Sa Pa: Hiking and Happy Water

We were childishly excited about getting on a VIP sleeper bus even though our journey would take place 100% during daylight hours. We needed to get to the bus first, and a nice man with a tiny green car showed up at our Hanoi hotel to transfer us to the bus stop. For a short journey it was surprisingly entertaining. We shoved our stuff into the teeny boot, slid on to the inexplicably rock-hard seats and set off around the old town. As soon as the car topped 5kmph a fun thing happened where the doors locked and unlocked repeatedly until we came to a stop again. Three and a half minutes later we pulled up at another hotel where two more guests and their luggage were waiting to get in to the car. This was about two more people than the car could feasibly hold. Caro shifted in to the non-existent middle seat whilst the driver shoved our bags from the boot on to James’s lap to accommodate the new arrivals’ baggage. The boot could no longer shut and was left bouncing on top of the wheelie suitcases. The man took the front seat whilst the woman cosied up to us in the back. By some miracle the car managed to heave forward again and the door locks proceeded to play their happy tune. The woman leaned away from the door and eyed it warily, further decreasing the available space in the backseat. We passed within 20 metres of our own hotel again, drove for another 60 seconds and pulled up at a corner from where the bus was to collect us. It would have been quicker to walk but far less fun. The driver retrieved a crow bar from under his seat to extract us all from the back.

The bus arrived, we were ticked off a list and assigned the two top bunks at the front of the bus. Everyone had to remove their shoes at the door so the whole vehicle remained spotless. We climbed in to our pods, grinning widely. This was by far the most luxurious bus that we had ever been on even allowing for the fact that the beds were designed for dwarves with short legs.

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It was a six and a half hour journey to Sa Pa, and it was pretty easy going once we got away from the city and our driver removed his elbow from the horn. Most of the journey was on the highway and save for the odd lurch to change lanes we were able to lie back and listen to podcasts the whole way. We stopped for a 20 minute lunch break at a rest stop that was hotter than Hades. We weren’t able to find diet coke but it did sell chunky jade effect furniture and squirrel food (not a joke, actual squirrel food), so at least they have the necessities covered.

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Leaving the highway behind, we weaved up through hills of rice paddies until we reached the town of Sa Pa. It felt a bit like Kathmandu and Pokhara with a bit of a hill town like the Cameron Highlands or Ella thrown in. We’d been teed up to expect a pretty soulless tourist trap, and in truth Sa Pa does operate pretty much entirely for tourists, but it’s also quite chilled and nice to wander around with some good shops and fairly decent food. We wouldn’t advise spending too much extra time besides hiking, but equally don’t feel like you need to minimise your time entirely, spending one night in town is likely to be more enjoyable than you expect.

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Our first meeting with our guide could have gone slightly better; Caro, without thinking, answered the knock of the hotel room door whilst James stood topless behind her. This sent the woman outside, Mao, into paroxysms of giggles. All of the guides around Sa Pa are women, have at least a basic grasp of English and dress in the traditional dress of their tribe. Mao turned out to have a devilish sense of humour and delighted in winding up her guests, telling us with an earnest straight face that we would have to carry all of our luggage up the hill before collapsing in to giggles again a minute later. We met up with Mao’s cousin Mai, who would be our walking guide, and the four other people who would be trekking with us, a Spanish couple and two French girls. By 9am we were ready to set off and started by walking through the slightly sad looking market on the edge of Sa Pa and up the road.

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We soon left the town behind us as we turned off the road and up a concrete track that in turn became a slippery stony path up the hill.

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We kept climbing up through tea plantations and cornfields with the noise of Sa Pa receding behind us. It took a good few hours before we lost the sounds of traffic and construction altogether.

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It was a cloudy day which was a blessing because it meant that it wasn’t too hot but it did mean that a lot of the views of Fransipan and the surrounding mountains were obscured. That being said, it was still a very beautiful walk.

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We stopped at a viewpoint halfway up where a single man laboured away trying to build seating out of enormous stones and the guides set to weaving all of us hearts from fern fronds.

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The cloud cover did nothing to deter the enormous cigale type insects that scratched away incessantly and as we reached the peak the clouds shifted enough to give tantalising glimpses of the mountains.

