Scaling the Mountains of Sa Pa, Vietnam

One of the main reasons Kai and I decided to go to Vietnam was due to the diverse landscape of the country. In the south of Vietnam there are islands with white sand beaches, and in the north there are magnificent bays with miles of rocky coastline. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are brilliant cities to explore, both with bursting food scenes, and outside the major cities you will find a plethora of deltas, rivers, rainforests, and ancient villages to uncover. Vietnam also has an impressive mountain range bordering China in the north-west, home to Indochina’s highest peak, endless rice paddies, and local ethnic groups that are seemingly untouched by time.My favorite kind of holidays encompass not only great food and culture, but a fair amount of physical activity as well. I’ve gone on many hiking trips that range from intense climbs, such as in the Norwegian Fjords or the Alps in Morzine, to more relaxed treks such as hiking in Santorini, or exploring Cinque Terre’s five villages by foot in Italy.

Kai and I knew we wanted our Vietnamese holiday to include a fair amount of hiking, and when I saw photos of the mountains in Sa Pa for the first time, the breath was snatched from my body (you will shortly see why!) So we planned for four days of hiking in Sa Pa, a beautiful and removed town in the Lao Cai province of Vietnam.To get to Sa Pa, you can take a 6 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Sa P, but in preparing for our trip I came across numerous horror stories online about tourist buses that crashed into the steep mountains of Lao Cai. Uhhh, no thanks death bus! So we took an 8 hour sleeper train from Hanoi so Lao Cai, followed by a 50 minute cab from Lao Cai to Sa Pa. The sleeper train ran overnight, which in theory sounds great since you save on a night’s hotel and arrive at your destination fresh as a daisy in the morning. In reality, we did a lot of rocking and jolting but not a lot of sleeping on said ‘sleeper’ train!But to be fair, we didn’t exactly spring for luxury! Figuring out what sleeper train to book to Sa Pa was confusing. There are many different train companies that all look to depart at the same time, some with luxurious coaches and others with just the basic necessities. Turns out the different train companies I was looking in to were actually just coaches, all attached to the same mile-long train! So as we were looking for our train car, we walked by the Orient Express and the Pumpkin Express, two other train providers I had looked into! In the end, we wound up going with Vietnam’s National Rail, which was cheap and basic. However we sprung on privacy and booked 4 beds in one car so we didn’t have to share our small space with strangers.  We threw our backpacks up on the top bunks and made ourselves at home on the bottom. I was scared we would get fleas or scabies or something, but in the end we snuggled on to the ‘prison’ pillows and didn’t die or pick up any parasites. So that was a small victory ;)I think our round trip train tickets were €160 each, which included a top bunk and a bottom bunk for both ways. Before the train departed, we stoked up on beers and Vietnamese snacks, made sure we had lots of water, and packed our reading lights and some good books.The train ride massively sucked for two reasons. Firstly, the asshole train attendant kept telling people that the two extra bunks in our cabin were free, when we had already paid for them outright. So throughout the night, random strangers kept knocking on our locked door trying to get in. We had many annoying encounters with drunk 18-year-old Vietnamese dudes trying to crash our train car at 4am. If ever there was a moment to use the ‘eff’ word on my blog, this would be it – because what kind of jerk knocks on someone’s locked door at 4am?! You just woke me up from the very little sleep I managed to get on this train, AND I paid an extra €80 for the luxury of having some privacy and sleeping without a bra (or without a stranger snoring above me) so yeah, the answer is ‘no’!

