Trekking the rice fields of Sapa

A night train took us 350 km north of Vietnam’s capitol Hanoi closer to Chinese border. Our destination was Sapa Valley. After eight hours the train stopped in Lao Cai railway station and from there a van drove us to the little town Sapa. It was established as a hill station by the French in 1922 and is today the tourism center of the northwest Vietnam. Located at 1500 meters above sea level in Vietnam’s remote northwest mountains, Sapa is famous for both, rugged scenery and its rich cultural diversity. Sapa valley is host to many hill tribes. Among 54 ethnic groups found along Vietnam, there are eight different ethnic groups in Sapa valley. Town Sapa is oriented to make the most of the spectacular views emerging on clear days, overlooking a valley with mountains above on all sides. With endless rice terraces, bamboo forests, plantations of indigo (to dye handmade fabrics), small villages of minorities, Sapa is hidden among the ever green hills, which are here and there intersected by rocky slopes and clear water. Views of this epic scenery are worth the long drive there. In my opinion Sapa valley is the most magnificent part of Vietnam.

But we didn’t travel so far north to hang out in the town. Sapa is northern Vietnam’s premier trekking base from where hikers launch themselves into a surrounding countryside of cascading rice terraces and tiny hill-tribe villages that seems a world apart. Once we have stepped out into the lush fields we understood the valley’s real charm. Bunch of old tribe women dressed in traditional colorful fabric picked us up from the hotel in Sapa where we ate breakfast to get strong and ready for a day-long hike. Behind us there were yet three old ladies caring two baskets filled with earrings, bags and other merchandise. Some of them are even carrying small babies. They basically showed us their backyard. Each time I’ve stooped to take a photograph of this amazing valley, they all stopped, waited and we continued together. And how many photographs of this dramatic scenery I’ve took.

First official stop was at a small school. All the students came out to see us and tried to sell us colorful bracelets. It’s hard to resist those big black “puppy eyes”, so we ended up buying souvenirs. I’ve also brought cookies and candies with us. When they saw the sweets they quickly grabbed them. Even though the scenery is impressive, is the people that make Sapa unforgettable. Specially the children of Sapa will stay in your hearts. Barefoot, messy, with matted hair they will follow your every step, most of them carrying small baskets with homemade earrings, bracelets, blankets and scarves. In the afternoons after school, girls join their mothers in the trekking around Sapa all the way to the main town while selling homemade products. Their English is good, they are friendly, talkative, unobtrusive. But you get uncomfortable when you buy something from one of them and others offended say: “Why not from me? Buy this also from me.” You feel sorry, their tactic works and because the prices of their products are only couple of dollars, you try to buy something small from many of them. Children visit school, which is obligatory with three levels. In the afternoons, like I’ve mentioned, girls join their mothers, while boys are in charge of water buffaloes.

The path took us up and down the muddy hills due to heavy rain previous days. But we were lucky to have sun and around 30 degrees Celsius while there. We were exploring rice terraces in October. The best time to visit Sapa is from March to May and from September to November. At these times, the weather is relatively stable with sunny days and cool nights. The first period is the fall time. At this time of year, the weather is very comfortable for tourism: dry, clear, with much sunshine. The view of Sapa’s terraces is at its best between September and October. The cool and dry weather with stable temperature makes it perfect time for trekking and photos. In the summer, although the weather is quite warm, it is not as hot as other regions in Vietnam. If you spend time there in the period between April and May, you will have the chance to see the wonderful scenes of many colorful flowers and green fields there. In the winter, from December to February, the weather in Sapa becomes very cold, especially at night. However, in return, visitors will have the opportunity to watch the sunrise over the valley in the morning. In recent years, there was also snow in Sapa. If you have chance to travel to this picturesque town on this occasion, you will definitely see quite a romantic scene. Sapa is popular and crowded all year round.

Some trekkers decided to sleep in a hotel, but we choose more genuine and adventurous option. We slept at a local family’s home. Lots of hikers would like to experience a true hill-tribe life, so locals had adopted and are offering a view into their lives. Our host was a younger Vietnamese woman who told us more about their culture and their way of living. They have a completely different understanding of love. Couples meet at fairs and if a man likes a woman he hits her on her behind. And that’s how a new love is born. In the evening she offered us a “happy water”, a rice liquor, that got its name by the effect it has on people after drinking it. We slept on a comfortable bed, covered with handmade colorful blanket under the mosquito net. I tried my hardest to close my eyes, since I heard a cockroach under my bed. I’ve tried to ignore those uninvited “friends” under the bed and somehow still gotten enough rest. We woke up to a wonderful morning, for breakfast we ate delicious pancakes with honey, popular with locals and also with tourists. We continued our way up and down the hills. Our energetic and confidant guide led us pass water buffaloes, Vietnamese pigs and many streams. Also many adorable children crossed our path.

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