Our seven hour sleeper bus from Ninh Binh to Sapa, about 400km to the northwest near the Chinese border, was uneventful. We drove through Hanoi on an elevated expressway and I missed a great photo of rush hour traffic below. There were at least four full lanes packed with wheel-to-wheel, footpeg-to-footpeg scooters. An impressive sight. Eventually we transferred to a smaller bus that took us up a switchback highway to a dusty, potholed Sapa bus station.
Sapa is the main town in an area of 40,000 people with a strong tourist industry catering to backpackers and trekkers who roam its lovely hills and valleys. The area is populated by five ethnic minorities that share cultural traits and origins with their brethren across the border in China and Laos. Vietnamese and Chinese entrepreneurs are moving in and are seen, with some resentment, as outsiders. We were there in November, the dry season; the air was cool, the sun was bright, and the fields were tawny.
Despite our 7am start, by the time we got settled and fed there wasn’t much time left to explore the nearby h’Mong Cat Cat village. It’s down a steep 3km hill and deserves a full day. We paid for a scooter for the trip back up. Be aware. They’re waiting for tired tourists at the bottom of the hill and negotiation is essential.
We did the modest one day trek to Tai Phin village — enough for us! — but younger and fitter travellers go on longer expeditions staying at rustic (i.e. no plumbing) village homestays. All treks must be arranged through approved operators as it is illegal to be in rural areas without the appropriate ticket. We booked our US$32 trek through Sapa O’Chau which bills itself as a “social enterprise” meaning, among other things, that they provide boarding and education for young trainees and a good wage for adult employees. We stayed in their small hotel in Sapa, ate at their café and enthusiastically recommend them.
Our guide, a young Red Dao woman, met us at the hotel and led us out toward Tai Phin. Her English was perfect and she was an enthusiastic font of knowledge regarding her people and the surrounding area. She had married that week and spent the previous year embroidering her wedding clothes, packing them with important symbols. She was wearing her silver wedding bracelets and was understandably excited to show them off.
At one house we met a sad-looking 12-year-old girl and her three children. Yes, that is correct. A 12-year-old with three children. It’s a traditional arrangement that we understand is becoming less common. For example, our guide was 21 years old and had been the oldest unmarried girl in her village. Her university-bound younger sister now has that honour. Times are a-changing.
Sapa’s landscape is stunning and the trail varied from paved roads to rocky, muddy hills and flooded crossings. The flooding was easily dealt with — a young man on a scooter drove people across one at a time. Very nice! Along the way we encountered pregnant sows trailed by their much smaller and attentive mates, lots of chickens, a tofu factory and, to our dismay, a trailside dog butcher. He laughed (barked, actually) at our discomfort and, as we passed, a cube van full of fresh livestock pulled up. Not nice. We moved along. The included photo is not for the squeamish.
We were struck by the number of happy, free-range children roaming everywhere and by the intensity of the agriculture. Life seems hard for these strong, proud, hardworking people and, while the cold winters and intense rainy season won’t go away, infrastructure is improving, education is having an impact, and there is a sense things are getting better.
Lunch was at a Sapa O’Chau trekker hostel with great views over terraced fields. They had great food, a giant pot of indigo dye and a communal sleeping area for multi-day trekkers.
From there we headed for the village of Tai Phin and were happy to get the promised ride back to our hotel. Not the most onerous trek in the world but enough for us. We only spent two nights in Sapa, just long enough for our one day trek but, in retrospect, should have stayed longer. Cat Cat village deserves a full day and there are other things to do including the Fansipan cable car. Live and learn. Next day we were up early to catch a sleeper bus back to Hanoi.