After much debate, I finally decided to head to Sa Pa on my last weekend in Northern Vietnam. I had a lot of hesitation because the weather forecast indicated that the region would be experiencing thunderstorms during the entire duration of my visit there. Sa Pa was one of the top places I wanted to visit since coming to Vietnam. Known for its beautiful mountainous scenery filled with rice paddies and rich cultural experiences where many ethnic minorities groups live in, Sa Pa is a popular destination for many.
How to get there from Hanoi? People can either take a train (through a private or government train) to Lao Cai and take a bus from Lao Cai to Sapa town or take a bus directly to Sapa town. The bus can be an iffy choice for some as Vietnam is infamous for their crazy bus drivers bustling through the winding roads and heavy traffic. There are also many mixed reviews about the different train companies to take from Hanoi to Lao Cai. After a lot of research, I opted for this company called ET Pumpkin, funny name, I know. Only after booking the ticket did I stumble upon many negative reviews about this company. Why must I read those now? Well technically, I did not pay for it yet. I wanted to go on a “tourist train” where the operator or some staffs can speak English and that I would be sharing the cabin with foreigners. Also, the representative on ET Pumpkin agreed to provide free transport from Lao Cai to Sapa town. I never paid for my train ticket until after I have gotten to my cabin. I booked this a few days before departing since I was undecided about Sa Pa until then. I figure, I had nowhere else to go so I might as well go to Sa Pa. The weather was looking bad all around.
Hanoi Station is separated into A and B station. B station is where the northbound trains are at. My Grab driver did not know how to get to B station so I ended up at Station A. You can just walk around to Station B somehow. There was a lot of confusion on how to get to my cabin and pay for the ticket, but I managed. Aboard the Pumpkin Express! Haha, I sometimes still find the name funny. The cabin has a lamp with a pumpkin carved on it. Just my luck, I shared the cabin with three French speakers (an old couple from Belgium and a local tour guide). Our conversations were minimal due to the language barrier. With my earphones in, I was trying to fall asleep. Asleep or at least almost, I was awoken by the yelling of the tour guide. She was yelling at the people chatting outside the cabin. It didn’t even bother me since I was able to fall asleep. Someone responded saying, “You’re even louder than me!” It was true, it was her loud screaming that woke me up and I had trouble falling asleep then.
At Lao Cai station, I had a lot of difficulty finding the shuttle bus provided by ET Pumpkin. The ET Pumpkin contact gave such vague instructions on how to find the office so it took an hour of fumbling around and waiting before I got on the shuttle.
For the first day, I had asked my homestay to arrange for a local tour guide to trek with me to Ta Van village, where the homestay is. I was a bit worried that the weather would be too harsh for trekking, but luckily there was only light drizzles here and there and fog. My tour guide was Mama Zi. Dressed in traditional Hmong attire and spotting her gold teeth, she shook my hands with her dark finger nails. Her English was enough to get by the basic conversations. In the beginning of our trek, all I saw was fog. I was concerned that that would be the weather condition throughout our trek. Luckily, further along the way, the fog dissipated so I was able to see some of the beautiful alignment of rice patties and little animals grazing upon them. People online had said that you can easily just trek on your own. I disagree -there were no signs for where we trekked, how can you do it on your own? Perhaps people were referring to the inner tracks further in the mountains that were doable alone. Those did have signs to villages, but not from Sapa Town.
At our first rest stop in Cat Cat village I believe, I encountered my first set of four little girls trying to persuade me to buy their bracelets. I have read online not to support them because they’ll just take the money and not go to school. From the resting hut, another local villager starting following us. I did not realize at first. I thought she was just heading that direction. After a while, she continued to talk to mama zi so I thought maybe she’s her neighbor. She helped me through slippery parts of the path and even gifted me with a bamboo horse. I figure she is what online had said to be one of the villagers who follow tourists hoping they’d buy something from them in the end. The whole time I was thinking about whether or not I should tip her or how much to tip her. I did not realize the basket she was carrying was filled with handcrafts.
I am grateful that the sky opened up a bit for me to enjoy the view although the fog crept in from time to time. I was most in awe of Lao Chai village. Mama zi said her daughter and mother lives there. People had said Cat Cat village is extremely touristy. I thought it was beautiful nonetheless. I did not see many tourists along the way.
At lunch, lady who followed us on the trek showed me her crafts. Since she followed me all this way, I guess I should buy from her. I later learned that buying from street vendors is not recommended. Some teacher in the village was excited to talk to me, he shook my hands like 6-7 times at lunch. Mama zi made us drink shots after shots of happy water, a type of rice wine special to the Sa Pa area. I think I had 8 before continuing on the trek.
It started pouring later in the early evening. I was lucky to have miss all that. The homestay was basic, but the host was welcoming. We gathered around a small fire pit in the living room as they roasted sweet potatoes.We had a barbecue that night and I was so stuffed!
It was raining all night and foggy in the morning. By early afternoon, we decided to take a walk to the other villages. I was wearing a handmade Hmong skirt that my host has lent me to wear. During the journey, many locals looked at my skirt in awe. It was a beautiful skirt – until now, I regret not buying it from my host. Just to have a destination on Google Maps, I entered Sa Pan village. It has gotten really foggy as we walked and we did not see anything for hours. We reached Sa Pan according to the maps, but there was no point of interest and we were starved as it was past lunch time. We finally found a café and got lunch. As we sat by the window, we watched as the fog slowly dissipate and formed again. After being fed, we figured we might as well walk to the waterfall and then back to Ta Van.
The fog finally cleared up and we were able to see the beautiful rice paddies. We encountered a Dao lady who told me I am wearing a dress from the Hmong and she doesn’t like them. She had suggested for me to buy something from her. The “waterfall” was underwhelming. The waterfall was super small, we had to ask a local to make sure we did not mistaken the waterfall for something else.
I had an urge to extend my stay for a bit longer just to relax in the hammocks here if I had packed more clothes! It’s been a lovely experience in Sa Pa. The host and the guests here were all fun. Our host is adorable. They gave me a nickname as ‘fish sauce’ because my name sounds like the fish sauce brand.
On the last day, I booked a bus back to Hanoi. Getting on the bus was confusing. The driver kept refusing me; it wasn’t until another staff who insisted that I get on the bus. The bus company has terrible ratings online. I got the middle top spot in front of the bus so it is the prime spot for a casualty if there was an accident. It was hot and not the most comfortable. They are sleeper buses where you slant on the bus the whole time; you cannot lay down flat or sit up straight. Towards the end of the ride I saw a roach crawling on the side of the bus – thank goodness I was in the middle aisle!
Despite how popular of a destination Sa Pa is, I did not get the overly touristic and commercialized feeling. I am glad that I visited before leaving Northern Vietnam.