We arrived at Sapa through Lao Cai on the overnight train from Hanoi. Bleary-eyed and slightly unnerved from having shared our otherwise lovely carriage with a very strange tourist, we were soon on a hair-raising bus journey through the twisting mountains into Sapa.
At almost 5000 feet above sea level, Sapa town could be incredibly beautiful, but increased tourism and industry has resulted in a somewhat haphazard construction of hotels and buildings that look strangely out of place in what’s otherwise a very rural setting. Not that it matters, as nobody comes to Sapa for the town; they come for the drama of the country scenery and beautiful simplicity of the mountain villages.
We had a quick nap in our damp, freezing hotel room, (waiting for the electric blankets to heat up was the longest 20 minutes of my life), and then set off on our first hike. From the main town, the most popular hiking trail is down to Cat Cat village. While it’s definitely become commercialized (there is a 70,000 Dong entrance fee and you’ll walk past lots of market stalls), the views of the lush, staggered paddy fields are still beautiful, and the highlight – the Cat Cat waterfalls at the bottom – are as stunning as ever. Most people end their hike at the falls, but there’s a riverside trail you can follow from here that you’ll likely have entirely to yourselves. The walk hugs the stream and ends at a smaller set of rocky waterfalls. On the way back, instead of heading back to Sapa on the right turn of the main road, me and J headed left. It’s impossible to get lost as you simply follow the tarmac, which will lead you to tiny villages with their dark wooden huts and low sloping roofs. Black pot-bellied pigs root around under floorboards and brightly- clothed kids dot in and out of houses in a haze of bluish charcoal-smoke that seems to permanently hang over the villages alongside the mist.
Like many others, we used Sapa mainly as a springboard to visit one of the more typical villages in the area. There are plenty of beautiful ones to choose from and after some research we decided on Ta Van. I can’t speak for the other villages that are probably equally as beautiful, but Ta Van was nothing short of spectacular. At the bottom of a plunging valley, it’s flanked by looming, ephemeral mountains that only reveal themselves occasionally and suddenly from behind the rolling mist.
There’s an ongoing debate when it comes to hiking in Sapa as to whether it’s best to get a guide or go it alone. If you decide you’d prefer to have a guide there’ll be no shortage of ladies from the myriad of local ethnic minorities offering to take you. Of course you can also organise a tour beforehand. We ultimately decided to hike on our own as we had a feeling the guides would likely lead us down the main drag, and we wanted to go as off-piste as possible. Of course this meant that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing. Ta Van is not renowned for its excellent signage, and there are no trekking maps save for the most popular routes. So we just picked one of the many paths we came across and followed it up, and up, and endlessly up.
We soon found ourselves off the concrete and on a muddy, rocky path that went past lush, scalloped rice fields, plunging valleys and towering mountains. I was convinced that at some point the path had to end or start looping back around, as we were so far away from the town and hadn’t seen a single person in hours. It was also quite late in the afternoon and we had no idea if there was a shorter way down before dark. And yet the path just kept leading ever-upwards until we found ourselves not just in the mist, but in beautifully thick, fluffy cloud – the kind you see from airplane windows.
I didn’t imagine we’d find any sign of people this high up yet we were still among the rice terraces, which meant somebody had to be tending them. Just as we were admiring the reflection of the afternoon sunlight on these paddy fields in the sky, the thick mist passed and we could make out the vague outline of a house. A beautiful, dark-wood house esconced in the fog in the middle of nowhere, or rather on top of the world. The family that lived there seemed surprised to see us, and in some sort of Vietnamglish gibberish we managed to communicate that we were looking for a way back down. They pointed, and we thanked and followed.
The next day, totally thrilled by our impromptu trek, we decided to do the exact same thing, just pick a path from the main route (we chose a path up on top of the Silver waterfall on the most popular Ta van route) and keep heading upwards. Today was even foggier. The damp, grey, mist was broken only by the occasional dash of lilac from a spring flower, or the flash of the stunningly bright outfights of the ethnic minorities.
At one point, totally lost in the fog and unable to see the path or even eachother, we had to sit down and wait for it to pass. We could hear the sound of buffalo bells and children laughing and playing somewhere in the distance. When the clouds suddenly parted we could see the whole scene..we were on top of a mountain, the children silhouetted against the rolling clouds, disappearing and reappearing as the cloud drifted along. Buffalo serenely grazed in the paddy fields, sometimes bathed in sunlight and then suddenly in the mist, and all framed by the pink, newly budding blossom trees. It was one of the most memorable travel moments of my life.
WHEN TO VISIT:
March was perfect as we got to enjoy the characteristic mist but it wasn’t so heavy that you couldn’t see the spectacular views when the clouds parted. It’s bearably chilly (which is a bonus when you’re uphill trekking) and the spring flowers and blossoms are just beginning to bloom.
HOW TO GET THERE:
From Hanoi, the options are to take the train or bus. There are no airports in Sapa.
The train takes about 8-9 hours from Hanoi and the carriage beds are actually quite comfy so you should be able to get a pretty decent sleep before waking up to the beautiful mountain scenery. The trains often depart between 8pm – 10pm and it’s advised to book your tickets in advance. You can do that here. The final stop is Lao Cai where you’ll have to get a one-hour shuttle into Sapa. Make sure you hold onto something or take a pill if you suffer from car sickness – they take the mountain bends pretty sharp! Whether you’ve got a tour bus waiting or you’ve not yet booked anything the shuttles should be easy to find out in the square.
You can also take the train from Hue, Da Nang and Nha Trang.
The bus is faster at 6-7 hours and it goes straight into Sapa without stopping at Lao Cai. The buses leave at 6.30am or 10pm. You can book here.
WHERE TO STAY: While there are hotels and guesthouses in Sapa, a much more authentic experience is to stay with a local family at a homestay. The accommodation is usually basic but the experience is much more memorable and you’ll be supporting a small family business. Plus, the home-cooked food is usually great! The Backpacker’s Bible has a great guide to staying at homestays in Sapa here.
WHAT TO EAT/DRINK: Homestays usually provide free breakfast and paid meals throughout the day. Some are all-inclusive. There are also usually restaurants dotted around whatever village you choose to stay in.