Vietnam: Sapa Valley

The crew! Adan, Jeff, me, Elizabeth, and Scarlett.

In a two-week whirlwind of hiking, cruising, and exploring Vietnam and Taiwan, the highlight of my holiday was hands-down trekking through Sapa Valley, Vietnam. The steep slopes carved into terraced rice paddies are an incredible sight, even in the heart of winter when little remains in the paddies other than some dead stalks leftover from harvest in early autumn. Bamboo forests and mountaintops disappear into sinking clouds and its difficult to discern how high the landscape reaches.

View from the top of our trek.

About 320 kilometers northwest from Hanoi, Sapa Valley is best accessed by night train. The train departs around 10pm, and arrives at 5am, combining accommodation and transportation in an affordable and efficient package. After reaching the train station, we hopped onto a one-hour shuttle that took us down a long and winding road overlooking foggy mountains, increasingly illuminated by the rising sun.

Elizabeth and me at the beginning of our trek.

We started our trek right from the center of town. If I had any final regrets in leaving my good camera behind in Korea, they were certainly diminished when we set off for the valley. The first steps were down a steep slope made slippery with mud and sunken grass. Each of us had our own stumbles, and often complete wipe-outs, leaving us with streaks of mud down our pants and hands.

The photos don’t do justice!

Scarlett, Elizabeth, and still relatively clean at the beginning of the hike.

Up-close look at the paddies.

Typical houses and barns of Sapa.

Fog rolling away from the mountain-tops.

Green, green, green!

Paddies along the river.

Luckily we had a fantastic guide, Dond, who helped us find the right footing all the way through the hike. There was also a group of women from one of the villages we passed through helping us along the way, offering their hands when our clumsy and unsure feet couldn’t keep us upright. At our lunch break, the same women swarmed us, asking us to buy their crafts in exchange for helping us along. Zee, the girl who (mostly) kept me on my feet all day, offered up a beautiful indigo scarf, which I was especially interested in after smashing indigo leaves between my hands to release the die, turning my hands an intense green for the next three days.

Indigo dye all over our hands!

Indigo scarf. Looks like its done similar to batik.

The intense green of the landscape was interrupted, at times, by ducks and geese floating through the flooded terraces and water buffalo rolling in the mud. There were chickens, dogs, and pigs, roaming around, seemingly with no boundary, although I’m sure at the end of the day that had a particular place they call home.

Beautiful roosters!

Water buffalo roaming the paddies.

This little porker has things figured out. He was hanging around the sugar-cane stand, waiting for some sweet treats to fall.

Buffalo rolling in the mud!

Although the trek wasn’t particularly long (about 15 kilometers), the steep incline and slippery mud made for an intense and tiring day. We were happy to reach our homestay along the river in time for a short rest before dinner. With little information communicated to us about the trek, we didn’t know what to expect from the homestay. The accomodations were quite simple, with all ten of us in the group sleeping in a loft with mats on the floor and mosquito nets hanging over. We were surprised to find wifi so far from anything other than very simple housing sparsely dotting the massive landscape!

Our accommodation for the night.

River behind our homestay.

Enjoying some quiet time by the water before our second day of trekking.

Someone told a joke.

Our guide, Dond, examining the rooster that had us up at 5:30am.

Although some areas are accessible by car, many parts of Sapa Vally lack proper roads and can only be accessed by foot, bicycle, and sometimes motorbike.

Our second day of the trip started with piles of fluffy crepes, bananas, and sugar cane syrup. The final leg of the hike was a lot shorter, leaving us with some time to explore the town of Sapa for a few hours before heading back to the night train to Hanoi.

Trekking back to the town of Sapa.

Market in the town of Sapa.

More market in Sapa.

Cool street art!

View of the town of Sapa!

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