Sa Pa, Vietnam
Do yourself a favor and escape to Sa Pa, a town located in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains in northwestern Vietnam. You'll find friendly locals to guide you on various treks through lush green mountains and terraced rice fields.
My first night bus experience in Vietnam was an interesting one. I had met a few friends at Hanoi Rocks and set up a tour to Sapa with them. Since I was alone I didn't want to navigate my second stop in Vietnam alone and the thought of being dropped off at 4-5AM in the morning with no place reserved didn't sound like the brightest idea. We paid a little over $100 for all of our transportation, food, accommodation and guides for trekking. Looking back on it now you can easily do it yourself for about $40 total. The night bus should be $12-$15 dollars and can be booked from a travel agency or a hostel. Bear in mind hostels do charge a bit more.
Hanoi Rocks hostel van picked us up about an hour late and the van ended up breaking down in the middle of Hanoi about 10 minutes later leaving us to walk to the actual bus station. We waited for another hour until our night bus arrived. You must be prepared when visiting Southeast Asia, you're on their time and most times that means they are running very behind schedule. It resembled a party bus with colorful lights illuminating the walkways, but the single beds were in three rows separating the bus into three different sections. We started the drive with Vietnamese music blasting while they picked up locals along the way who slept on small mats in the aisles. I have never heard someone snore so loud in my entire life. I was hitting him in the head and plugging his nose, but he never woke up.
We got kicked off the bus into the cold around 4:30AM into a crowd of heckling locals trying to get you to stay at their home and trek with them. This is how you would do it if you didn't book anything and this is how I will do it when I visit again. You end up paying whatever you feel, I've heard anywhere from $5/day to $15/day depending on how gracious you are feeling. This includes all of your meals, accommodation and someone to trek with.
Our group had an 18 year old guide, Mi, that looked no older than ten years old. We were followed by a tribe of local women wearing black outfits and tribal print head bands with baskets on their backs. Susu became my friend for the walk. I slipped and fell a couple of times over the 12 kilometer trek through the mountains and rice fields, but she was always there lending a hand and even carried my water bottle in her basket. She made me a heart out of plants and flowers while smiling pretty for photos. It was amazing to see all the women chip in carrying a small infant along the way while doing the whole trek in sandals!
By the time we reached the river for lunch the ladies were ready for us to buy some of their merchandise and they wouldn't take no for an answer. Lunch was a delicious selection of Vietnamese cuisine including rice, noodles, vegetables, tofu, springs rolls and much much more. Afterwards we were able to soak our feet in the cold river water with the beautiful mountains surrounding us. The rest of the trek was just as breathtaking as the beginning. Lush green mountains covered in rice fields. It didn't even look real. We passed hemp farms and many animals along the way.
We reached our homestay where the family of six was waiting for our arrival. The home hung on the side of the mountain with sweeping views of the lush green rice fields spread along the mountain ranges. It was a single family home with a wrap around balcony on the inside. The upper balcony was reached with a step ladder and this was where we slept on mats and teak wood. The mom cooked over a bonfire and we filled our bellies with delicious spring rolls, rice, noodles, etc. A couple on our tour were professional balloon twisters. They made balloons for everyone including the children. It was amazing to see how much joy they got from the balloons.
That night we found a Bamboo Bar down the street to drink some cold brews before calling it a night. SaPa will go down in history for the first time swingers have tried to pick me up. Never would I ever imagine that would happen in the hills of Northern Vietnam, but that's a story for another time...
The next day we trekked another few hours to the top of a waterfall. It was absolutely majestic from the top. We stopped by a village for some noodle soup on the way back into town. Trekking sure does take it out of you, but if you have to time I would recommend staying a few extra days and exploring the area with the locals. Because I booked a tour I had to get on the bus to get back to Hanoi, but I could have easily spent a few more days hanging out with the village families and exploring the mountainness terrain.
There are hostels you can stay at as well that range anywhere from $5-$8/night. I recommend looking at HostelWorld. A few good ones that my friends have mentioned are:
- My Tra Homestay
- Miku Chill House
- Sapa Volunteer Homestay
- Hoang Kim Homestay
- Ta Van Hostel
A few more items to note:
- Bring bug spray or citronella oil.
- Pack light. Trekking with a full backpack is tough. Most hostels in Hanoi will let you leave your big backpack in their storage area so you just bring what you want to trek with in a smaller bag.
- Bring clothes that cover your body. The mosquitos can be quite intense and it gets cold at night. It is smart to bring something warm especially for the night bus because it can get a bit chilly with the air conditioning.
- Wear sunscreen.
- Bring a big bottle of water when you trek.
- Don't accept help from the village women if you are not looking to buy anything. It is bad luck for them to not get a sale after trekking with you for multiple kilometers. In the end it makes their day and you're only spending a couple extra dollars.