Sucky part two was the lurching. There were about seven stops between Hanoi and Lao Cai, and every time the train screeched (YELLED, BELLOWED) to a holt, the noise was deafening and even more inconveniencing was the motion that nearly threw me from my bed on to the floor, every time. Apparently Kai got the good side of the train car, as he was slightly jerked against the wall. Not me! I had to hold on for dear life every time the train began to slow. And turns out, a train stopping is similar to a plane landing – sometimes there are smoother dismounts than others. Lurching and train cabin invasions aside, we arrived at Lao Cai in one piece just before 5am. We then proceeded to get in a very poorly translated fight with our cab driver who tried to drop us off in the town of Sa Pa versus at our homestay. We showed him the homestay’s address before we got in the cab, but then when we got into the center of Sa Pa, he told us ‘this is as far as I can take you’ (in very broken english) leaving us to get down the mountain ourselves. We pleaded with him to take some more cash and drive us the rest of the way, but he was quite stubborn. An additional $10 later and half way down a treacherous mountain, I knew why. Suddenly I understood the nightmare bus incidents I had read about online. The road was incredibly rocky, filled with pot holes, crumbling away at some turns, and completely lacking guardrails. I couldn’t look. I didn’t look. I closed my eyes and when we got to the bottom of the mountain 20 minutes later and he said ‘your homestay is a 15 minute walk from here’ I immediately jumped out of the car, thankful to be alive to walk the rest of the distance! So after a 8 hour train ride, an hour taxi ride, and a 15 minute walk, we arrived at our homestay, where we were greeted by the sweetest girl who very kindly cooked us breakfast, but told us that our room would not be ready until 1pm. And so we ate omelettes in the homestay’s rustic cafe at 6am, surrounded by our huge backpacks, barely able to keep our eyes open. We were super bummed our room was not ready as we hadn’t slept at all, and were hoping we could crash for a few hours before taking advantage of the day and hiking.However, when the owner of the homestay arrived for the day, she suggested we walk to the spa  down the road (below) for an herbal bath to relax, which is exactly what we did! It was a total life saver and the most calming welcome we could have hoped for!Two deep soaking tubs with brilliant panoramic views were filled to the brim with hot water and fragrant herbs. We plunged into the deep baths, curled up, and slept for the next four hours.The spa had amazing views of the foggy mountains.And an indoor garden with a koi pond and lounge chairs, where we took up residence and continued dozing when we started getting pruney from the tub ;)And that is how we found ourselves at the beautiful Lucky Daisy House at 1pm, clean, rested and ready to drop our bags and head out for an adventure!We had rented a villa for two nights which came to less than €100 and included breakfast. The villa could have easily accommodated four people, and after a night on the sleeper train, we were thankful to be tucked away in a remote villa with lots of space!Once we had changed, the first order of business was finding some lunch. We walked down the remote dirt road that our homestay was on, and came across other a few other hostels and guest houses, all offering nosh with brilliant views.And so we picked a spot with a big terrace and lots of local nature, and pointed to a few things in Vietnamese on the menu, excited to see what surprises would arrive from the kitchen!Honestly, no idea what the above dish was, although it tasted of flour and herbs and vegetables, served with a spicy dipping sauce. The dish below was lemongrass chicken which was tender and fragrant.Following our meal, we decided to set out for a long afternoon walk and explore our new basecamp.  I’ve never been to a place that felt so removed, so untouched by time. Hill tribes, such as the Hmong, Tay and Dao, make up most of Sa Pa’s population, and are increasingly common in the small mountain villages surrounding the main town of Sa Pa. As I mentioned before, our homestay was a 20 minute drive past Sa Pa, down into a valley in a village called Ta Van. At first, when we realize how far we were outside of the town, I was worried we had royally goofed up on booking our accommodation. However, in Ta Van we were at the mouth of many glorious mountain treks, and so removed from the town, truly embedded in slow, rural life. I honestly can’t imagine seeing the local area any other way, and would highly recommend finding a cozy homestay in Ta Van to make the basecamp of your hiking adventures in Northern Vietnam!We roamed and roamed, and when our legs got tired, we wandered on to whatever terrace was nearby and ordered a Vietnamese Coffee. The drink below is my lame cappuccino – but let me tell you about the glory that is Vietnamese coffee! Vietnamese coffee is strong, drip filter coffee that is typically served with ice and milk. However, when you order milk in Vietnam, you’re not going to get whole or regular cow milk. ‘Milk’ in Vietnam refers to sweetened condensed milk, which makes each strong coffee creamy, sweet, and well-balanced. Oddly enough, Ta Van was the first destination in Vietnam where we found western-style cappuccinos and lattes, which was surprising considering that it was by far the most removed village we spent time in!  There was something so magical about winding through the quiet, misty mountains.  