Arriving back at the hostel ( Little Hanoi Hostel) after our two day trip to Halong Bay, we had little more than three hours to get ready for our next tour: a two day trip to Sapa. The hostel let us use the common shower and their storage room. Extremely convenient, as you don’t want to drag all your belongings through the mountainous rice fields.
The trip was organised by Little Hanoi Hostel: $90 per person for two days of hiking with a guide, a night homestay and an overnight/sleeper bus both to and from Sapa. At about 21h00 a small van full of people and backpacks pulled up in front of the hostel to pick us (and two other guys staying in the hostel) up. We barely fit in and were praying this was NOT our overnight bus to Sapa. Thank God we pulled over somewhere alongside the road, were ushered out and said to wait for the sleeper bus.
When the bus arrived we were surprised about how much more comfy it looked in reality than in our minds. The bus has three rows and two floors of reclining chairs (not real beds, but quite good), each with a cushion and a blanket. Bring as less as possible in the bus, as you don’t have much room for storage. We only brought our phone, a bottle of water and our Kindle. There is a compartment under your chair to store your shoes: genius!
The bus ride to Sapa takes about five hours (with one short stop on the road), which means you’ll arrive around 3h00 in the morning, but you can sleep on the bus until 6h00. Still groggy from sleeping on the bus, we stood on the parking lot, not knowing what was next. (To be honest we slept quite OK on the bus, but it’s not the same as a bed of course.)
We were thinking of calling the hostel, when suddenly we noticed a taxi driver holding a paper with our names on it. He brought us to a restaurant called The Lizard, where we ate breakfast. We could choose from a set menu, including tea or coffee and eggs or banana pancake, served with bread (included in the trip). The breakfast was really nice, we loved the omelet! When we were finished, two other guys from our hostel arrived, who took the overnight/sleeper train to Sapa (and paid a little more).
I’m sure it was after 8h00 when our guide Phil arrived with a another guy, who had already been in Sapa, to complete our group. If you’ve been keeping track: yes, our group consisted of seven guys and me. I had already began worrying back at the hostel about keeping up with them, although at the time I was let to believe we were only a group of four people and our guide. After buying some last-minute gear and supplies, we started our first day of hiking. Phil led us to the local market for some souvenir buying (we skipped on that as we packed light for hiking) and wandering through the local food market. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Gross.
Then the hiking started. We hiked some small slopes, crossed rivers, peeked inside a school (a classroom or two with about ten kids), saw lots of harvested rice fields and stray animals. A local tribe women named Cho (I think) hiked with us from the start (on her slippers). After some time another four of them joined in. They made us hearts and horses from grass and ferns, for free! It was obvious they wanted something from us though, we just weren’t sure what yet. We lunched at a small restaurant in the mountains and while we were finishing our huge portions of fried rice, the local tribe women were unpacking those woven backpacks of theirs. “My friend, will you buy something from me?”. After some hard (ahum) bargaining, we bought a handmade scarf from Cho for 150,000 VND.
After lunch we continued hiking and came across a funeral party with music, drinks and food. Apparently the local tribes party for three days to celebrate a funeral and only one day for a wedding. After some more terraced rice fields and about 12km of hiking, we approached Ta Phin, Phil’s village. We had some green herbal tea, a kind of medecine, and got a look at the herbal baths that are popular around there. (Those tubs really don’t look comfortable.)
We arrived at Phil's house at about 15h00, when he told us the hiking for today was done and we could do whatever we wanted. Cool! Except. There is nothing in the neighbourhood. Phil didn’t have any games and we didn’t bring any either. No worries! Phil would drive his motorbike to a nearby village for some beer and a deck of cards. We enjoyed our first beer talking about our travels so far.
At about 18h00 we went downstairs to roll some spring rolls and eat dinner. Phil and his wife cooked for us and the food was really good. I mean really really good, better than the things they serve you in the restaurants. In the middle of our dinner fest, Phil pulled out a large jar with… opium flowers. He poured some rice wine in the jar, shook it and filled a shot glass for us all to taste his opium rice wine. Speaking about a powerful shot… A couple of shots later (he had us drinking throughout them meal), all the dinner bowls were empty and our bellies full. But Phil insisted he’d make us some egg pizza: which turned out to be a delicious omelet.
After dinner we learned Phil some card games and (almost) finished the opium rice wine. He even rode to the village for a refill on our beers and we had a good deal of fun with our little group. We didn’t stay up too late though as we had some more hiking to do in the morning.
We woke up to freshly baked pancakes with honey and fruit. While Phil’s wife made us some lunch to take with us on the hike, we prepared for another day of hiking. The views were even better that day, but the hiking was a bit harder, more mountainous. We saw some more stray animals: pigs, buffalos (huge animals!), dogs and chickens. Phil led us to a little isolated village. They have to walk half an hour to reach another village or a store of some kind, over a road not ideal for motorbikes. They live really simple, but seem to be happy. The children waved us goodbye (for a long time) while we were leaving. Too bad we didn’t bring a little toy (like some yoyos?) to give them.
We had lunch by a waterfall, really nice! Our lunch was packed in banana leaves, a very simple dish: rice, pork and peanuts, but surprisingly delicious. The guys climbed the rocks to the top of the waterfall, but wanting to avoid a fall in the water, I stayed safely down. But it was meant to be. As I was dipping my feet in the water, I slipped and got wet anyway. No big deal, especially since I wasn’t the only one who slipped. Luckily all electronic devices were saved in time!
After lunch we hiked to some village (not sure what it’s called or where it’s situated), where we could see the local women decorating the handmade scarfs and clothes. At about 15h15, we were picked up by a van to bring us back to Sapa or the nearby train station. Some guys took the early bus at 16h, some guys the night train. We booked the sleeper bus, so it was just the two of us again. In search for The Lizard, the restaurant we ate the delicious breakfast the day before, we added some more kilometers to the 10 we had already walked that day.
Tired and a tad hungry, we gave up and entered Le Gecko where we ate some nice soup: Soupe du Gecko (sweet potato with bacon, mmm) and tomato soup (127000 VND in total). Perfect after a day of hiking! With renewed energy we continued the search for The Lizard and our persistence paid off! We ate delicious baguettes: steak baguette (85000 VND) and vegetarian baguette (69000 VND).
We had a great time in Sapa, we laughed our ass off with Phil and the guys! Some tips for a better experience: take the bus from Hanoi to Sapa in the morning, as you only walk little more than half a day. Plus, you’ll have had a good night’s rest. The same for returning to Hanoi: take the bus at 16h, we were back in Sapa by then and honestly, there is not much to do or see there. Of course, if you sleep well anywhere and/or want to save two nights of accommodation, you could take the sleeper bus or night train. If we had to book again, I guess we would have taken the sleeper bus to Sapa and the bus at 16h back to Hanoi. We arrived back at the hostel at about 3h30 with the sleeper bus and that’s not really convenient.
We visited Sapa in late October, when the rice fields are harvested. We believe the rice fields are the most beautiful from August till early September, when they are golden and waiting to be harvested.
Bring as little as possible on the tour to Sapa, as you have to carry it throughout the hike. We only needed a toothbrush, some fresh clothes (you never know what kind of accidents happen), a raincoat, bug spray (and don’t forget to spray often, Brecht probably caught his dengue fever here in Sapa), sunscreen, drinking water, some money and your passport. Phil offered us some towels and a hot shower, not sure if that’s the case with every homestay.