We arrived in Sapa at 7:30am, after an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and an
hour or so long bus to
Sapa. Kangaroo Café said that the hotel would have the
'best views in town' and we found out why... there were more than 100 steep steps
to get up to our rooms from the reception! Every time we would get up to our room
we would swear I wouldn't go back down again for the rest of the day. The view
would have been probably pretty spectacular, but it was mostly foggy while we were
Sapa village guide, Bee, met us up downstairs a few minutes later. We really
liked her traditional tribal attire - elaborate embroidery in dark indigo fabric, almost like denim. Bee was like a tiny Energizer bunny, and it was amazing how
loud she could yell for someone that tiny. What shocked us is that she's only 19
years old and has already been a guide for 4 years! She said she's still unmarried, which is uncommon as most H'mong villagers her age have already been
married for a few years (around 14-15) and have children already! Crazy! We
thought about asking what the life expectancy of the villagers were since they
marry so young, but thought that might be a little rude... still curious though.
Our tour included trekking between several villages - Ta Van, Giang Ta Chai & Ban
Ho. We were surrounded by older women and young girls at the first village asking
us repeatedly "what's your name?", "where you from?", "how old are you?". They
seemed very friendly, kept us company along the trail, and even helped me wade my
way through some of the muddy and slippery rice paddies. One woman and one girl
latched on to me to talk and help me for an hour or so. We were wondering we would
probably just need to tip them later for their help... but when we arrived at the
end of their village, they again swarmed around us trying to sell us their stuff,
saying repeatedly "I help you, you help me, now buy from me!". This turn of events
was a bit shocking, and since we didn't have enough Dong to buy anything anyway, we
just left them a small tip and took off.
We stopped for lunch, consisting of cucumber, tomato, boiled egg & cheese
sandwiches. Only after asking they offered us an 'authentic' bowl of noodles... which turned out to be instant ramen noodles, just like home! One of the girls in our tour, Renee, even found an empty plastic seasoning packet in her bowl of noodles!
Hmmmm. Our homestay was like a guest house in the countryside - the
sleeping area looked like it could fit more than 30 people. We had again 'authentic' Vietnamese food for appetizers - French fries! They cooked it in a wok over an open fire... authentic or not, it was one of the best fries we've had! The next day we hiked up back up from Ban Ho to the main road. It was only an hour
uphill (vs the 4-5 hours of trekking we did the day before) but I was totally wiped
out... it reminded me of how out of shape I was! I also found myself very unsteady
walking down steep hills of loose dirt and rubble in my street sneakers... thinking
initially I should've brought my hiking boots with better tread. But Bee was
skipping up and down the hills with only flimsy ballet flats and sometimes
Despite the 'guilt-sell' tactics of some villagers and the seemingly more
commercial nature of the guesthouse, we had a great time. Guess there always will
be a struggle to find the balance between delivering an authentic traditional
experience and building/sustaining a tourist business. It was already pretty late and dense, cold fog discouraged us from walking too far
for dinner. We headed across the street to a restaurant called "Pink Floyd".
They had a fire outside and a few kids drinking beer. It was cold and empty
inside. Too lazy to move we had our dinner there while they played Dark Side of
the Moon and other Pink Floyd songs. After dinner the owner stopped by and we
asked him how he came up with the name for his restaurant. He talked about some
friend in London and Mister Pink Floyd (sure, whatever). But honestly we
understood only 10% of what he said. Anyway, happy about our interest he invited
us for a drink and brought two glasses with 'special sake'. I did not want to
insult him and downed the cheap tasting liquor rather quickly. A bit concerned
about my eye sight I looked behind the bar where he got the liquor from and found a
big glass jar labeled 'sake'. Inside a milky looking liquid I saw maybe a dozen
snakes including a huge cobra in the middle. I felt sick. Shari just laughed at me.
For our last day in Sapa, we decided to rent a small scooter for about $6/day.
Oops, guess they didn't tell us that the gas tank was empty when we picked it up,
and it cost us another $3-4 to fill it up. Anyway, first we stopped at our
favorite restaurant in Sapa, Baguette & Chocolat. It has incredible desserts (we
tried 4 different ones) and pretty good drinks too. Another reason why we were so
impressed with it is run by the Hoa Sua School for disadvantaged youths, and has
trained almost 3000 students with professional culinary/hospitality training.
Frank was impressed that Baguette & Chocolat was also German government certified
(TUV) for quality management (ISO 9001). After a delicious breakfast we headed
about 12 km out of town towards the Silver Falls and a mountain pass 3 km later
hidden in the fog. Riding the scooter was really cool... literally, and the
chilly fog got so thick sometimes we could see only a few feet in front of us.
We also headed back down to the villages we saw on the first day. It was a lot
more fun (and easier on the quads for sure) on the scooter! When we returned the
scooters and were actually getting in the bus to leave Sapa, we got ripped-off for
the last time in Sapa, they asked for another $2 to rent the helmets that they told
us originally was included in the deal! Although we were a little annoyed by the
principle of the bad deal, it still only cost us $12 max for the scooters and we
had a great time overall.