Sa Pa quickly became a must on my list when planning a trip to Vietnam with my good friend DD. A quick google shows images of impossibly green rice paddy fields, mountains cloaked in fog and the region’s Hmong people dressed in their traditional navy outfits with bright-thread details – even photos on a computer screen made it seem an incredible, enchanting place that fit perfectly with the lush image of Vietnam’s agricultural landscapes in my head.
We were sold on the idea immediately, and decided a one-day hike would be enough for us on what was something of a whirlwind visit involving fitting in as many Vietnamese destinations as possible. We set about figuring out our best transport options, and ultimately decided on the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, from where we would catch a minibus from the station to the town of Sa Pa itself.
Sa Pa is the name for both the district and the capital town, situated in the far north-west of Vietnam right near the Chinese border. The town offers a unique fusion of local tradition created through the mix of ethnic minority groups that inhabit the area, including Hmong, Dao, Giay, Pho Lu and Tay, and its history of French influence. The tourist boom took hold in the 1990s, and it is now a popular destination for hiking with countless trails and the option of one- or multiple-day treks with traditional homestays included.
Leaving our luggage with the kind staff in the hotel we had chosen as our base in Hanoi – something our research told us many people choose to do – we made our way to the train station and waited to board the train. We were disappointed to find a fairly limited range of snacks at the station; a situation that was the same in Lao Cai, so be prepared if you know you will be struck by midnight munchies on the journey.
The overnight train was modest but comfortable, and we each had a reading light and power socket. I slept remarkably well and awoke to arrive in Lao Cai around 5am. The minibuses were quite easy to locate, though as with most places in south-east Asia, you have to be OK with following the directions of a seemingly random person who assures you this is the transport you were looking for.
The bus ride took roughly one hour, and was mostly an ascent into the mountains through impossibly-green vegetation on a windy road offering spectacular views. We had planned to see what trekking trails we might find and venture out on our own, but it quickly became clear that due to the fickle weather that is a bad idea. The tourist office did not even offer maps of the trails for tourists, and with the density of fog, changing weather patterns that mean it can be hot one moment and pouring the next, and muddy trails, we were strongly encouraged to join a guided hike.
As we still had some time to kill prior to the beginning of the hike, we chose a café for breakfast before meeting our group, which was fairly small – maybe 15 people at the most – with almost a guide per person. Our guides were traditionally dressed Hmong women, who carried backpacks we later learned were full of souvenirs they would offer us with some guilt applied, though I gladly made some purchases.
We departed the town and soon found ourselves on a steeply descending muddy trail with incredible views across the valley, which only got better as we proceeded. I was very pleased with the layers I had chosen to wear as it was first foggy, then torrential downpour, then the sky cleared and the sun shone bright and hot, keeping me continuously updating my outfit to suit the conditions.
Some parts of the trail were very slippery, but our surefooted guides seemed to require little effort to walk on the steep, muddy surface and easily held us steady to make our way along the more difficult parts. Even those less athletically inclined were successful with the assistance of our guides.
After several hours walking we came to a village where we enjoyed an included cooked lunch, then continued on through the valley floor passing paddy fields with grazing water buffalo and other tiny settlements.
By the end of the walk we were exhausted, though I quickly found myself wide awake again as we rode a terrifyingly fast minibus up the steep gravel road clinging to the mountainside – as I clung to the back of the seat in front of me – to return to the town of Sa Pa.
All too soon it was time to return to Lao Cai for our night train back to Hanoi, leaving the mystical landscapes behind in favour of the equally-enchanting yet vastly different capital.
Courtney Gahan is a serial expat, traveller and freelance writer who has bartered with Moroccan marketeers, seen the sun rise at Angkor Wat and elbowed her way through crowds on NYE in NYC