What’s Sapa-ning?

As my time in Vietnam was coming to an end, I made my way north to Sapa, a picturesque hill station high in the mountains and a remnant of the French colonial era. The area is very popular with nature and trekking enthusiasts, as it is famous for both its fine, rugged scenery and also for its rich cultural diversity. Sapa and its surrounding regions are home to a multitude of ethnic minorities, the majority of which are the Hmong (pronounced Mong). I had previously heard other travelers often raving about their experience in Sapa and their “authentic home-stay experience” with the local hill-tribe people (I say this in quotation marks because I cringe every time I hear the word “authentic”, or even worse, “off-the-beaten-path”). The first time I heard about Sapa was on my second day in Vietnam. A fellow traveler told me about the vast rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam. Truthfully I wasn’t too keen, since I had just come from the Philippines, where I had done a 3 day trek through the rice terraces of Banaue (often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World), and before that did a 3 day trek up the 3,700 meter high volcano of Mount Rinjani in Indonesia. However, with the rave reviews at the back of my mind, a couple of days left to my visa and the discovery that I can cross from Sapa to Laos (and probably most importantly because I wasn’t ready to leave Vietnam), I decided to go for it. Lucky for me, on the overnight bus from Hanoi I ran into the lovely English girls that I had met a couple of weeks before in Nha Trang. As soon as we got off the bus in Sapa we were swarmed by a sea of Hmong sisters, all dressed in black with colorful embroideries and accessorized with silver jewelry and a fez-like headpiece.

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The girls and I found Mama Chu, who greeted us with bracelets and took us to get some breakfast before starting the 10km hike to her village. Even though the weather was quite cloudy, the landscapes and views were absolutely astounding.

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It started to pour as soon as we got to Mama’s, but we were finally home sweet home! We settled in while Mama and her daughters made us dinner in one pan over a small fire. After enjoying the delicious meal all together (consisting of spring rolls, fried morning glory, pork and rice), Mama showed us the different jewelry she had for sale, and gave us each another gift to thank us for staying with her.

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The next morning we started our trek back to Sapa after a breakfast of thick rice pancakes and bananas. About halfway through it started to rain very hard, so we got lifts back to town on motorbikes. The girls were heading back to Hanoi on the evening bus, so we said our goodbyes and I ventured out to find a hostel in the rain (this was just the beginning of my constant struggle with the rain in Sapa).

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I ended up at Mountain View Hostel,  a newly opened hostel in the same family of the Vietnam Backpacker Hostel. I was planning on staying for 2 nights and then getting the bus to Luang Prabang in Laos. It’s funny how plans can change so much. On the day my bus was supposed to leave, I was informed that the road to Laos was “broken” (that’s literally what I was told by the lady at the bus company). So I took some time to figure out what my options were, and somehow ended up staying in Sapa for one week. Between free beers on Sundays, happy hour with 2 for 1 beers everyday, all you can eat and drink ricewine at Mama’s for $2, and obviously the amazing staff, no wonder I got stuck in Hotel California. If you happen to be there when it’s not raining 24/7 there’s plenty to do around Sapa besides the trekking. There is a small market not far from the center and a couple of waterfalls you can motorbike or take a taxi to. You will see Hmong sisters scattered around the town selling trinkets and souvenirs all day. If you’re not used to it they might seem pushy, and when you say no thanks they’ll probably swear at you in Hmong, but they are just as charming and good-humored as they are business savvy. All in all, I had a great time in Sapa and wouldn’t change a thing! Lucky for me, the weather was beautiful on my last day and I got to explore the beautiful town and its surroundings on motorbike, enjoying views of the beautiful rice terrace laden mountains and the valley below.

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Next stop: Laos!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

Traveler’s tips : There are many agencies in Hanoi that will book your Sapa home-stay experience for you, but be warned that they are charging you double or even triple and are pocketing the difference. The best thing you can do is find a Hmong sister yourself when you get off the bus, that way you know exactly where your money is going. Also VBH will book a ticket to Laos for you from Hanoi – if you want to leave directly from Sapa (shorter journey but roads are in worse condition) you can book a ticket at the store selling trekking gear with a picture of a bus on the sign, it’s right next to Mountain View Hostel (next door to the bakery).

Lovely Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

Hanoi was amazing. I just had to start with that. After yet another overnight bus from Hue, Ben and I made our way to the famous Vietnam Backpacker Hostel. After going on the free walking tour around the city, we settled down on beer street for the night, drinking $0.25 pints of fresh local beer, Bia Hoi.

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The next morning we headed out to explore and get down and cultural around Hanoi. We started at the Women’s Museum and then headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mosoleum. We ended up at the park next door, where we were able to partake in some outdoor fitness activities with some locals (a little bit of zumba, a little bit of ballroom dancing). We also discovered an amazing dish native to Hanoi called Bún nem, which was absolutely amazing (drool).

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On one of the many nights spent on Beer Street, we met an expat who told us about an alternative to the infamous Castaways Booze Cruise, as both Ben and I were hesitating dishing out $200 USD for a 3 day/2 night boat party. A couple days later we headed out to Cat Ba, an island in Ha Long Bay. We would take a boat through the bay and see the world famous towering limestone cliffs, as well as the floating villages in the bay.

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Lucky for us, the trip took all day so we really got to fully experience Ha Long Bay, both during the day and at nighttime. Unlucky for us it started to rain as soon as we got to Cat Ba, and it wouldn’t stop in the whole 5 days we spent there (we would later find out this typhoon-ish storm caused the most rainfall the area had seen in 40 years, and that about 40 people had died in the bay). So what do you do when you’re trapped on a beautiful island with beautiful beaches in the middle of a typhoon? You feel extremely grateful that you have a TV in your room with TWO movie channels in English (and no commercials!).

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On a cloudy but not so rainy day, we jumped at the opportunity to explore the island. We rented a bike and went to Fort Cannon, a small fort built by the French during their colonial rule. We also visited the Hospital Cave, a 17 room underground hospital and hideout which was in use until 1975. The cave is so vast that it was virtually indestructible, and seemed like real life James Bond underground lair. After a little chat with the guide at the entrance (who is an avid coin collector by the way – he had coins from all over the world, and I gladly gave him a Singapore dollar and some Filipino Pesos I had left over to add to his collection) he took us through the cave. We were able to see the different rooms that were built into the cave, some of them surgery rooms, some of them meeting rooms and so on. They even had a pool for exercising, as well as a dedicated area for combat training.

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After our boat back to Hanoi was cancelled twice because of the storm, we decided to take the longer and less scenic route that unfortunately avoids going through Halong Bay.

Next stop: Sapa!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

Traveler’s tips : If you’re looking to party, meet people and have a fantastic time (and aren’t too tight on your budget), then do Castaways! Otherwise Cat Ba is a really great alternative, typhoon or not.
http://www.vietnambackpackerhostels.com/trips/ha-long-bay/ha-long-bay-and-castaways-island-3-days-2-nights/

I also wanted to mention someone else we met on lovely Beer Street, whose name escapes me at the moment. A photojournalist from Switzerland, this guy travelled to Saigon to document the life of the rich and famous in the “Sin City” of Vietnam, and then to the mines in the very north of the country with the aid of a translator. There he captured the portraits of miners and the conditions they work in, demonstrating the vast gap in the lifestyles and quality of life of the Vietnamese. I highly suggest taking a look at his portfolio on a computer to fully appreciate the quality of his work.
http://www.mirkories.ch