The word winding was invented for the roads that surround Sapa. This is a thought that comes to me as I make my way along those roads, in the pouring rain, the asphalt broken up in most places, potholes filled with muddy water that splash as our tiring motorbike makes it way up and down slopes, carrying my drenched self together with all of my possessions. Looking over the edge, I catch the last glimpses of the dark green terraced rice fields through the thick fog that’s covering the valley. Then my glasses are just too wet and I just don’t see anything.
I’m on my way back to Sapa after two days in the village of Ta Van, and while this apocalyptic journey isn’t an accurate representation of the county or the time I spent there, it really is a good illustration of the differences between Sapa and the rest of Vietnam. Sapa, the largest town in the Lao Cai province, is situated in north western Vietnam, where the country meets with China. It’s also the highest part of Vietnam; its peak, Mount Fansipan, is the country’s tallest mountain. This high altitude means Sapa and the neighbouring villages have a very particular landscape and weather. High altitude means cooler, wetter weather, and so the region is covered in terraced rice fields that are the picture-perfect image of north Vietnam that most know and seek Sapa for.
Sapa wasn’t on my hit list, actually. But every traveller I met on the road had endless praise about Sapa, its inhabitants and the time they’d spent there, so I set three days aside to make the trip. After an ecstatic 14-hour bus journey from Hue (jokez), I arrived bright and early in Hanoi at 6:30am to get on the 7am bus to Sapa. Around five hours later, I made it to Sapa town, which I left quickly – it was busy, filled with buses and tourists, while I wanted quiet and countryside. I walked along the lake to get to the bus station where I hired a motorbike taxi to take me to Ta Van Village.
Lao Cai province – that’s usually what people refer to when they talk about Sapa – is a popular destination because of its cultural diversity. The mountains are home to people of nine different ethnic minorities, all with their different traditions, garments, and mostly, different languages. Nearly three-quarters of the population are Black H’mong and Dao people, and almost all are from a farming background. Tourism has changed things quite a lot, though, as I realised while walking with Mimi and her daughters around Ta Van.
Here’s how it goes when you take a walk in one of the ethnic villages near Sapa: you’ll go about one minute until you run into a group of women waiting for travellers to sell their goods to. You’ll say you want none. They’ll ask again. You’ll say no thank you and move on. And inevitably, one or two will start following you asking if you’re off trekking. To be fair, I was happy for Mimi’s company. I walked with her after a day spent inside my homestay and chatting to her helped my cabin fever.
Mimi is 34 and has three children, two girls and a boy. Her husband is a farmer; they live high up in the mountain, about an hour’s walk from Ta Van, where they cultivate rice. She helps him. She plants the rice and helps with picking, but also cooks, and sews to make clothes for the family and goods to sell. As she explains how long it takes to make a traditional jacket – an intricate combination of appliqué pieces with panels of hemp fabric – I notice the tip of her fingers is blue from the indigo dye. Everyone in the family gets a whole new outfit at New Year. She says it’s one of the busiest times.
On top of all that, Mimi works in the villages guiding travellers. Her daughters sometimes come along, also selling bracelets and pouches. It’s a strange thing to see girls this young outside of school; and there are actually signs at the entrance of the village to remind travellers of the many ways in which we should discourage this form of behaviour: don’t buy from street sellers, especially kids, and don’t give them candy.
Mimi and I spoke a lot about relationships. She told me about how people used to marry very young. Her own mother is only 50, having had her aged 16. The marrying age is a little older now; her daughter Zai, who is 15, tells me that she is not planning on getting married anytime soon. She wants to get a job. Mimi explains how weddings work; how the parents plan out the wedding, how the man has to pay a dowry that rarely goes to the girl, how the girl will go live with her husband’s parents; how there aren’t enough women across the border in China, so many girls marry into China. Their parents complain they never see their daughters.
She says things are easier for men. That’s where our lives – very, very distant lines, join back. She says it’s easier for men to find women to marry. She asks me if I’ve tried ‘happy water’ – I have, the previous night, and the loally-made rice wine by far the worst booze I’ve ever had. ‘I don’t like when my husband drinks it, then he does nothing,’ she says.
Oh, the parallels.
I ask if she wishes that things were different. She shrugs. ‘It’s the way my culture works.’
Sadly, I don’t have a photo of Mimi. I was planning on taking one when going on a walk with her the next day, but it’s her daughter Zai who meets me instead. She is quieter than her mother, but her English is incredible, especially for someone who’s never been to school, as she explains to me. ‘My dad did not want me to go, I don’t know why, but I said I’m not going to stay home and just help you.’ So she went down to the village and started working full time in a bar at 14. Now she does help with watching the buffaloes, and also treks.
