Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel, Sapa, Southeast Asia, Travel, Vietnam

Welcome to Sapa, Am I Still on Planet Earth?


If I could recommend just one place to visit in Vietnam, it would be Sapa. This is a magical place that I had heard about, but knew little about, and it was probably one of the most memorable experiences of my entire trip.

Sapa is a 9-hour overnight train ride from Hanoi (we got a sleeper this time!). The train drops you in Lao Cai, a small town that seems to serve more as a stopover point for travelers than anything else. From Lao Cai, Sapa is another 1 ½ hour uphill bus ride away. We originally planned on basing ourselves in Lao Cai and exploring the surrounding towns by motorbike, but quickly changed our minds when we saw Lao Cai, so we jumped on a bus straight for Sapa.

The bus ride alone indicated this was the right decision. We spent the 90 minutes driving up winding hillside roads, feeling like we were climbing into the clouds. To the left were terraced rice paddies that dropped all the way down to rocky rivers below, and to the right were more uphill roads and ride paddies. We stepped off the bus and were met with cool mountain air. What a treat, especially compared to the humidity we had left behind in Hanoi.

The town of Sapa is very small and can be covered in about 20 minutes by foot, so we weren’t too concerned about where we stayed. We found a great hotel, called Darling Hotel, which was just a stones throw from town. It looked like Bavaria had come to visit and we were staying at Hansel and Gretel’s Inn, but not in a bad way. We got settled in and then decided to go and explore on a bike we had rented from the inn. First stop – food!

We found a little café on the other side of town where we were able to get some breakfast, and we sat outside on a little terrace. We noticed a lot of tribal people in town, who were selling their needlework, and we began talking to a pair of sisters from the Hmong tribe. We must have sat talking to them for our entire meal. Their English was perfect, and they were so interesting and interested in us. We listened to their stories of hosting other travelers, and at the end of our conversation, I asked if they would take us to their village, so we could see where they lived and could eat lunch with them. They immediately said yes, and we planned to meet at Darling Hotel at 8:00 the next morning.

We spent the rest of our day riding around remote villages. It was harvest time, the skies were blue, and the fields glowed gold and green. Everyone was working the fields, but happy to stop and visit with us as we drove through their villages.

We found a delicious restaurant called Gerber, which we went back to again and again, and ordered way too much food every night- duck, veal, fish, chicken rice, soup, you name it, we ate it.

8am the following morning came quickly, but Gia and Mai (our newest friends) were outside our hotel to meet us the next morning. We made our way to the Saturday market, where we bought all the ingredients for Bamboo Chicken. We then made our way by bike to their village, a journey that took about 20 minutes.

After entering their village, we went as far as we could by bike, and then parked them at a friend’s house. They had warned us of the long walk the other end, but we assured them we were up for it. We hiked, and hiked, and hiked some more, stopped at a little rest area, drank some water, and then hiked some more, and after about 2 hours, we arrived at their home.

We looked at the piglets in their pig pen, crushed the indigo plants they used to die their clothes in our hands, used the outhouse, met the 90-year old great grandmother, who insisted on carrying the toddler around on her shoulders, even when going down the steep steps in front of their home, we watched as they lit the wood stove in their kitchen, smelled the slop they fed the pigs and watched the kids as they chased the ducks and roosters around the garden. Where were we? I wasn’t quite sure, but I loved it.

Shortly after we arrived, Gia’s husband arrived home from the fields, and lunch was almost ready. We pulled plastic chairs around a small wooden table and had one of the best meals I had while in Vietnam. This consisted of fresh rice (picked within a day of being served) bamboo chicken and shou shou (which is like a steamed cucumber, although it looks more like a green gourd or squash when growing). After our meal, Gia disappeared upstairs and retrieved some fermented apples and prepared rice wine for us. As much as I wanted to indulge, I couldn’t help but think of the hike we had back to our bike.

I had enjoyed the day so much I didn’t want to think about leaving. It was like we had stepped into another world, a world where there wasn’t much to go around, but there was an abundance of simplicity and happiness. We bid farewell to our friends but not before getting their mobile numbers (the one thing everyone does have). During the rest of our trip, we were sure to pass along Gia and Mai’s numbers to everyone we met who was on their way to Sapa.

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