Sa Pa is a mountain village in Vietnam’s north, very close to the Chinese border. The reason people go there is that the region has some of the most beautiful rice terraces in all of Southeast Asia. Additionally, you can find a ton of small minority villages that, apart from a few Homestays and the odd restaurant serving local dishes, maintained their traditional atmosphere.
In order to get there, Barbara and I boarded a night train in Hanoi. We didn’t want to pay the tourist price (double or more of what the locals pay – which is around 19 USD) for the same level of “comfort” and so we shared our sleeper compartment with a young German and a Vietnamese mother with her little girl. The train left on time and the monotonous sound and movement rocked us to sleep within a matter of minutes.
The train reached Lao Cai at around 5AM. From there it was another hour or so in a full van up the foggy mountain street. Once we reached Sa Pa it became clear that, like several times before, the town itself was not a place you want to spend any more time in than necessary. That is why we got busy checking what to do as soon as we checked into our hotel. We met a nice Irish couple going by the names of Conor and Fiona in the lobby and spontaneously decided to figure it out together. I talked to the receptionist and told him that we wouldn’t want to do any of the pre-arranged tours as we kind of had an idea where we wanted to go. He organized a private driver for the four of us which would drop us off at the first town called Lao Chai and pick us up again in the late afternoon at the last destination named Giang Ta Chai. Paying about USD 7 each, we thought that was quite a good deal.
We have heard before that the local women can be quite insistent trying to sell there handycraft bags, hats and whatnot. Still, it was a little shocking to have not less than six women dressed in the traditional clothing of the Black Hmong minority jumping at the van as soon as it stopped. They learned a few words in English from the tourists over the years and they used every bit of it trying to sell their merchandise. We thought that making it clear that we are not interested in buying anything, they might lose interest after some time. Ha! Fools! They stuck with us and from time to time launched another sales pitch. “Later you maybe buy for sure, yeah?” they said with a smile all over their faces.
Our little hiking group wandered through towns and rice terraces with water buffalos plowing the immersed fields. That’s what we came here for, and it was beautiful.
The path was not always clear, and we received differing opinions from the locals on where to go so we ended up choosing our own way, which got a little muddy at times. That was where the Black Hmong ladies came in again. They took us by the hand and helped us through the difficult terrain. In the end, we thanked them and gave them some money for their families.
The four of us went for a beer in what ended up being some kind of Bob Marley sanctuary and had dinner at a small restaurant. The bar we chose for our night cap wasn’t what we expected either; the outside wouldn’t give away that inside there was a hardcore electro-house party going on…without guests. But the guy behind the bar, hardly tall enough to see the top of the counter, apparently enjoyed himself.
In the evening of the next day, we caught a train back to Hanoi. The trip down, once again crammed into a full van was horrifying with several tricky moments and at least one near death experience for a bunch of people sitting on the side of the road when a heavy truck overtook us just before a blind left curve through which an SUV was approaching. Only a brutal manoeuver not fit for a truck that size averted the worst.
This time Barbara and I had a full sleeper cabin to ourselves. Nevertheless, we were hopelessly outnumbered. Happy cockroach hunting!
We arrived in Hanoi at 4:30AM, way too early to deal with the drivers trying to haul you into their taxi. We waited in the station until most of them were gone and then walked towards our hotel. Walking down the street, tired and not too motivated I had my head down when I suddenly saw what appeared to be money lying on the sidewalk right in front of my feet. That’s how 1’000’000 VND (around USD 45) found a new – temporary – owner. First time in a while that I made some money…