Visit Sapa – How we got there
Before our trip to Halong Bay, we’d visited Hanoi train station to book our tickets for the eight hour journey to Sapa. After waiting patiently in the booking office, clutching our queue ticket number, I think queuing is a quintessentially British reserve, we eventually got to the booking window. We quickly learned that our plans for a comfortable sleeper train to Sapa, were going to be a little more tricky than we’d imagined.
It was a public holiday weekend (Liberation/Reunification day on 30th April and International Labour Day on the 1st May) and it seemed like all of Vietnam was on the move along with us.
We managed to obtain the last remaining air-conditioned seats for the journey to Sapa from Vietnam Railways. Although there was nothing available for the return leg of this journey, other than hard seats without air conditioning (and when they say hard they mean hard - think park bench). We therefore had to throw ourselves at the mercy of a ticket agency, who managed to get us some sleeper beds on one of the many private companies plying this route.
We boarded the train at Hanoi ‘B’ station ready for the 8pm departure, note all trains north to Lao Cai and Sapa leave from here, not the main station ‘A’. Make sure you get the right station. We walked passed the sleeper cars and watched enviously as the tourists boarded the train and settled into to their horizontal berths.
Visit Sapa - A Sickly Journey
As we expected, the carriage slowly started to fill up with Vietnamese holiday passengers. We were on seats facing each other, the only two sets of seats configured like this in the carriage. Before departure the seats next to us remained empty; we prayed it would stay this way.
Just as the train departed a mother and her daughter (about 8/9 years old) came and sat opposite. That disappointment would have been enough, but within seconds of taking her seat the child projectile vomited all over the floor in between us. Giving my flip flopped feet and legs, and our hand luggage a nice light spraying of fresh vomit, lovely.
What took the biscuit though was that the mother did absolutely nothing to clean it up. John donned plastic bags over his hands and broke out the wet wipes, while I went to the bathroom to wash my legs and feet. Not a good start. These things happen and we tried to play it down, but people started coming to John’s rescue offering him newspapers for the floor much to the mother’s embarrassment. John tried to diffuse the situation by offering the sick kid some wipes and chewing gum.
A few minutes later, we managed to play some musical chairs with some of the locals and ended up swapping two seats further up the train. Sleep came and went in fits for the rest of the journey.
We arrived on time, at about half past four in the morning, ready to search for a minibus to take us the final forty minutes up into the mountains to Sapa. You will be inundated with offers and ridiculous prices as you depart the station, but walk direct to the cluster of buses. Here, direct from the driver the journey should cost no more than 50,000 dong (certainly not the 200,000VND some opened the negotiations at the station exit).
It was too early to go to the hotel when we arrived in Sapa, at around 5.30am, so we whiled some time away waiting for our booked hotel to open its doors. We watched the village traders set up their wares around the main square while we sipped our first couple of Vietnamese coffees of the day.
Visit Sapa - Sorry We’re Fully Booked
We had booked our accommodation in advance of our arrival, with LateRooms, as there was no availability with our favourite bookings sites. This should have forewarned us. The cheery receptionist informed us that they had not received our booking and sadly they were full and that was that.
We called LateRooms, who were very helpful and contacted the manager who then promised to come and meet us in half an hour to sort the problem out. After much discussion, her solution was for us to go on a trekking trip for two days with a homestay in one of the local village houses. Not our preferred option, but a quick check on the web proved that there were no rooms available anywhere in Sapa unless you wanted to pay well over the odds or spend the day wandering the local hotels to see if they had a room.
We repacked our day packs with essentials, left our main backpacks at the hotel, had a quick bite to eat (for free) and handed over US$25 each for our two day one night village mountain adventure. The very glamorous owner also nonchalantly told us that she could not guarantee a room the following night, but was sure it would be OK as many Vietnamese people would start to return home after completing their holidays.
We learnt that this had happened to just about every foreign tourist we met on the trek, or on our stay in Sapa over the next two days. This scam was widespread amongst many hotels, using many different leading online accommodation booking agents. The unscrupulous hotel owners leave availability open on some sites to get you into this situation on arrival. We learnt from our Vietnamese tour guide, and also from a Vietnamese guy we met in a restaurant that the average Vietnamese tourists will pay much more for their accommodation than people who used the major on-line booking providers. Basically bookings weren’t being honoured and rooms were available to the highest bidder. This isn’t the rant of a bitter person, it worked out OK for us, but I joke not this scam was on a large scale and many tourists were affected no matter with whom and where they booked accommodation.
A bit of a poor show in my view, and I think that the booking agents need to seriously smack the hands of greedy hotel owners who let visitors to Sapa down over the Vietnamese holidays.
Visit Sapa - Trekking in Sapa
We set off for our homestay, with a smallish group of other visitors to the area. We weaved our way out of Sapa, thankfully in a downhill trajectory, as the temperature at 9am still managed to nudge over 30 degrees.
Your trek is led by a guide who lives in one of the villages, of the H’Mong people, that you will visit during the two days.
They speak fantastic English and can obviously answer any questions about the life of the H’mong that inhabit this Chinese/Laos border area of Asia.