At times, we questioned whether we were walking through someone’s property or on a vacant mountain side. However, our trekking guide (who you will meet later in this post) told us that most of the land belongs to the people, and farming is permitted on a first come first serve basis. If a man or woman would like to start a rice farm, they must clear the land and then wait a period of time to make sure no one else steps in to claim the space. After the designated period, the land is theirs to farm. We walked past children playing in sprawling fields, families cooking dinner, chickens pecking in farm yards. And then the best part of my long walk occurred – we found a friend who started trailing along with us!They eat dogs in Ta Van, which is gut wrenching but true. If you can’t tell from my previous photos, there is extreme poverty in Ta Van. Amongst the tribal populations there’s no such thing as health care, the girls get married when they’re 15 years old, it’s rare for a house to have electricity, and the majority of the people here are farmers who make very little income off of cultivating the rice paddies. It’s beautiful, and everyone seems happy and joyful, but if you want dinner you have to kill a chicken or harvest some rice, and sometimes when those things are scarce you have to turn to other matters. Some of the older dogs are pets. The young ones (under a year old) are often eaten while still youthful. Not everyone likes dog as it’s a very distinct taste, but the mutts that roam the roads are often strays that don’t make it past the first year of life. I wanted to save them all, and when I saw a puppy with a broken paw limping around on the top of a mountain, I burst into tears. Kai pushed me to keep on waking. There is very little you can do to change the way of life, and while I full heartedly disagree with eating an animal species that has been domesticated and trained, over thousands of years, to instinctively love humans, people have been known to do far worse when they are starving. If I have ever been to a place where an extra food source was needed, this was it. So while I was not able to bring all of the puppies home, I did feed them and play with them and give them some love while I could. Our long (four hour! mountainous!) walk concluded with a beer at the ‘Local Bar’. When we got to the local bar, no one was there. So we helped ourselves to some beer, left cash on the bar counter, and played a few rounds of pool. Later, a guy descended from the loft above the bar where he was clearly catching some shut-eye. Ohh small local villages ;) We finished our day at our homesay’s restaurant, which was the best in Ta Van. And trust me, we sampled a lot of them! When you stay at Lucky Daisy House, you can opt into the family dinner, which helped introduce us to a group of new travelers each night as well as some delicious Vietnamese dishes!On day two, Kai and I awoke to a huge cow stomping past our villa. We both had a good laugh as its massive head peered in to our front door to take a look around! Below is the view from our otherwise secluded porch, which was super dreamy to wake up to :)Day two in Sa Pa was foggy and warm, so Kai and I decided to save our big hike day for day three when the weather would be a bit cooler and the views more visible. And so after we had breakfast, we decided to head out for some sight-seeing. Kai really wanted to rent a scooter, and I was pretty against it. The road into town was long, bumpy, and pretty dangerous with lots of sharp turns and steep drops. But Kai was pretty insistent, and so I gave in and we rented a scooter.Which was fun for about two minutes until Kai crashed it going up the hill to our villa. We slid off into the gravel, got pretty scrapped up, and almost lost the scooter down a ravine. I told Kai I was NOT getting back on the scooter, and so while he went to return it I cleaned up and then wandered into our homestay’s bar to have a beer and chill out after our crash. I was pretty shaken up and also thinking . . . why the heck did I go against my gut on this one?!Not long after, Kai joined me and we shared some spring rolls, before ordering a cab to get into town.We had two sightseeing items on our list that day: explore the town of Sa Pa and visit the summit of Fansipan, the highest mountain in Indochina. To get to the summit of Fansipan, you can either hike, which takes about three days, or take the longest cable car in the world (ahhhh!) which spans four miles and takes about twenty minutes. So we opted for the cable car, which was by far the most expensive activity of our trip, costing around €20 each.  That said, I am happy to pay a large sum to ride the cable car if it ensures the experience is safe.  Because this is not an activity for the faint of heart.The views were phenomenal, and I loved soaring over the valleys and up the mountain, collecting different vistas and watching the terrain change as we slowly climbed into the clouds.At the cable car terminal, they actually served popcorn, so Kai and I munched on big handfuls of popcorn, watching the scenery as if we were observing a film!The higher we got, the more dense the clouds became. Until we could barely see the cable car in front of us!When we got to the top of the mountain, we walked around, but it was quite cooler and so we didn’t spend too much time outside. We found the experience inside to be quite touristy, with lots of souvenir shops and cafes with expensive beers. We had a coffee to warm up, but didn’t stick around for too long.On our way up, we had a car to ourselves which was quite the luxurious experience. On the way down, we were sharing a car with a big Vietnamese family, who had kids running around and crying. The car also stopped at random twice on the descent, which scared the crap out of me because getting stuck on a four mile cable car suspended high above the trees is pretty much my worst nightmare. Thankfully though, we’d already had our transport mishap of the day, and made it back down to the bottom of the mountain without any issues.We took another cab back to Sa Pa (which was about a 10 minute drive from the cable car) and walked around the town for a bit, strolling through the main square and market. I love the colors of Sa Pa. There is