Discovering the rice paddies and hill tribes

Originally we wanted to go straight from Hanoi to Halong bay, but the weather was grey and rainy and we definitely wanted nice weather on the boat. All we had to do for this is wait three days. After talking to people in the hostel we decided to head up north to Sapa. Getting there meant getting on a bus for almost six hours. Spending this long on a sleeper bus turned out to be about the maximum we wanted to endure on them. They have three rows of recliners (two above each other). They are padded but too short for even the average European traveller.The roads to Sapa were fine and tarmac, but also very bendy as it wound itself over and around mountains.

Sapa in the fog

When we disembarked in the mountain resort, we were greeted by a group of women who tried to take us shopping or to their homestay. We could not understand why they thought that anybody wanted to go shopping the second they got of a bus in a new place.Instead we went to a homestay that was noted for having good trekking information and offers but it turned out that they offered only private tours.

We had met an Italian and a Greek traveller on the bus and spent a nice afternoon together. They had booked a three day trek around some minority villages with two nights in private homestays. It all sounded much better than the day treks we had planned (but not yet booked). With the agency office already closed, we had to get up early to go there and sign up for the tour. The other people in our group were two students from Australia. Before we left we were given free wellies since the paths were very muddy after the recent rain.

The fellowship of the mud

Very shortly after leaving Sapa we walked into our first minority village called Cat Cat. The stalls along the way sold beautiful handmade bags, clothes and other products. In the village itself we saw some women weaving, sewing and stitching. The huts were dotted around the steep banks of a river and a waterfall. Somebody even put up a christmas tree with electric lights on the viewing terrace which felt a bit surreal.

Traditional Hmong craftsmanship

Traditional waterwheels

After this quick stop we started trekking properly and went into the countryside. We walked and slipped on muddy paths through rice paddies and past single houses. This time of year the area did not look as nice as on the adverts because the rice was harvested months ago and sowing won’t happen until March. Therefore, we were left with the hills and forests as the main attractions which were still very nice.

In the village we somehow picked up an entourage of local women who tried to chat us up. Most annoyingly they would try to get in between us when the path became narrower thus somewhat interrupting our conversations. As soon as we sat down for lunch they came upon us trying to sell us all sorts of things but did not quite realise that we would have to carry everything for the rest of the trek.

Flooded rice paddies without rice

We really enjoyed walking through the countryside. Low hanging clouds covered the mountain peaks and gave the whole scenery a secret and mysterious feeling. Cho, our guide, was good and told us about the life of the Hmong people who lived in that area.

The second half of our walk that day was on concrete rather than mud paths, which was not particularly fun in ill-fitting wellies but conversing with our fellow travellers kept the morale up. Our entourage had left us at lunch once it was clear that we would not buy anything, which was also a bonus.By the time we arrived at our accommodation we were all tired and needed a break. The homestay was a real treat: it was beautifully build of wood and was big and spacious. We got a big mattress each separated into compartments of two by curtains. The showers were hot and the beer cold and with the help of some tea and clean clothes we recovered very quickly.

Traditional Hmong dress

We shared dinner with the family and it was plentiful and delicious. The woman served us spring rolls, rice, chicken and vegetables and homemade rice wine to wash it all down.Afterwards we played cards and chatted with our guide. At some point the 10 year old son of our hosts joined in and managed to beat us three rounds in a row.

The next morning we were welcomed by big piles of pancakes, bananas and bottles of honey. It was all delicious. As soon we finished one pile of pancakes the woman carried in another; even after we were all full.

Ted loved the homestay too

Our second hiking day started with a few kilometers of undulating mud paths along the side of the valley. Some of the sections were quite tricky with slippery descents, but we all managed them without accidents. We were all very happy not to be accompanied by local sales women, but this lasted only to the first village where we managed to pick five of them up. Again they tried the same tactics as the day before but with the same success. Luckily for us, in the next village we met some other trekking tourists who were much more interested in shopping so they all stopped there and swarmed around them.

Vietnamese centipede chicken

The muddy path continued for another couple of kilometers before turning into tarmac after we crossed an old and squeaky cable bridge. The Vietnamese government (or perhaps China) was building a dam nearby to produce electricity. We were fairly upset about this and the fact that a decent section of the beautiful valley had to be sacrificed and people moved, but our guide didn’t seem to mind. He also told us about another (bigger) dam that was getting built by the Chinese some distance downstream.

It wasn’t long after that we arrived in a village and stopped for a pho lunch. The surrounding valley was beautiful and covered in rice paddies at the bottom and forest up the mountains. Walking the remaining distance was not particularly exciting. Most of our route followed a tarmac road which wasn’t much fun in wellies but between talking and enjoying the views we got there in no time.

An old rice mill

Our second homestay was not quite as nice as the first one, but still had everything we needed. Our host welcomed us with hot tea and sure enough soon after the first sales woman showed up. They didn’t seem to think that we might need a break and did not fancy shopping as soon as we sat down.

For dinner we had what was probably the freshest chicken for all of us ever. We watched the woman carrying it into the kitchen alive roughly three hours before dinner was served. We had almost exactly the same food as the day before and again it was very tasty. The only dish we weren’t so keen on was the tapioca, which tastes quite bitter. The evening flew past with playing various card games, talking and again some rice wine. The showers were alright but the main downside of this place was the rock hard mattresses. We were also kept awake by a pre-wedding party with very loud music nearby. At first the music was not too bad but then the karaoke started which got gradually worse the later it got.

The local village school

None of us slept particularly well that night and one of us had to stay behind the next day because walking in wellies rather than proper shoes had hurt her knees. Therefore we were only five tired walkers as we wandered along the valley and up the side of some mountains to visit another minority village. At least we did not have to carry our bags since we were getting a lift from the homestay back to Sapa.

Our last walk was a lot of uphill and the village was not all that exciting, but we learned that the locals grow all the rice and food for themselves and only grow cardamom higher up the hills to sell. They were in a bit of trouble though since some strong storms wreaked havoc among the cardamom plants so the men had to find work elsewhere. Cho also told us about the Vietnamese school and education system which is free for every child up to high school but better colleges have to be paid for.

After collecting our friend and bags from the homestay we were chauffeured back to Sapa by minibus. It felt a bit disheartening to drive back in an hour after walking that distance for two days but at least we got some better views thanks to the clouds being higher.

Once everything was sorted with the tour agency we had time for a coffee and wander around the now less cloudy town. We almost missed our bus because it stopped in a different place to where we got off. It was also marked somewhere else on and people told us various locations. When it drove past us we had to run a few hundred meters with our backpacks to catch it, but we managed it and got on it together with our Greek and Italian friends.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Robin Burns says:

    Great to see you got up there, Zoe and Matthias, brings back very fond memories of mine from at rip there a few years ago – our guide spoke several local languages so we had a few tea invitations, but didn’t hike much. There weren’t so many saleswomen then, though there were some persistent ones! But no mud, we were a couple of months later.

    Liked by 1 person

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