As well as our guide we were accompanied by a surprisingly large number, of other Black H’mong people, who tagged along until lunch when they expect and (if sales are not immediately forthcoming) will demand some purchases from their basket of embroidery and ethnic wares.
I know domestic and international tourist money is a major contributor to the economy here, but at the rest stops it became a little oppressive and uncomfortable. I think we earned a few H’mong curses for holding steady and limiting our purchases.
Its apparent that most of the tourist money pouring into Sapa remains in the hands of the Vietnamese hotel, tour and restaurant owners in the main town (none of whom are H’mong) each taking their cut of the trekking and homestay tours from the local people conducting them.
The scenery on the journey is spectacular though, the rice and crop terraces, the mountains,the people and animals tending them give you some fantastic photographic opportunities, as did the cloudy skies casting shadows against the mountainsides.
The food crops grown here include rice (obviously) but we also spotted sweet potatoes, green beans and corn for food and hemp (looked like marijuana to me) for cloth and also the indigo plant used for producing dark blue dye in the H’mong clothes.
The walk was tiring in the heat, but the pay off is worth all the sweat, wheezing and achy muscles you may suffer. Its not a walk for those with any balance problems as some of it feels you are tight-roping across the edges of the rice terraces and on at least a few occasions I lost my footing while admiring the views and ended up rather muddy.
We visited the villages of Lao Chai, Ta Van and Ban Ho. The whole trek was about 12km on the first day and a shorter but steeper 8km on the second day. You will pass many tours along the route, but occasionally you will manage to enjoy some serenity and peace. There are longer walks available, on less well trodden paths for the more adventurous.
VThe Sapa Homestay
At around 4pm in the afternoon you finally arrive at your homestay. We really didn’t know what to expect, but what you get is a mattress on a floor, in our case on the upper deck, of the family house. To be honest it was ‘rustic’ on first sighting, but we soon settled in as we looked out and admired the views and spotted the dropping sun in the distance, making its way behind the mountains.
After our interesting journey and the trek, we managed a couple of beers to cool off, a quick shower and then made our way to our beds for a nap before dinner.
While we were asleep the family were busy getting our meal ready for the evening. We rejoined the family and our Korean housemates for the evening and tried our best to communicate. The Korean’s had a very limited English vocabulary and our knowledge of Korean was none existent. One of the Koreans worked in Hanoi and spoke some Vietnamese, so our guides were able to translate back some of the conversation to us through three languages – impressive.
The two Koreans were a real scream, absolutely barmy (in a good way) and were like two very big overgrown kids, they were both in their mid thirties. They also shared a passion for gadgets and technology and we spent some of the evening showing off our various gizmos (he won hands down)
After a very enjoyable dinner we were offered some locally produced rice wine. Not as refined as the Japanese Sake we had got a taste for over the last few weeks, but it was definitely alcoholic. So ourselves, the guides and our Korean chums managed to drain the bottle with shots toasted in Korean, Vietnamese, H’mong and English versions of cheers. They all now understand the term ‘bottoms up’!
We rigged up a temporary screen on the wall of the homestay with a white towel, a pico projector was produced from the Korean bag of tricks and the family and ourselves settled down to watch Sherlock Holmes together. Quite a bizarre experience.
The night was rounded off with a game of Jianzi. My appalling eye/foot coordination proved that the years of being picked last in School football teams was fully justified. Suffice to say I have not improved with the passing years. I was a washout, but did manage to hit the local three legged shiatsu dog.
The homestay proved to be a wonderful experience, the adults were charming and the local kids were amazing. You can communicate with kids in any language with a goofy face or simply just by acting stupid, something which comes naturally to me. They also loved the Ipad and John showed them his best moves in Angry Birds, they got the hang of it very quickly.
Although it hadn’t been our first choice, the homestay proved a real highlight and tempered all of the frustration of the train journey and the apparently fictitious room booking in Sapa.
We completed our second day in Sapa at the Fanzipan View, a lovely little hotel in the heart of town allowing us to explore the market and town square activities, enjoying the buzz of the bank holiday weekend and finding a great local restaurant which delivered a wonderful meal to round off the Sapa stay.
Was Sapa worth the interesting train journey and the annoying hotel owner? Yes of course, if only for the views.
If you have time though do a homestay and our advice would be to find some of the local guides milling about the town and see if you can pay them direct cutting out the commissions of your hotels and tour shops.
While the homestay and trek through the villages is not as ‘authentic’ as many of the brochures and tour companies will have you believe, its certainly more enriching than whisking yourself in and out of Sapa and not having the time to interact even a little with H’mong people.
On a final note, the town has a Tourist Office, but don’t expect any impartial advice on where to stay or which tours to go on. Even a map will cost you, admittedly only a dollar or so. It seems the office exists only to earn the staff a commission on the number of tours and home stays they can get you booked on.
We tried desperately to extract the name “Heaven’s Gate” in Vietnamese out of them, so we could hire a couple of bike riders to utilise a couple of spare hours. We shouldn’t have bothered.
It left me wondering just how much of this tourist money gets back to the villages which are the main attraction in this beautiful area of Vietnam, we did ask this question in the ‘tourist office’, and we were told about one third, although he didn’t appear confident in his answer!
Your answers on a postcard please.