I left my heart in Sapa. I didn’t think that these 3 days in the mountains of Vietnam will make me miss it that I started writing this post on the train from Lao Cai to Hanoi.
It was a struggle to decide between hotel or homestay. The adventure seeking part of me decided on homestay as I love learning more about culture. I seeked out a few homestay on the Internet that have good reviews but decided on Heavenly Homestay as Dat, the owner, somehow gave me the assurance of the trip that I am looking for after communicating to several homestays.
My package with Heavenly Homestay included return transfer from Lao Cai Train station to Ta Phin village in Sapa, 2 nights accommodation in room with attached bathroom, all meals and 3 days guided tour. Everything was delivered beyond expectation including free flow of water, soda and beer in the fridge and free use of raincoat and gun boots. Most importantly, they have great wifi! Beyond all these, it is the warm family environment that makes this place so enduring. I can still remember the plate of steaming hot crepe pancakes, 4 bananas and a bowl of homemade honey served as breakfast when we arrived at 7am in the morning, after an hour car ride from Lao Cai train station.
GETTING TO SAPA
It will be easier if we took up a package to Sapa but we chose to do this ourselves. There were three options – train, bus and private van. The cheapest option will be bus but considering that it is rainy season, we have decided on train instead of road for safety reasons. We then need to decide on the train options. There are many private train carriages run by different companies to Lao Cai Station (the province where Sapa is located), with the popular ones like Sapaly, Fansipan and Victoria Express. Many online agents have their tickets for sale. Yet, I was interested in the public sleeper. After much research, I realized that the private carriages are part of the same train, with some sleeper that are public. I suspected that there wouldn’t be too big a difference in the size of the sleeper and we decided on the public sleepers instead. We booked all 4 beds so that we can have the little room to ourselves and it is lockable. Their soft berth is comfortable. The mattress is great for those with back problems as it is firm but with a little cushion for comfort. Curious me went to peep at the private sleepers from the outside to check out the difference. Just as I suspected, the space is similar, just nicer upholstery, with drinks and snacks provided. Otherwise, they look rather similar.
You can book the public sleepers at https://www.baolau.com/?lang=en (the private trains are also available here). The only thing about the tickets for public sleepers are only released 1.5 – 2 months before the travel date and they get grabbed up really fast. I got my tickets by going online every morning slightly more than 2 months before our travel dates so that I can grab the tickets once they are released. Choose cabins that are in the centre of the carriage if you don’t want to be too near the toilets at the ends of the car.
Tip: If you have friends in Vietnam or have Vietnam bank cards, you can ask them to help you get public sleeper tickets direct from the Vietnam train which is cheaper. They don’t accept payment from outside of Vietnam. http://www.vr.com.vn/en
GUIDED HIKES IN SAPA
We did two 2-hr hikes on the first day we arrived. The first one was a warm up hike of level 1 difficulty. We went around to take a look at the village with relatively easy pathway and dirt road. It was nice to take a hike in Ta Phin village where we lived after breakfast. It was drizzling and Heavenly Homestay provided us with gun boots and raincoats. The mud level can be almost to the shin level at some places if you slid into them, so the usual hike boots and shoes are not as suitable as gun boots since it goes all the way up to your shin.
The second hike was after lunch at the Heavenly Homestay. It was a simple meal but very good and satisfying. I can be sure that the vegetables and the meat are all organic since they are farmed in this mountain. This hike brought us through corn fields with crops that are as tall as us, or even taller. We were advised to cover our arms as the plant might cause allegy reactions for some. Corns are grown at the higher altitude since it is not suitable for rice. We climbed the corn fields to get to the high lookout point to have a great view of the fields. We also went through a steep bamboo forest and some paddy fields.
We ended our first day soaking in a herbal bath, with an amazing view of the fields. The bath water is piping hot, emitting a fragrance of herbal mixture that immediately calms and soothes the whole person. There are 2 taps for each bath whereby you can add more cool or hot water into the tub to adjust its temperature. After about 20-30min of soaking, we were completely relax. My tightened shoulder muscles as a city dweller loosened up and I was ready to go to bed! So the walk back to the Heavenly Homestay was a long one since my legs were all soft after this. You bet we slept really well that night!
The main course is served today – a 6hr hike of about 12km that brings us through a few mountains & valleys, paddy fields and rivers. The other guests we met on the first day upon arrival at the Heavenly Homestay were sore from this hike but was definitely worth it. I was psyching my whole body up for this the night before. At 9am, the walk started off rather easy on the pavement leading to village centre. Once we turned into the forrest, it was when the fun began. My eyes were mostly fixated on my feet to make sure I was stepping on solid ground. Our guide, May San, found us a bamboo walking stick each and this definitely made the walk a whole lot easier. Some of the ravines we crossed had rather strong currents due to the rain before. We needed to jam our feet to the ground firmly lest the currents washed us off. Squishy mud caused by the rain was a challenge as they can be slippery. The buffaloes left deep soft mud holes on the pathway which can come up to our shin added to the adventure of the hike. We took the trouble to make sure we stepped on stones or rocks to avoid the deep mud. The group at the homestay who went a day before us stepped right into and through them! =O
By 11.30am, we were ready for lunch! Heavenly Homestay made us fried rice, fried noodles, vegetables and eggs for the hike and our guide May carried them throughout the journey. We chose to have our picnic lunch on a rock in a river.
I didn’t take a whole lot of photos during this hike as I was concentrating on where my feet went. Our guide May San only need 2hrs to track through this 6-hour hike route if she is on her own. We saw her skipping and running ahead to check out the terrain like a doe. I love watching her skip and run effortlessly while every step was a calculated move for me. She even made us a heart using fern leaf she plucked along the way while leading us through the treacherous terrain (from our perspective). I can’t help but relate this to how some city folks text message while walking, fully aware of their surrondings.
We finished the hike in slightly more than 5hrs. It started pouring heavily at the tail end where it was proper pathway. Thankful that God knew we probably could not manage rain in this hike and held it back until we were on proper tracks.
The homestay people were surprised by how early we woke up as many of the foreigners ended up sleeping in late as they would be aching from the hike. I wasn’t too sore so I think the physical challenge was not as much as the mental stress of avoiding getting into the shin-high mud! Oh, yes for me it was also the fear of heights. I am terribly afraid of heights that my legs get jelly. Some parts of the 6-hr hike I had to take time to brace myself to take just one step due to the steep height (for many it is not steep at all) ahead of me. Thankful that May was there to encourage and help. May was amused by how afraid I was though!
This was a relaxing day whereby we hang out and chill till almost 10am. No more gruelling hikes but easy walks to see the Silver waterfall and Sapa town. The silver waterfall starts from a height of about 100m and the rushing water from above creates a majestic sight of water and silver in the midst of the clouds. Our legs felt the effects of yesterday’s hike when we took the steps up to the bridge to have a closer look. Once again, it was worth it! So refreshing and I stood amaze at the Creator of all nature.
We had lunch at Sapa and the eatery May brought us had the best fried rice and pho we had in this whole trip. It was simple but tasty. After that we took a walk in Sapa market, which came as a surprise that it was a 2-storey French style building rather than along the streets. At the upper floor, the 4 tribes of Sapa mountains sold their handicrafts.
We then took a walk around Sapa town to see the lake and also the Stone Church. This quaint little town has a strong French influence in its architectural design but the occasional cloud mist that floats through makes this whole walk feels like a dream.
After which we said goodbye to Sapa and our lovely guide May, and headed off to Lao Cai to catch our train back to Hanoi.