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.

Sapa: Fansipan cable car

The Roof of Indochina. Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam stands at a majestic 3,143m above sea level in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, accessible from Sapa.

There are a couple of ways to reach Fansipan peak, depending on what kind of person you are. Those who are adventurous would typically opt to hike either one, two, or three days. There are trails for each option, each more grueling than the other. Don’t let that discourage you. I read enough to know that potentially life-changing, wonderful things happen when you go for the hike. You get to see some of the 2,024 flora along the way. You might see some wildlife, or transform into one yourself during your lowest moment. You get to marvel at breathtaking views of seas of clouds – if you are anything like me, you would have plenty of “life is great” and “I am grateful to be alive” moments.

You get to do this the hard way. The original way, created and cleared by proud descendants of the Dragon Lord Lac Long Quan and Mountain Fairy Au Co. When you eventually reach the peak and take your well-deserved photo with the Fansipan monument, your Insta-worthy shot is stamped with proof of persistence and authenticity.

Good for you.

We just took the cable car.

Sapa, Fansipan - in cable car

The Fansipan Legend was open to the public in early 2016. It cost a gazillion amount of money and courted controversy along the way, but I can tell you that it was an impressive ride. The journey in the gondola takes 20 minutes, going for 6km above a splendid 360 picturesque view of the valley and mountain range.

Sapa, Fansipan - view from cable car

What, pay US$35 for this experience? Shut up and take my money.

Sapa, Fansipan - view of rice terrace fields

Depending on when you will be there, it may get foggy towards the top. Sit back, relax and enjoy the slight sway inside the gondola.

Sapa, Fansipan - foggy view

Then it is 600 steps of reaching the actual peak. It’s going to be cold. Be prepared.

Sapa, Fansipan - halfway to the peak

It was okay. Tiring, of course. But not too bad. The air is thin. Take your time.

Sapa, Fansipan - stairs

Sapa, Fansipan - foggy climb

When you reach the top, you’ve got to hustle to take photos. Older people are scary when it comes to demanding to cut queues.

Sapa, Fansipan - at the peak

Made it, yay!

Sapa, Fansipan - peak

The Fansipan Legend cable car opens from 7.30am to 5.30pm every day. We took one of the last gondolas out, sharing it with a Vietnamese couple who decided to drive us back to town.

Double yay!

Sapa, Fansipan - helpful Vietnamese

Next: Sapa hiking.

Sapa: Cat Cat Village

Long for a Sapa trekking adventure but not quite sure if you are up for it?

I know what you need. To gently ease into the experience, get a soft introduction to Sapa trails, take the calculated step into a well-worn path.

You need Cat Cat Village.

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - entrance

Signs are aplenty leading to Cat Cat Village, a designated tourist spot not far from Sapa town. It is a proper home to some families of the Hmong minority, where you could get a glimpse of their daily lives, though heavily marked with tourism activities, of course.

You need to pay an entrance fee of about US$2 or US$3 before entering the village. I was told that you need to always have your ticket in place, for you may be stopped at random spots by inspectors who may demand a look at your ticket.

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - path

Going around Cat Cat Village takes about 2 to 3 hours. For most parts, the stone path is well maintained, just watch your step during rainy weather. There are some spectacular views to behold, souvenirs to be bought (though a lot of them are mass made and imported from China), snacks to be had.

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - view

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - rice fields

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - pigs

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - souvenir shops

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - toddlers

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - toddlers in shop

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - cute toddlers

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - boys

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - grilling meats

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - grilling corn

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - grilled pigeon

Sapa, Cat Cat Village - waterfall

Good easy way to spend a few hours before heading to Mt. Fansipan.

Next: Fansipan via the cable car.

Vietnam: Sapa

Sapa, is a frontier township and capital of Sa Pa District in Lào Cai Province in north-west Vietnam. It is one of the main market towns in the area, where several ethnic minority groups such as Hmong, Dao (Yao), Giáy, Pho Lu, and Tay live. [From Wikipedia]

We arrived in Sapa in late September, which I think is one of the best times to visit the valley. The air was cool, chilly sometimes, and walking around was a breeze. The mountains majestic and gorgeous, when not covered in fog. The rice terraces were golden and glorious, ripe for harvesting.

Getting to Sapa was half the fun. Here’s an introduction to the other half.

We stayed at Bamboo Hotel for US$50 a room. The best part of our stay was during breakfast, where we ate with this view in sight.

Sapa, Vietnam - Fansipan mountain
Overlooking the staggeringly beautiful Hoang Lien mountains

The town itself is a typical tourist joint, with plenty of food, hotels, massage parlours, transport and equipment rental etc. Forgot your trekking gear? Not to worry, you can get what you need from one of the many shops around, who most likely get their source of goods from the single one or two main suppliers.

The only thing I’d recommend that you bring from home, is a pair of very good hiking shoes. The cheap-and-bin types that you get from Sapa will leave you with black-and-gone toenails, and blisters that make you weep at night #truestory

Sapa, Vietnam - town

Sapa, Vietnam - shops

It rained the morning we arrived, so we got some breakfast in a cosy cafe while taking in the street sights.

Sapa, Vietnam - in the rain
Flourishing tourist business for Sapa’s hill tribe ethnic minorities

There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. The Hmong tribe seems to be the most dominant in Sapa, or at least they are more inclined to come out to town and offer their tourist guide services. Don’t be surprised to find yourself accosted by one, two, or a few tribe women who chat you up with “What your name? Where you from?” Some speak better English than the others, a few may grin and attempt to hold your hand as a kind of agreement that they would be your guide in Sapa.

