Sapa is a small town in the mountains of northwest Vietnam that is known for its breathtaking views, mountainside rice terraces, and ethnic diversity. The ethnic minorities (Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay, and others) arrived in Sapa hundreds of years ago, mostly from China. Sapa Town is the main trading post and the center of tourism for the Sapa region but many of the hill tribes live in villages sprinkled throughout the mountainside terraces in the surrounding area.
Zach and I arrived at the Cat Cat View Hotel in Sapa Town after a bumpy but surprisingly restful trip on the Fanxipan night train. After breakfast, the hotel helped us secure a guide for a 14km trek through the mountainside to four different hill tribe villages. Our tour guide Chi (pronounced “G”) was 19 years old, of the Black Hmong ethnic minority, and married with a young son at home. I also believe she was some sort of genius. Chi spoke very good English and was completely self-taught. She would occasionally point to an object during our trek and ask the English word for it. Later, I would hear her repeating the word under her breath, quietly committing it to memory.
The trek was challenging not so much because of the terrain but because the trail was slippery from the mist that enveloped the valley and surrounding mountainside. Every now and then I would take a break from staring at the ground 1-2 feet in front of me (I’m not as swift-footed as my mountain man brother) to take in the view. It was pretty impressive. There was a stream that ran through the valley, occasionally turning into a waterfall when confronted with a cliff. Houses sprang up in clusters, their locations first revealed by running children and water buffalo. The rice terraces were a beautiful bright green that was unexpected in the otherwise misty gray landscape.
The trek was all the more interesting because of the exchange my brother and I had with Chi. She was surprised to hear that my dog ends up on the couch at night instead of on the dinner plate. I was surprised to hear that many of the girls in her village marry at 14 years old. She was surprised that Michael’s parents didn’t have to pay my parents to allow me to join their family. I was surprised that all of her wages as a tour guide go to her husband’s parents. Chi’s people mainly make a living working in the rice fields. Since she was now a part of her husband’s family and opted to work as a tour guide, she had to give them her money so they could hire someone to replace her in the fields. Chi especially liked Zach and took no more than 15 minutes to label him a “cheeky boy”. Encouraged by her constant giggles, Zach did his best to own this new nickname for the remainder of the 6-hour trek.
In the past decade the area has become a popular tourist destination for Vietnamese and international tourists alike. The enterprising hill tribes have taken full advantage of the outside interest in their handmade clothing and handicrafts. Throughout the hike we had one to two of these very enterprising Black Hmong women following us at all times. At first it appeared the two women were just headed in the same direction as us, but when we stopped to take a photo and they stopped as well we knew otherwise. The two women didn’t approach us or speak to us until halfway through the trek when we arrived at a small café for lunch. At this point they came to our table and spread their goods in front of us for us to choose from. It’s hard to say “No” to someone who has just invested three hours of their time following you through the mountains. I purchased something from one of the women thinking that they’d leave but the other woman was offended that I didn’t pick something from her. Only after I bought something from both of them did they pack up their wares and leave.
Shortly after resuming our trek we had a new seller following us. She was slightly more interactive than the first two, smiling when Zach teased Chi and holding my arm at times to keep me from falling down the muddy hills. As we neared the end of our trek she brought out her handmade bags and I didn’t hesitate to buy one in thanks for her saving me from countless bruises and scrapes.
We weren’t the only group who had an entourage during our trek. Every single tourist group we saw had 1-2 women trailing close behind. Sellers who didn’t pick out tourists to trek with lined the streets of Sapa Town waiting outside hotels for potential customers.
Zach had been keen on renting a moto since he arrived in Asia but I wasn’t convinced it was a good idea, especially considering the lack of traffic law and order we’d witnessed up to this point in the trip. The options for our second day in Sapa were (1) more trekking, (2) mountain biking, or (3) moto-ing around the countryside. That morning I woke up and immediately felt the effects of a 14km hike up and down the mountainside. The moto was starting to sound like a good idea.
After a 5-minute lesson on how to use the scooter (‘This is the horn. VERY IMPORTANT’) we were off! We explored another small village near Sapa Town and then drove to Tram Ton Pass, the highest mountain pass in Vietnam at 1,900 meters. It separates the wet, cool climate zone of Sapa with the warm, sunny climate zone of Lai Chau. The views at the top of the pass were stunning and the weather was spectacular. I wore a light jacket for the first time in months and Zach and I shared croissants and drinks that we had brought from town while looking over the valley below.
Sadly, our time in Sapa was coming to an end. We returned the moto, packed our bags, and hopped on the bus that would take us back to the train station in Lo Cai. One bottle of wine, a best of five crazy eights tournament, and many laughs later, we were asleep on Fanxipan on our way back to Hanoi.