so much living greenery on the mountains and hills, and the brightly colored architecture is a beautiful contrast to the mute mountain in the background.With chilly fingers once again, we stopped for one more smoothie and tea in town before heading back to Ta Van for the night. We joined the family style dinner again in our homestay, so impressed with the food and the experience the night before, but called it an early evening following dinner that night as we had an early start for our hike the next day!We booked a local tour guide from one of the tribes to take us trekking through the mountains. As part of the day, she agreed to cook us lunch in her home, so we had a big breakfast to start the day, and then set off for a full day of exploring the mountains!We hiked with another couple from Australia, who we’d met at dinner the night before. Turns out we had both planned on booking private guides, so we decided to join forces to save on cost and share the experience :) They also took some great photos of us, which was appreciated :) The hike was a lot of fun because the areas we hiked through were so diverse. We trekked under waterfalls, along rivers and stone walls, past farms and through rice fields. We wound through different villages, past schools . . . and stopped to take in some breathtaking views. The best part though was when our guide, Mi, welcomed us into her home for lunch. First she picked up her youngest daughter from her parent’s house, who live down the road. Then we walked to her home, across long bamboo poles over a ravine. They have a few animals they keep in pens attached to the outside of the house, just off of the kitchen – including this very smiley pig who has no idea that his fate will probably not be too cheerful.Mi told us that having pork is quite rare, and is considered a treat. Her family had just slaughtered a pig two months before for the New Year, so she was able to cook us some tender pork for lunch. And when I say tender, I mean fat, as there was essentially no meat and all fat in the cut we were served. She explained that her pigs do not have a lot of meat, and they mostly use the fat for cooking and flavor to add to dishes.She cooked for us in her kitchen, which was humbling to see. I have a small Dutch kitchen, and often wish I had a big American one with marble counter tops and an island. Well, Mi makes do with a fire pit, a wok, and some cooking utensils on a shelf next to the fire. She adjusts sticks in the fire to hold various pans and dishes. The kitchen floor is a blend of dirt and concrete, and there is no running water. Her kitchen is small and simple, and yet she produced a meal that tested a thousand times better than what I could cook in my modern kitchen with running water and electricity.Of course we offered to help, and so Mi put us to work wrapping up spring rolls, which we were pros at due to our cooking class earlier in the trip!While Kai rolled, I played with Mi’s daughters, who were so incredibly sweet.When the meal was ready we ate in the house’s other room, which had a double bed, a set of bunk beds, and a table. We sat on small stools around the low table, and devoured one of the best meals of the trip.You could seriously look at this next photo and assume we were in a Vietnamese food restaurant – but nope, this meal was cooked over a fire pit in Ta Van by a woman from one of the local tribes. And it was so delicious!!At one point, a small dog walked into the house, and we asked Mi if it was her pet. “No, he is not,” she replied. Which made us all laugh – because here is this dog who just randomly walks in looking for some food scraps! And I guess that tells you a little bit about the sense of community here. Doors are open, the children play together, and neighbors help one another – watching children and sharing meals. It’s a warm environment with a focus on simplicity and family, which, despite the geographical distance, felt very familiar.  After our meal, Mi brought her baby back to her parent’s house, and we set of for the remainder of our trek. I had been so ravenous all morning, and the meal at Mi’s put me in a coma. And so we walked back to Ta Va in silence, enjoying the sights and scenery.When we got back, Kai and I had a beer and then decided to end our time in Sa Pa how we began it – with a long, steaming herbal bath. We booked the same tubs we’d been in two days prior, and had a good long soak to clean off the sweat and dirt from our hike.The views from her herbal baths were even more stunning than on day one, with the visibility being slightly better and the terrain seemingly even more alive.Our sleeper train departed from Lao Cai at 11pm, and arrived in Hanoi at 5.30am. So we booked a shuttle to Lao Cai from our homestay, and spent the next two hours driving from village to village, absorbing our surroundings one final time and picking up a few additional passengers along the way. When we got to Lao Cai, we popped into a local restaurant for dinner. We didn’t know a lot about Lao Cai, but as it’s a major junction for the train and therefore lots of backpackers and tourists, there are many restaurants that cater to travelers. We found a place with a proper table and chairs, and shared a huge hot-pot, a sandwich, and some vegetables. It was good, but didn’t even begin to compare to the lunch we’d had at Mi’s! And that’s a wrap on our time in Sa Pa! Wow, was that leg of our trip incredible :) If we didn’t have golden sand beaches to look forward to next, I think we would have been pretty sad to leave! But our bodies were sore and tired, ready for a week of doing nothing in paradise! More Vietnam to come!

xo Ali


4 Replies to “Scaling the Mountains of Sa Pa, Vietnam”

  1. Getting a four-bed compartment to yourselves was a brilliant move. I remember a train ride while my abdomen wasn’t happy. That wasn’t the best leg of the trip…


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