Sapa: made for hiking

Yes I know that this blog post is way (WAY) delayed. What can I say, I’ve been busy. But I can’t move on if I don’t get Vietnam 2016 out of the way.

Unfortunately it has been two years since the Sapa hiking trip. While – barring amnesia – I will never forget how I felt when the valley opened up to reveal the most incredible lush, ripe-for-harvesting paddy fields, I can’t for the life of me recall some details. How much did it cost? No idea. How long did it take? Really, can’t remember.

What I do remember is that we ordered our hiking adventure through our hotel in Sapa. I reckon they have a merry band of folks who are full-time tour guides, and they’ll just slot us in with any available groups.

It was just our luck to get this one guide who had forgotten to bring along his tour guide pass. You see, trekking in Sapa requires a permit. If you have signed up with a tour, then your passage is already covered in your package.

Not that we knew this at that time. Our group of 8 set off with the guy, who didn’t speak much at first, accompanied by a few Hmong ladies.

First we walked towards a small hill.

Sapa trekking - dubious guide
Shortcut maybe?

Okay at this point if you’re alert and smart and knowledgeable… or you just know Vietnamese in general, you would notice that he had brought us to enter a cemetery. A cemetery! Why a cemetery? Who knows? We didn’t know!

Seriously, it was our first time being in Sapa, hiking in Sapa, and in our naivety, we thought that this (not very pleasant) path was part of the experience.

Sapa trekking - graveyard
Have you been to Sapa and stepped all over people’s graves? Well we have.

We followed the guide and the Hmong women up, around, and down the hill. Hang on, we’re going through new paths here, the grass is so long and untouched that it can’t possibly be a proper hiking trail.

When we reached the bottom of this little cemetery hill, the Hmong women wordlessly led us to climb over the fence to get to … wait is that asphalt? Why are we back on the road again?

Sapa trekking - illegal entry
Why did the tourists cross the road

What happened next was a series of unexpected events with elements of confusion, helplessness and comedy, all at the same time.

Once we climbed over the fence, we were beckoned to the opposite side of the road by a group of official looking men.


Uhm, good question. Where was our guide? Hang on, he wasn’t there with us!


There was lots of yelling and shouting as the officers went to speak to the Hmong ladies. We were ordered to stay put, not to proceed as they tried to ‘sort this out’. One of the officers spoke English, and told us not to worry and that this wasn’t our fault.

Uhm, not sure how this was supposed to make us feel better. But what can you do? Just grin, laugh, and make stupid jokes while other trekking groups walked past us, staring and wondering what the heck happened to us.

After half an hour, what do you know, our guide appeared! In short, he had forgotten to bring his tour guide pass, thought he’d try to get away with it by not having to pay for our permits, thus leading us to a cemetery in hopes of avoiding the authorities at known checkpoints, then legged it as soon as he spotted them officers from a distance.

But he got a scolding, paid his dues and we finally moved on.

Sapa trekking - start of journey
Now, this was our proper starting point

The rest of the hike was a mix of amazingness and exhaustion. We walked for a few hours through the incredibly beautiful valley, taking in the most stunning scenery as the hilltribe folks harvested the paddy fields.

Sapa trekking - path

Sapa trekking - paddy

Hanoi itinerary - Day 03 Sapa trekking
My Hmong guide

If you ever make it to Sapa, if you are in decent physical shape, please do not pass up the opportunity to do this hike. Especially if you go in September, when it’s harvest season and the rice terrace in the Muong Hoa Valley is a breathtaking blend of green and gold. Ignore what you read about Sapa being over-touristy – for sure the ethnic minority ladies will hustle you for tours and to buy souvenirs’. It’s their job to try, and you have the option to buy or not.

Sapa trekking - corn
Are you feeling corny?

Sapa trekking - valley

Sapa trekking - buffalo

Sapa trekking - harvesting

Sapa trekking - women

Sapa trekking - girl

That’s most of everything that I want to tell you about Sapa, really. If you want the regular trip/tour information, there’s always TripAdvisor. Heh.

