Trekking in Sa Pa, Vietnam

View from our hotel.

View from our hotel.

From Hanoi, we took an overnight train to Sa Pa, near the Chinese border. The town looks like a ski town in the spring. At 5,200 feet above sea level, it has beautiful mountains and plenty of fog that provide breathtaking views. Back when the French controlled Vietnam, some used to vacation here during summers and they dubbed it “the Tonkinese Alps.” Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam and the Indochina peninsula, is also here. In addition to the beautiful landscape, Sa Pa is well-known for its concentration of ethnic minorities, of which the largest are the Black Hmong and the Red Dao.

DSC03778Once off the overnight train, we left our stuff at the hotel, put on as many layers as we could, and headed out with our tour guide, Won. This was the coldest place we’d been so far, and our wardrobes weren’t quite prepared for it. I wore my rain jacket over my fleece, over two long sleeved shirts, over a t-shirt, and I still never really got warm!

We were lucky and ended up on a tour with just us and Won, and we also never saw any other tour groups because his company tries to take their customers further off the beaten path for a better experience.

John with our trek guide, Won

John with our trek guide, Won

We were accompanied on our hike, however, by May, a local Red Dao (pronounced Zhao) woman who makes handicrafts and sells them for a living. She was very friendly, spoke quite well in English, and pretty much stuck by my side and chatted me up the whole hike. I learned all about her husband’s health, the fact that she was raising her grandchildren, and that sadly one of her daughter’s had kind of left her when she got married. I knew I was being sucked into her game and that she would want me to buy something, but I really liked her and it would’ve been difficult not to talk to her given we were the only people there. And, since she was walking right beside me, she also kept me from falling on slippery rocks a few times. I did think it was odd how she was interacting (or not interacting, as it were) with our guide, and John and I were both a bit confused as to whether this was part of the ‘tour,’ or what was going on …

Me and May by my side

Me and May by my side

Briefly explaining his views on her presence, our guide stopped abruptly at one point with May beside us to tell us how annoying he and the tourists found the fact that the local tribeswomen did this, because, as he explained, they were just trying to sell you stuff and would push you to buy something at the end. Awkward! He told us if we didn’t want anything we shouldn’t feel we had to buy something. I have to hand it to May, she kept a completely straight face during this whole explanation and didn’t show embarrassment or any sign that this was uncomfortable for her, nor did she walk away or leave us alone. Knowing this was all part of her livelihood, and already feeling a bit of a bond with May since we’d spent several hours with her, I on the other hand was feeling really uncomfortable. I was mentally gearing up for when she started her hard sell. I was really hoping she would have something in that basket that I liked at the right price, because I wasn’t sure how I was going to get out of this situation without buying something from May.

May, a Red Dao hill tribe minority who befriended us and followed us for several hours on our hike until we stopped for lunch.

May, a Red Dao hill tribe minority who befriended us and followed us for several hours on our hike until we stopped for lunch. The Red Dao women traditionally shave the front of their hair and their eyebrows, which is considered a sign of beauty.

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Wearing the scarf I bought from May.

I ended up buying the scarf I’m wearing here from May. It worked out because I really liked it, and I was freezing so I could further justify purchasing it. Our guide later told me that at $12, I paid double what I should’ve, but he also said that it was good I bought something because I was helping her out by buying it. To be sure, I haggled hard with her and she really wouldn’t come down anymore, so it wasn’t like I didn’t try. And really, it seemed an ok amount to spend, especially given the amount of time she’d invested in us (even if it was unsolicited). And since the scarf wasn’t something she made (the traditional weaving of the Red Dao took months to complete so those items were super expensive) she also gave both of us a ‘friendship’ bracelet with a Red Dao pattern on it, which we’ve been wearing ever since.

In the end, we trekked through lots of mud, over many rocky paths, all in the midst of amazingly beautiful terraced rice fields on the hills. The lines of the terraced rows seemed to curve endlessly and made such beautiful geometric-looking fields. It was pretty stunning.

terraced rice fields

terraced rice fields


On the trek

On the trek


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more terraced rice fields

more terraced rice fields


hill tribe kids playing hopskotch

we passed these hill tribe kids playing hopskotch on our hike


and some more ...

and some more rice fields …

We had signed up for a tour that included two days of “light trekking” around the mountains and into the villages. By mid-afternoon on our first day, we had hiked about 10 miles in the misty rain, and over muddy, hilly and rocky terrain, all after sleeping less than normal on the overnight train the night before. After getting us back to our hotel, Won asked us if we wanted to meet at 9am again tomorrow — and John and I looked at each other and knew one day of light trekking was enough for us. It was great, but my knees needed a break and we both also wanted to just enjoy the cute little town of Sa Pa since we had to leave on the night train out the next evening. So Won got the day off and John and I relaxed in the little town. Of course, it was gorgeous and sunny the second day we were there, but it made for a great day in the town.
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The main strip in Sa Pa. Very cute little town.

The main strip in Sa Pa. Very cute little town.

Vietnamese chalet

Vietnamese chalet

Watching the fog roll into town.

Watching the fog roll into town.

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