was only 15.
Despite her small stature, she made navigating the troublesome terrain look easy and did so with a smile for the entirety of our trip. After several more herbal teas and a hearty breakfast of noodle soup, we were on our way, walking through the crowded and vibrant markets of Sapa before reaching the edge of town and joining a muddy trail which started to descend down into the valley. We weren’t quite prepared for how slippery the tracks were going to be and in places the mud would climb right up to your knees. With each step there was a lingering doubt as to whether or not you would still be standing after putting your weight on your foot. As challenging as it was to stay upright, it was certainly entertaining and it almost felt like a competition to be the last one standing in the group.
As it turned out, not too many people ended up on their bums. This was partly thanks to the support crew we seemed to have assembled within the first 10 minutes of the hike. Despite only having one guide, we somehow managed to acquire a group of about 30 other locals who decided to make the journey with us. It turns out that these women and children were part of the Hmong people, an ethnic group that reside in the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. With tourism becoming such a major player in Sapa, many of the locals see the trekking scene as a good opportunity to bring some money into the household, so they escort tourists on their hikes, lending them a helping hand on the troublesome terrain.
Now, the ages of these women and children must have ranged from three or four, all the way up to 80 or 90, and yet they made things look effortless, even when they had a child on their back. Eventually, they just became part of the group and as the ground levelled out and we began to accept the help of these skillful women, we could turn our attention to the views. As we descended further into the valley, the cloud became less dense with gaps opening up more frequently. Every now and then they would open enough to reveal an incredible new angle of the hills, farms and rice terraces below.
The further we went, the more the mountains and the valleys revealed to us. After a few slow miles on unforgiving mud we reached a hard-packed trail which clung to the side of the cliff and this led us to the most incredible viewpoint. At this moment, the low cloud cleared some more and we could see the valley stretching out before us with its steep walls stepped in rice terraces. The hard-packed trail we had found ourselves on didn’t last long and before we knew it we were back to fighting with the mud. As we descended down toward the river below we passed through a steep wooded incline which proved to be one of the most challenging parts of the day. Making it to the bottom on both feet felt like a real achievement.