For a fee, of course. I ended up paying US$25 for mine, though I gladly did for she was strong, sturdy and loyally saw me all the way through my painful trekking journey.

Here again is my advice to all Sapa would-be trekkers: make sure that your hiking/trekking shoes are in good order, and would not break even before you use them.

Sapa, Vietnam - tribe woman
Ignore the hustling, Sapa tribe women are hardworking and resilient

Sapa town is relatively easy to get around. We walked down a road and found a small morning market with vendors selling vegetables, fish, meat, the likes.

Sapa, Vietnam - vegetable on display
So green, I wanted to roll in them!

This one seemed popular. Fresh grubs, anyone?

Sapa, Vietnam - worms

Sapa, Vietnam - fresh worms

Grilling a pig in the middle of the street, why not.

Sapa, Vietnam - pig grilling

I don’t know what this lady was making, but she was popular.

Sapa, Vietnam - street food

The heart of Sapa town is marked by the Sapa Church, also known as the Holy Rosary Church. It was built by the French in the early 20th century using stone, and remains an important landmark in town.

Sapa, Vietnam - church in town

A large courtyard in front of the church seemed pretty popular with both locals and tourist, such as Exhibit A below.

Sapa, Vietnam - town centre

Next: Cat Cat Village and Fansipan.

Hanoi: Overnight sleeper train to Lao Cai and Sapa

Sapa, a regularly quiet mountain town is famed for three things: breathtakingly beautiful terraced rice fields, Fansipan which is the highest peak in Vietnam, and being home to highland ethnic minorities.

It is 334 km from Hanoi, accessible via rail or road. Vietnam Railways runs day and overnight trains to Lao Cai town (2km from the China border!), from which you would take an hour’s ride on a bus or private car to Sapa town.

There was no question that I would go for the sleeper train. Yes it would be a rickety ride, don’t kid yourself about a smooth overnight journey. Yes it would take 8 long hours, where the day bus would take only 5. You cannot reason with someone who cannot be reasoned with, especially when it comes to unrealistic ideas about long, romantic, great railway journeys.

The question now is, which train? There seems to be plenty of options, with Old World names such as Orient Express, Fanxipan Express, Victoria Express, Sapaly Express, Livitran Express etc that quite feed the imagination. To make it more confusing, the trains range from US$60 to US$150.

I asked my Vietnamese friend, Le for advice. She did one better – she helped to buy our train tickets for us, yay!

Hanoi Sapa train - ticket
You need a translator for this one

Wait… US$35 return train tickets each? On a no-fancy-name train? Are you really sure it’s the right purchase? Should I be worried?

“It’s all the same train!” Le scoffed. “Private companies just decorate some cabins with lamps and curtains, then sell expensive tickets for them.”

“You will be fine in the normal cabin,” she declared.

She was right, of course.

In fact, the most difficult part of journey was being conned out of US$2 by a tout waiting at the Hanoi train station. A local chap snatched my paper ticket, quickly glanced through it and beckoned for us to follow him. He was rather fast and I couldn’t stop him in time. He then demanded money for ‘leading us to the right platform’.

Turns out, this is a common scam, an easy way for these chaps to make a quick buck. I paid up, though I saw a couple of tourists loudly scolding their ‘guide’, making a scene and refusing to pay the tout. Good on them!

Hanoi Sapa train - train station
Hanoi train station

Hanoi Sapa train - rail station
Got to know where you’re going

The standard cabin comes with 4 berths. Decent mattress and pillow, and a thick blanket to counter the cold freezing air conditioner. Space seems limited, avoid over packing for your trip to the mountains.

If you are overweight or have injured your ankle/leg in any way, you may find the Upper Berths challenging to get to.

Hanoi Sapa train - standard cabin
The standard 4-bed cabin

Hanoi Sapa train - upper berth
People who are not overweight. Thanks for taking the Upper Berths.

We went through the town and peeked into strangers’houses, for the train tracks go between private housing. I suppose the residents must be pretty used to this.

The Chuong Dong bridge was also beautifully lit up at night.

Hanoi Sapa train - view of bridge

Someone came around to sell snacks and drinks. We were quite tired and dozed off very quickly. If you need real rest, you might want to take a (prescribed) relaxant. This train moooovveess… if you are a light sleeper, you are going to spend the next 8 hours counting a lot of sheep.

Hanoi Sapa train - snacks
Vendor selling snacks

Not ready to wake up? Not to worry, the radio will play a Vietnamese song to ‘gently’ awaken you, to ensure that you are prepared to leave the train as soon as it arrives at Lao Cai. Same goes for the return trip to Hanoi. Not sure if they play it in the private tourist cabins.

Hanoi Sapa train - sleeper train

As we walked to the main Lao Cai station to catch our one-hour ride into Sapa town, we saw the nicely decorated private cabins. Some had beautiful lamps, some had lovely curtains, a few had paintings hanging on the wall. Not bad, if that is what your idea of a train journey is.

Hanoi Sapa train - luxury cabins
Walking past luxury cabins

Don’t worry if you did not make prior arrangements for transport from Lao Cai to Sapa. Lao Cai is a transit town, and there would be many people wanting to take you to Sapa.

Hanoi Sapa train - station at dawn
Our return trip to Hanoi, arrived in the morning

Next: Sapa.