Sapa is a beautiful town in Northern Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. The region is home to many different hill tribe minorities, rice fields, and absolutely stunning views. We only had one full day in Sapa, so we decided to rent a motorbike and explore for ourselves rather than do a guided trek. As always, the unplanned spontaneity of the trip led to some amazing moments.
Since we were accustomed to driving in Thailand, getting used to driving on the opposite side of the road was difficult. As we already knew from the winding bus ride up the mountain, the roads were steep and somewhat dangerous. We slowly descended down the mountain while locals sped around us, four people plus a baby to a bike.
We visited the Lao Cai village first. The moment we parked our bike, swarms of villagers selling bracelets, hand-woven belts, and hair clips descended upon us. We walked down the trail, answering questions amicably and taking in the beautiful views. These women were happy, funny and mostly well-meaning in their approach, and I feel that I have learned a nice balance between the art of not handing over my wallet while still holding a pleasant conversation. Although- these ladies are some of the most persistent I have met to date. They will shadow you for the duration of your trek, and if you show the slightest hesitation at least 3 more saleswomen appear out of the woodwork. Where are they coming from?!
When we finally made it to the village, we decided to have a Vietnamese coffee. The moment we sat down, at least ten children and women crowded around our table, asking us to buy from them. We waited it out, saying “no, thank you” politely. About fifteen minutes later, we were left with one older woman, who sat drinking coffee with us. Realizing that we didn’t come with a guide, we told her we would buy some of her wares if she gave us a tour of the surrounding villages and lead us back to our motorbike. She happily agreed, and gave us an amazing tour. She pointed out her home, which was a little hut with a duck pond in the back yard.
I don’t know if the people who live in Lao Cai become immune to the beauty of the landscape, but for us, every single minute was awe-inspiring.
When we reached the ascent of the trek, we saw other tourists renting motorbikes or waiting for vans to speed back up the mountain, but our guide, Li, just ushered us along and kept walking up. She was carrying all her wares with her and making a new bracelet while she walked, her fingers stained with dye. I felt bad abandoning her at this point, so we trekked up the mountain, panting and sweating, while she just pressed on. I asked her if she walks up regularity, she said she does it about 2 or 3 times a day. Well then..
At then end of the tour, we thanked Li and bought some of her jewelry. She tied an extra bracelet around my wrist and said “Free for you” with a smile. We got back on our motorbike and drove off as she headed back down the mountain to her village.
After a long day, we arrived back in Sapa and decided to explore the colorful central market. This market is not for the weak of heart. In true south-east asian style they sell meat, and lots of it. Meat hanging from the walls, chickens feet, and horse legs.There are also bags of herbs and spices, and lots of delicious fruits including my favorite- rambutan.
Other then trekking around Sapa and the market, there are other interesting places to see, such as the central plaza and the lake. There are also many excellent options for eating out. Little cozy italian joints serving pesto pasta and ravioli, a plethora of french restaurants, and cozy little Vietnamese cafes serving pho, fresh spring rolls, and hot tea to revitalize you after trekking.
Sapa is overall an incredibly beautiful destination, and although it is not as authentic as it perhaps once was, it is still very much worth going to. Especially now that it is possible to get there by a short five-hour bus ride as opposed to an overnight train. The Sapa Express follows the new highway, and is one of the nicest buses I have been on in Southeast Asia, fully equipped with wi-fi and neck pillows.