As most travellers do when researching the best things to do in Vietnam- I had trekking the Sapa rice fields as one of my top anticipated things to experience. Both Halong Bay boat tours and the three day Sapa trekking trips are the most popular tours to be done in the north of Vietnam and throughout the capital of Hanoi there are literally hundreds of tour groups and travel agents begging you to book through them. Each boast about their ‘authentic’ homestay experience and most include a local guide, food and accomodation throughout the trip. I had heard varying accounts of the authenticity of the ‘family homestays’, many of which turning out to be glorified hostels, nonetheless I decided to book through Lily’s Travel (the very popular travel agent that is all over trip advisor as the one to go through) and hope for the best. I was not disappointed, Sapa turned out to be one of my favourite parts of the north of Vietnam.
I chose the three day two night trekking tour that stayed in two different homestays in two different villages. Here’s what to expect:
I took a sleeper bus from Hanoi to Sapa (6 hours on the bus arriving in Sapa town at 1pm). Immediately as you sleepily eyed step off the bus and attempt to collect your baggage, you will be rushed with many Vietnamese women dressed in traditional dress asking if you have a tour booked, some selling tours and some holding placecards with names on them. I managed to find the little woman with my name on her card and followed her to a restaurant where I met a German couple who would be hiking with me and had lunch. After lunching we left our bags (to be hopefully taken to our first homestay by bike) and started on up the mountain.
We trekked up the mountain and the first leg was probably the hardest (or maybe I was just unfit after a few weeks without proper exercise…) as we wound our way up in the unfortunate fog. After trekking for four hours, we came to our first homestay in which there were already about 10 others gathered, all sweaty and dirty, ready for dinner.
The first homestay I stayed at was definitely the more ‘authentic’ of the two. The house was wooden and the amenities very basic. As in most ‘homestays’ in Sapa, the beds consist of a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net hanging from the ceiling to cover the bed. We had a traditional Vietnamese meal which is generally a number of different dishes with rice all piled on the table for you to grab as you please. The homestay mother will then insist over and over (and over) again for you to drink shot after shot of ‘happy water’ (really strong rice wine) until you eventually confiscate your own glass or head off to bed.
The second day of the tour we joined with some of the others from our homestay into a larger group. The weather was incredible and the scenery was amazing for another 4 hour trek broken up with lunch along the way. We arrived at the next (far more modern) homestay in the afternoon and spent the evening chatting and drinking before turning in to bed.
The final day was by far my favourite. As our homestay was in the valley area of Sapa, we only hiked for about an hour and a half out to some view points and the same back to the homestay to head back to Hanoi. We ended the sweaty trek with an amazing swim and sunbake in a secluded waterfall that I could have spent an entire day at.
1. The villages in the Sapa area do not speak Vietnamese as their native language, and often the languages will vary from village to village.
2. There will be dogs EVERYWHERE – and you may need to factor in an extra few hours for the amount of dogs you will pat.
3. As in other parts of Vietnam, the toilet paper is scarce and to be put in a rubbish bin… not the toilet. If you’re as lucky as me you might even get the privelege of experiencing a drop squat toilet in the middle of the rice fields.
4. The Vietnamese ladies and often children, wearing traditional dress will try over and over again to sell you bracelets and earrings and clothes, and a previously bought bracelet from another village will not suffice as ‘already having one’.
If you’re on the fence about trekking in Sapa- don’t be. It was filled with amazing views and a more authentic country experience than anything you can get in one of the main cities a definitely a must do when in the north of Vietnam!