I will tell you this though: bring proper trekking shoes. My shoes ripped the day before at Fan Si Pan, and I had to buy a cheap pair in Sapa town to make do.

Sapa trekking - shoes
It’s so fake, it’s got an extra hook coming out from the swoosh

Big mistake. Painful mistake. There was no traction, which was why I ended up hiring a Hmong guide to… uhm, guide me through. The trail was wet, slippery and quite rocky at many points. I ended up losing my toenails. Not pretty. Don’t be like me. Bring proper shoes, make sure they are in good condition.

Another thing I want to share is this.

Sapa trekking - trail

See that lady in red? Don’t let that typical Asian grandmother-in-a-visor look deceive you. This is the most bad ass South Korean grandmother ever, who is the incarnation of an eternally youthful mountain goat, who walked faster than all of us, who leaped from one spot to the other, who was so steady that her breathing was perfect. No huffing and puffing like the rest of us, no.

She put all of us, including the guide, her son (the guy with the camera), the French lady, the Singaporean dude, the Horng, the Yuki, the Joyce and definitely the Suanie to shame.

Vietnam: 9D8N Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay itinerary

“Nine days? What are you going to do in Hanoi for nine days??”

Well, technically one of the days do not count, since our return flight was early in the morning. But we managed to cover a fair bit, at our own pace, doing only the things we want to do.

Here’s a quick overview of our itinerary, a glimpse into a really fantastic, memorable trip. I will blog about them later when I have time (and energy, mostly energy).

The best Hanoi itinerary, ever

DAY 01 >> Arrive in Hanoi. Depart for Lào Cai via overnight train

Hanoi itinerary - Day 01 arrival
Happy tourists

DAY 02 >> Arrive, transfer to Sapa. Visit Cat Cat village, and Fansipan

Hanoi itinerary - Day 02 Cat Cat village
Steps through Cat Cat village, straight to your heart

Hanoi itinerary - Day 02 Fansipan
Reached the peak via cable car and my God-given legs. And a lot of cursing.

DAY 03 >> Sapa trekking through Muong Hoa Valley. At night, depart for Lào Cai for Hanoi via overnight train

Hanoi itinerary - Day 03 Sapa trekking
Incredible trekking experience. 10/10 will do again

Hanoi itinerary - Day 03 train
Friends who made it through overnight train journeys, stay friends forever?

DAY 04 >> Hanoi

Hanoi itinerary - Day 04 Hanoi coffee
Famous Hanoi egg coffee

Hanoi itinerary - Day 04 banh mi
Famous Hanoi banh mi

DAY 05 >> Depart for Halong Bay, for overnight cruise

Hanoi itinerary - Day 05 Halong Bay cruise
On board the La Fairy. Not la bored.

Hanoi itinerary - Day 06 Halong Bay
Halong Bay? Commercialised but not over rated

DAY 06 >> Depart for Hanoi.

Hanoi itinerary - Day 08 flower market
Quang Ba flower market in Hanoi, worth waking up early for

DAY 07 >> Hanoi

Hanoi itinerary - Day 07 Hanoi
Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake

Hanoi itinerary - Day 07 Hanoi park
Around Hoan Kiem Lake on a weekend, where they closed the roads for pedestrian access

DAY 08 >> Hanoi

Hanoi itinerary - Day 08 house by train
Trains pass by their house twice a day

Hanoi itinerary - Day 08 Long Bien bridge
Only tourists walk the entire Long Bien bridge. We tourists

DAY 09 >> Depart for Kuala Lumpur. Sad.

These are some selection from my hundreds of photos. Obviously I can’t put up everything we did/ saw/ ate/ experienced, because no one is that interested.

But if we could do it differently, we would. Maintain the same nine-day trip, but stay two nights in Sapa, and two nights in Halong Bay. Perfect.