Sapa – The Trekking Capital Of Vietnam

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by Marc Valentine

Sapa is a remote town north of Hanoi that is very popular among trekking crowds for the stunning scenery and the interaction with the local minority villagers.

Minority Villagers In Sapa

'Hmong' Minority Villagers In Sapa Vietnam

The village of Sapa itself is not dissimilar to a town you would expect to find nestled high in the Swiss Alps in some respects… the high altitude, tall pine trees and mountains looming on all sides.


Sapa Villagers

Local Villagers Gather To Meet Tourists In The Morning

Our first morning started with a big breakfast and a wander down the steep hill towards the centre of town to introduce ourselves to the local villagers who had gathered at a busy intersection, where everyday the tourists leave the main Rd at this crossroads &  begin their day of trekking…

… the villagers eagerly await the flood of tourists to begin pouring out of their hotels & commence their daily treks – in the hope of selling a few handmade trinkets & keepsakes from their woven baskets.

The villagers themselves, in their bright traditional uniforms are a friendly bunch and surprisingly most speak excellent English – a by product of interacting with tourists everyday.


Our Local Hmong Guide

Our Local Hmong Trekking Guide

Our local guide… Bau, a young girl from the local Hmong tribe was the perfect guide… endowed with a bubbly personality and endless energy.

We set off on foot in the direction of Bau’s village… and were joined by a few other villagers as we made our way out of town and into the seasonally arid countryside of Northern Vietnam.

The woman who joined our little trekking party were some of Bau’s fellow villagers… women who weave & dye fabric in extraordinary colours, which they then use to skillfully produce clothing, wristbands, scarves & other items to sell to tourists and make a few extra dollars.

An Insight Into How The Locals Live

With our first hour of trekking behind us – Bau asked if we would be interested in paying a visit to her family home to see how her and her family lived?

um hell yes!

We strayed from the main trekking path & after a few metres came across Bau’s family home… a simple timber structure with a couple of rooms (no doors) and a dirt floor.


How The Local Hmong People Live

How The Local Hmong People Live - A Basic Existence

The first room contained a small kitchen area where Bau and her family prepare all their meals.

No more than a bunch of plastic tubs and some various cutlery – the modern world has not yet found it’s way into Bau’s kitchen.

Basic tools that we take for granted in our lives like refrigeration, gas and other electrical appliances are all luxuries that do not exist in the day-to-to life of this hill tribe family.

As we stepped through to the second room of the home, we were met by Bau’s father and younger brother…

… both huddled around a open fire, her father generously raising his traditional tobacco pipe towards me as we were introduced… gesturing for me to take a smoke.

Inside Our Guides Home In Sapa

Our Guide Kindly Invited Us Into Her Home To See How Her Family Lives

I kindly declined and thanked him for the opportunity to see how his family lived.

Outside of the home, Bau led us to a large container filled to the brim with bright blue liquid… the contents being a dye made from natural plants grown in the area… this was the very same dye they use to colour their bright blue clothing.


Blue Fabric Dye Sapa

Blue Dye Used By Local Villagers To Colour Their Bright Fabrics

We had discovered by this stage in the day that one of the villagers accompanying us… possessed a wicked sense of humour.

When I was out of earshot, she encouraged Brent, a friend who was joining us on our trek, to dip his finger in the dye… then wipe it across my face (I don’t think it took much encouragement) leaving me looking like a smurf for the rest of the day.

Thanks Brent!

We thanked Bau’s father once again and continued our trek deeper into Sapa’s remote villages.


Trekking To Remote Villages Of Sapa Vietnam

The Path Between Remote Villages In Sapa Vietnam

The trekking path itself was primarily downhill, mostly dirt & fairly easy to negotiate.

The scenery provided more than enough eye candy to keep our eyes busy, the area is home to some of the largest rice paddy fields I have ever seen… unfortunately the time of year we were there was not crop season so the rice paddies were bare.


Rice Paddies Near Sapa

Farmers Preparing The Bare Rice Paddies Fields Near Sapa

When the scenery became dull we would turn our attention to our colourful guide (both in dress and personality) Bau and the other accompanying villagers…

… bombarding them with endless questions about their simple way of life…

How they choose a husband…?

What were their husbands doing while they were out working…?

Their clothes…?

What they eat…?

… and on and on it went for most of the day when we found ourselves with spare breathing capacity.


Pausing For A Break On Our Trek

Pausing For A Break On Our Sapa Trek


It’s true what they say “there’s no rest for the wicked”… when we paused for a 20 minute break… the girls pulled their weaving tools out from their baskets and immediately continued with the creation of their next masterpiece…

… multitasking as we sat and chatted about life in general.

After maybe an hour longer of trekking… we came to a stone quarry that offered amazing panoramic views over a massive area of rice paddies below, and the village we would be climbing down to & making a lunch stop.


Panoramic Views On Our Trek Of Sapa

Panoramic Views Over Sapa's Rice Paddies Fields

This village belonged to different tribe of minority people… so Bau’s friends who we had gotten to know quite well during the day, could accompany us no further…

We each selected a small item from the women’s baskets in exchange for a few dollars (more a token of appreciation for spending the day with us and educating us about their local ways) and wished them good luck.

Fighting The Village Women Off With A Big Stick

Met by a swarm of new women from a different tribe… the usual balancing act ensued – politely trying to convey that we simply didn’t need anymore bags, wristbands or bracelets… whilst endeavouring not to insult anybody.

And after a quick bite – we were off again for another 40mins or so through the village we had looked down upon from the stone quarry… and over the river to a waiting van & the end of our first day of trekking in remote Northern Vietnam.


Sapa Trekking Vietnam

An Epic Effort Uphill!

We couldn’t help but think about Bau as we walked into our relatively plush hotel room that night…

… enjoying a hot water shower, air conditioning and wifi… while she walked, or hitch hiked back to her simple family home…

With it’s dirt floor and walls & ceiling blackened from years of cooking over the open fire, and pondering how hard it must be for a teenage girl living in a home without even an ounce of privacy from her family.

Perched on some steps sipping a Tiger beer at the bottom of town later that evening – thoughts of how a simple village life mightn’t be so bad began to circulate…

Letting go of the typical modern life… the constant striving for the bigger house, the newer car, and settling into a simple mountainous existence… perhaps running a local bar or coffee shop?

Naaah were way too young for that – maybe in 20 years or so 🙂

Getting to Sapa & Finding A Place To Stay

We got an overnight train from Hanoi…

If you stay at the Red Dragon Hotel in Hanoi – they’ll do all the hard work for you… the hardest part of your job will be remembering to be back at the hotel before your train leaves.

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