Sapa, in the northern mountainous area of Vietnam is recommended for wonderful trekking (hiking) and for visiting tribal villages. The pictures in my mind as we headed to Sapa were of hiking along mountain ridges with beautiful views of the valleys below and a National Geographic-type portrait of a tribal woman in traditional clothes, with a sense of tranquility.
As with many other places on our trip, Sapa was not quite what I had expected.
The hotel we stayed at, Thai Binh, offered hiking tours, but they were leaving early in the morning, and we wanted to sleep a bit after our tiring overnight train ride, so the four of us (George, Heidi, Filipa, and Mariana) decided to go exploring on our own for the first day in Sapa. We were hoping to hike to a nearby village, but first went by the government run tourist office for information– not recommended! They had a copy of a map with trekking trails, but wouldn’t let us purchase a copy of that map, and the ones for sale only had the paved roads, not the trails. Filipa had read that the hike we wanted to do would take about 3 hours, but the girls in the office claimed it would take 5 hours and would be too difficult without a guide. Instead they suggested we hire a Jeep to take us to the village for $20 round trip (half of which they kept for themselves!). It turned out that contrary to what we expected, we were able to get more accurate information from a for-profit tour agency.
So the first day we rode in the Jeep to Ta Van Village where a festival was taking place to celebrate the start of the season for planting rice. There wasn’t much to the festival, just a gathering of Black Hmong (named for the black colored clothes they wear) and Zai people in traditional outfits and people playing games like tug-of-war and gunny sack racing. Almost immediately upon entering the village, four Black Hmong women began talking to us and following us. I was weary about why they were being so friendly, thinking that later they might ask us to pay them for being our “tour guides.” They followed us around for an hour, and when we went inside the one restaurant in the village (not recommended!) they waited outside for us. George and I felt bad and purchased a purse and a wallet from the two women who had been talking with and following us.
He’s wearing a Tigger outfit! 🙂
Once we returned to Sapa we decided to walk to Cat Cat Village. It was a tiring (4+ kilometer total) steep walk down the stairs to the village and another steep walk back up the road to Sapa, but we were too annoyed by the motor bike drivers to give in and accept a ride. The weather had started out foggy and cold, but by late afternoon it was actually quite warm. Reflecting back, this was our most peaceful visit to a village since none of the villagers were pushy trying to sell crafts.