Her strength is surprising. She does all of our walk on a ridiculously muddy mountain in flip flops, carrying a plastic bag filled with her wares, holding an umbrella when it starts raining, and my hand so I don’t fall over. (I still do, twice. She says if I lived here I’d be able to do it easily. She does tell me that I walk better that some others. I say that’s because I’m not afraid of falling.)
You can just about guess the mud that covers all of my bum
She’s still a kid though. Just a kid.
As I sat down to think back on my time in Sapa, one thing struck me: I saw women from the various tribes everywhere in traditional clothing, walking, guiding, buying food – but no men. The men I saw, many doing building work for the countless homestays being built, were all wearing jeans and T-shirts. Were the dads and husbands to women like Mimi and Zai back at the farm, in the mountain? Or sleeping off happy water? Either way, for a society that, no doubt, many in the West would still consider primitive, in the hills of Sapa, the women work. And they work hard. Everywhere in Vietnam, actually, they do. It’s women who wave at you to come into their shops. Women who sit by pots, stirring soups and cutting pieces of tofu on sidewalks. Women who carry heavy baskets on both sides of a wooden plank, walking around cities to sell fruits and vegetables. Women, also, whom I saw digging the ground in Sapa, carrying bricks in Nha Trang, collecting garbage in Hanoi. To the risk of being stereotypical (I think I’m already too far gone, anyway), the people I saw on sidewalk stools in Hanoi drinking lemon tea and dragging on cigarettes were only men.
But back to Sapa. There is no fee discussed when trekking with local women; but everyone knows the implied agreement: we’ll buy some of their products at the end, accepting a ridiculous overcharge. So I find myself buying an appliqué bracelet and pouch from Zai at the end of your walk; right away attracting other sellers. ‘You buy one thing from her then one thing from me,’ says an old woman. I smile but say no. Word of advice: never tell ‘maybe later’ to a street seller in Sapa. The women and kids will follow you based on that promise, sometimes wait for you outside shops and restaurants. Out-patienting them is hard.
Before I leave later that afternoon, Tung, whose homestay I’m staying at, requests I sing at least a song. I pick Wild World, which has been stuck in my head since a dare in Dalat. Then he picks for me: Imagine Dragons’ Radioactive, first, then Lean on Me. And as we swirl around the mountain in the rain, headed back to the station, I keep singing. And leaning on. Falling off a motorbike is one form of falling I’m afraid of.
Going to Sapa?
- Bus v train: The train journey to Sapa is a popular one. I think many tourists are seduced by the idea of a night in a train cabin, à la Darjeeling Limited. However, the train journey is eight-hour long and costs $30 to $40 (and isn’t the most comfortable in the world, from what I hear), and the train only drops you in Lao Cai – you then have to take a 45-minute bus to Sapa. Meanwhile the bus journey is only five and a half hours, costs around $15, and drops you in Sapa. The Sapa Express Bus is actually a good compromise, at $17: it’s the most comfortable bus I’ve ever been on, with great staff, and even water and snacks. I’d recommend taking the bus in the daytime (departures at 6:30am or 7am) to make the most of the views going into Sapa.
- There are many different villages to stay in. If your plan is mostly to trek, start from Sapa and trek to a first village, select a homestay at random, then train to a second the village the next day, etc. If you want a base to trek, I’d recommend booking ahead so you easily know where to get to when you arrive in Sapa. I stayed in Ta Van, which is very popular for its homestays (and therefore, full of westerners), and has a nice short walking route going around the valley. I also hear great things about the village of Cat Ca. Access to the villages is taxed, so take that into account: I had to pay 75,000 dong to get to Ta Van, for example.
- Prefer a homestay over a hotel. Whether you pick a veritably authentic homestay, or a rather more touristic hostel-style place, Sapa and the province of Lao Cai are known for their welcoming locals and homestays. I think it’d be a shame to make the trip up there and miss on that experience.
- Trekking tips:
- Good shoes are a must. Don’t tell yourself you can do it like a local and go hiking in flip flops. You can’t. Waterproof shoes are preferable as you will most certainly encounter a spring or a waterfall.
- Take a good waterproof. Showers happen unpredictably.
- Don’t wear anything you care about. If it starts raining, it’s likely you’ll end up on the ground, covered in mud.
- Go with a guide. Many of the local tribe women make a living out of selling their goods to the people they take on treks. Be prepared to buy something from your guide at the end and to be overcharged for what it is; but you’re basically paying a guide fee and getting a physical memory of your stay.