Sometimes researching guidebooks just means being a tourist. Sapa emerged as a must-stop itinerary-changer, with high mountains, traditional H’mong and Red Giay villages and cool temperatures in the far north of Vietnam. Fancy hotels are there now, and fancy tourists, even though it takes an overnight train to get to nearby Lao Cai on the China border (no airport!).
After a few days of talking to tour agency after tour agency about the wildly overlapping mountain treks in the area, and dodging Black H’mong grandmothers holding babies and whispering ‘you want marijuana? opium?’ eerily on the streets, I just went with a cheap one and didn’t expect to get much more out of it than what you see. (And the area is very beautiful.) My guide — not from the area — was friendly, but made no attempts to converse with farmers in terrace ricefields working in the rain with 30-cent ponchos on, or the H’mong women with silver doughnut earrings and rubber rain boots helping us by hand down steep muddy slopes. When I asked why Tai women wore headscarves he answered ‘because of tradition.’ I was thankful for my rain pants at least, but by the time we reached the village of Ban Ho, some 25km from Sapa (half done by jeep), the mud and rain were forgotten in a Tai village of longhouses and waterfalls. The hot springs across the river was flooded out because of the rain, but locals seemed relatively fazed still by foreign visitors (despite the daily inflow of a dozen or so). I got invited into one house for a quick dose of rice wine, brewing in a large cauldron in an open, concrete-floor kitchen.
Most of the trip was talking with my trekmates — an Irish woman on leave from working with the elderly, a Danish 21-year-old in very good shape (and a Spanish football jersey), and Mr Alex, an 18-year-old Brit who drank tap water in Laos (got sick), likes musicals (‘not Grease, it’s well crap’), and dreams of eating a New York breakfast (‘like in Pulp Fiction: pancakes’).
If you go to Sapa, and want to trek, it’s worth going on one with a homestay, even if the family barely mixes with you, as ours didn’t (other than a drunken encounter after rounds of rice wine). It’s worth overnighting in Ban Ho, not the nearer Ta Van, which is less atmospheric. Picking a tour: I’d recommend being sure you get a guide who was raised in the area. Some agencies — most — will dodge this question. If you pay more for Handspan or Topas tours, available locally, you’re sure to get one (but a two-day trek is about $70 per person as opposed to $30). One small-town agency, called Sapa Adventure, and operating out of Duc Minh Tours, was set up by a local guide. They charge $35 and the guides speak local languages. It’s worth doing that.
Don’t think you have to book a trip before you go. Mr Alex went on a two-day climb of Mt Fansipan — Indochina’s tallest — which cost less than $30. A Dutch guy on the tour pre-booked the same trip and paid $140.
Back in Hanoi, more to come…