Steps to Sapa

I opened my eyes to rolling green rice fields. Our bus wove through the quilted landscape of terraced paddies as the sun’s pale yellow rays lightly kissed the mountain face. Inside the murmur of awakening softly buzzed, but was quickly blanketed by the quiet of the Sapa dawn.

The endless whirring motorcycles and crawling crowds of Hanoi seemed like an acid-induced dream compared to the spacious streets of the small northern town. My first breath as I exited the bus was sharp, clean, and cold. I could almost imagine frost starting to line my lungs. We had arrived at our second stop, and I couldn’t feel more relaxed and pumped at the same time.

We had a dubious welcome though as the bus deposited all the passengers into an empty, sleeping street, and then left without a word. It seemed that we all signed up for the same tour package done by Sapa Summit Hotel, but none of us knew where it was or what to expect next. We were told that we’d be taken straight there, but it was nowhere in sight.

Several minutes later a tiny Vietnamese man with a bowl-cut and a denim jacket started hopping from group to group confirming names. In high-pitched Vietnamese and zero English, he managed to stuff us into vans which we understood would take us to the hotel. True enough, after a couple of kilometers, we found ourselves at the lobby of Sapa Summit checking in.

The tour package included roundtrip Hanoi-Sapa bus transfers, a night at the hotel, six meals, two hikes, and a tour guide. Since we weren’t going back to Hanoi though, we took everything except the bus ride back. The whole thing cost about $64. It was a total steal.

The hotel was nice enough. The rooms were basic but cozy, though you could sink into the mattress in a not very comfortable way. It was a good distance from the town center so it was far from the hubbub, but there were stores right across where you could find whatever you’d need, from fake North Face jackets to various local chips. The food though was great! They gave huge servings, a lot of choices, and full flavors. For what we paid for, there was no room for complaints.

Our first hike was to Cat Cat Village where the Black Hmong tribe resided. Truth be told, I wasn’t such a huge fan of the hike. It could barely even be called that. It was pretty much a stroll through cemented paths lined by shop after shop after shop, tailed by kids and adults alike selling all sorts of trinkets. One girl from our group bought a bracelet and was then harangued for several minutes by local women selling her their wares.

We went to the Cat Cat Falls, which was another disappointment personally. I love waterfalls. But apart from their beauty and grandeur, what I love most about them was being able to swim in the fresh mountain waters. Cat Cat Falls had an elevated view deck that was cordoned off. All you got to do was look at it. Boring.

The hike the following day was much better though. Busy streets lined with small restaurants, quaint shops selling weaves, and accommodations of every type morphed into views of sky-high mountains and bamboo canopies. Eventually we left concrete altogether and traversed through the mountain paths with only the vast rice terraces of Lao Chai Village around us. At some point it felt so isolated and removed from civilization that I wondered if I was even still in Vietnam and not the remote borders of China already. The hike took most of the day so we had lunch by the river in the heart of the mountains.

Besides the landscape, the silence, and the fresh air, what I loved most about the hike were the locals we encountered. Especially the kids. From the camera shy ones in Cat Cat, to the perky ones in Lao Chai, they all made for great subjects, and the hike felt all the more richer because of it.

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A member of our tour group tossed this kid some candy. He immediately paraded it around to his friends, who were all clamouring for him to share

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Indigo dye used by the Black Hmong tribe to color their weaves
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We ended Day 1 with a brief tour of the market’s colorful passageways. And pouring rain.

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Lunch by the river, with this view

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After the second hike and our last dinner at Sapa Summit, we transferred to Sapa Backpacker’s Hostel for our last night. The place was quite dingy and the beds were kind of dusty, but it was super cheap so I just charged my sleepless, itchy night to that.

The following day, we walked around the town center and got to admire the fusion of old French and new Vietnamese architecture. We half-froze our fingers off strolling around Sapa Lake and ogling at the colorful flowers in the garden, most of which weren’t familiar to our tropical sensibilities. When we couldn’t take the cold anymore, we warmed up for the rest of the afternoon with coffee and cakes at Le Gecko.

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Before we knew it, it was 6pm, and it was time to board the bus again. We were headed to Dien Bien Phu, en route to Luang Prabang, Laos. Little did we know at the time that we were leaving paradise for pure, roadtrip hell. But that’s another story altogether.