The Northern Highlands

To finish off our time in Vietnam, we decided to do a bit of trekking. For that we headed up to the highlands, near the Chinese border, to the town of Sapa. The mountains around the town of Sapa are home to one Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, the Hmong Tribes.

We took a night bus from Hanoi, which I will discuss in a later post. It was pouring down rain when we arrived at about 6:30 am. We had breakfast at a local café then took a cab the two KMs to the hotel where we would meet our guide. Once arrived, we had a few hours to hang out, so we packed our travel packs, brought out the books, and settled in to wait. The rain continued unabated.

Our guide arrived right on time. Gom, our guide, was a rather happy and energetic little Hmong lady of twenty two. She introduced herself and we decided on a general framework for our three day, two night journey. With much of the details taken care of, we headed out into the rain. Even with our ponchos, the rain was going to be two much, so we bought a pair of umbrellas on our way through town. They turned out to be a wonderful help.

We spent the next three hours walking through the rain, working our way down the mountain to one of the many villages that dot the hillsides and valley. At first, I especially was quite put off by the rain, but as we made our way off the main road and onto the terraced rice patties, I couldn’t help but be taken by the beauty of it all. The steep sided mountains were shrouded in clouds reducing visibility to little beyond the picturesque hillside we were making our way down. It was not the trudge I thought it would be.

The rain made the clay mud rather slippery, but despite the added difficulty the hike was beautiful. We worked our way down the steep muddy trail, winding our way through terraced rice patties. The trail often wandered its way along the skinny but stable walls that separate the flooded patties. The balance act required to navigate this thin trail made for quite an adventure. The exposed and wet clay was quite slick, and we spent quite a bit of time sliding around. I even ended up on my but once, despite my best effort, and managed to cover the back of my shorts in mud.

We passed numerous small farmhouses, where the dogs would lazily lift their heads to watch us pass. Ducks and geese swam and played in the flooded paddies, honking their pleasure as we passed. Buffalo grazed in the knee deep water, watching us placidly as we descended towards the valley floor. Chickens and roosters strutted by as the scratched for food, their chicks chirping merrily behind them. Pigs would be frequent sights as well over the next few days.

After slipping and sliding our way down the mountain, we finally reached the first village where we would stop for lunch. We made a quick visit to Gom’s sister in law’s house where Gom fed her seven month old baby, before walking another five to ten minutes through town to the restaurant. Here set our packs down, washed our mud covered hands, and prepared ourselves to fend off the torrent of locals who would come by to try and sell us their wares. We bought a purse for Courtney, which we had planned to do, and were brow beat into buying a change purse and a few woven bracelets. If we thought they would leave us alone after we bought stuff, we were sorely mistaken. It took us a solid ten minutes of saying no repeatedly, followed by just down right ignoring them before they finally left us alone. We would have a few more locals try to sell us stuff through out our journey, but this was by far the most numerous and most aggressive of our encounters thankfully.

The food was fantastic, as were all the meals we would be served on our trek, and we enjoyed a large cup of ginger tea while we ate. The rain had mostly subsided by the time we were finished, and the afternoon walk would be a much drier affair. After lunch we spent a few more hours slipping our way up and down the mountains, enjoying the new landscape.

We spent the evening at a lovely little home stay in one of the many villages. We were the first group to the home stay, and we took advantage of it by taking off our wet clothes and enjoying a warm shower. Soon we were joined by six other trekkers hailing from Australia, Belgium, and Holland. We spent a wonderful evening chatting around the table and enjoying a few beers and watching our guides do some of the weaving their people are so well known for.

Our host were a wonderful couple. They did not speak much English, but they sure made us a feast. The food was amazing. After dinner they brought out a bottle of “happy water,” home brewed rice wine in a plastic water bottle, and we all shared a shot with the family as we thanked them profusely for their hospitality. As the evening went on we all shared a few more shots, toasting in at least three different languages, English not included. I was a bit of an eye opener that I was actually able to count to three and say cheers in so many different languages. I slept like a rock that night.

The next day dawned bright and sunny. Breakfast was pancakes with banana, honey and sugar. The hike was much the same, scenery wise, as the day before. The major difference was we could actually see most of the valley as we worked our way further down. The highlights of the second day were a lovely little waterfall we visited before lunch, and another rib sticking lunch at our guides cousins house. We stayed the night a different cousins house, and again were wined and dinned in spectacular fashion. I slept well again, until about 4am when all the local roosters made themselves heard. It bothered Courtney and the others not at all, but I got little sleep after that.

The third day began just as the previous day had. We walked a few hours further down the hill to the final town we would visit. Here our guide took us to a lovely little swimming hole close to a small water fall. The water was amazingly clear and quite brisk, but after two and a half days of sweaty hiking, it felt glorious. Lunch was once again huge and delicious. To cap off a wonderful trek, we were driven the 22km back up the hill to Sapa on the back of a pair of motorbikes. Back at headquarters, we purchased a beautiful decorated, hand made baby sling made by Gom’s sister then said a heartfelt thank you and good bye to our wonderful guide. Amazingly enough we both felt a bit sad to see her go, as we had asked so many questions and spent so much time together over the past few days, we couldn’t help but feel like we were loosing a budding friendship.

The Sapa sisters may be a bit more expensive then many of the other tour companies, but they were well worth the money. They are a local company, run by local Hmong women. All the money spent goes, in one form or another, to the local Hmong s, who being mainly farmers, are not exactly wealth people. The service we, and all the other we talked to received was top notch, and the hike and home stays were a wonderful experience. Since the tour was private, we had exclusive access to our guide, and she spoke English superbly. The company also helped us out with our travel plans to and from Sapa and we more then happy to address any issues we encountered along the way. There is no doubt in my mind that the Sapa Sisters are the people to see in Sapa.

The tour was a wonderful way to experience a unique landscape while also getting to experience some of the local culture. It was an amazing experience, and one that I would recommended to anyone who is visiting Vietnam.

 

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