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As we descended the far side of the hill the mist rolled in and we weren’t able to see much beyond our immediate surroundings of pretty pink and white flowers and the occasional buffalo wallowing in a mud pool.

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We eventually came to a concrete road, civilisation and our lunch stop. After a mountain of noodles we set off again, this time largely staying on concrete tracks through villages with the occasional diversion through rice paddies. Had we been there two weeks earlier all of the rice paddies would have been golden yellow but we were a little bit late so a vast majority of the paddies had already been harvested and the burning had started. The smoke mixed with the cloud to further obscure the view but it was still beautiful. At one point Mai offered to take us on the more adventurous route and we clambered down the rice terraces and through woodland rather than sticking to the road.

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The homestay was a thousand times more glamorous than we expected it to be, we had a private room with an actual bed, as opposed to the mattresses on the floor that we had been anticipating. There were also hot showers and a gorgeous puppy to play with, when we were offered an opportunity to wander around the local area James happily set off to do this whilst Caro stayed behind with the shower and the puppy. We have discovered the secret to a happy marriage.

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There were about 15 of us staying at the homestay that night and by the time we had eaten an amazing meal which included a veritable mountain of nems, all of the guides had joined us. Mao from earlier in the day had also arrived and we learned two things: 1. She owned the homestay in which we were staying and 2. She loves to party. Throughout the day Mai had been telling us that we would all enjoy a glass of “Happy Water” when we finished our day’s trekking. Happy Water is rice wine and is tastes like poorly brewed, slightly watery tequila and is undoubtedly the work of the devil. It turns out that Vietnamese villagers can drink it like apple juice and many shots were poured.

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The one saving grace is that the alcohol is completely clear so if you managed to fill your porcelain cup up with water you could avoid drinking more than one or two shots of the foul stuff.

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Mao, Mai and a third guide confusingly named May, are all from the Hmong tribe and lived in the nearest villages. Mai told us that her daughter had married and moved “far away, a three-hour walk”. There are a multitude of different tribes in Vietnam and some are separated by just a couple of kilometres of rice paddy and banana plants. There are individual customs and the languages are so different that two neighbouring tribes will not be able to understand one another at all. Everyone speaks Vietnamese, which is the common language in mixed groups. Mai sat with us and told us about some of the local marriage customs; the groom’s family pay a dowry to the bride’s family, divorce is actually acceptable. Mai gave the example “if your husband bad man, if he like the happy water too much”, then you can leave. Sons go with the father, daughters with the mother. It was fascinating.

Those people who hadn’t gone to bed at 8pm looked a little bit rough around the edges the next morning. By all accounts, Happy Water makes for quite an unhappy hangover. It was a very steady start and it was 10am before we were back out, this time with May as our guide. Outside the homestay gates we were immediately joined by a group of children in school uniform, clearly not where they were meant to be. They walked along with us for the 15 minutes or so before producing handfuls of bracelets and scarves for sale. We had been prepared for this and whilst these families could undoubtedly do with the extra cash, buying from the children only encourages them to skip more school days to sell to tourists.

May told us about schooling, which is free to the age of 15. Children from 5-10 attend school all day and eat lunch there. Children from 10-15 only attend school from 8-11am and then go home for lunch and usually to help with the rice. In this area, almost all of the product is for personal use, to feed the family, occasionally there is enough to be sold but certainly not enough to make a living off. You can see why the children sell bracelets.

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We kept to the concrete paths and dirt tracks through the villages for most of the morning. There were chickens and puppies everywhere. Nearly everyone we passed was doing something to do with rice; some were threshing it by hand, bashing it against boards in the middle of the rice paddies. We passed one couple who had set up two large fans and were pouring the rice in front of the airflow to separate the grain from the husks, a simple but effective method.

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May would occasionally take us on a steep detour down through the rice paddies where, more often than not, a couple of buffalo would by lying or chewing their way through what was left of the plants. Caro is under the impression that every animal she comes across is in dire need of having its nose scratched and was thrilled when we came across the little guy on the road.

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We reached the very bottom of the valley and crossed a suspension bridge that looked like it had seen better days. Once we reached the far side we saw what had been shielded from view until that point: an enormous hydro-electric plant.

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The dam across the river looked as though it would flood vast areas of the surrounding land when operational. The dirt roads cut in to the hill to allow construction vehicles through did not make for the nicest part of our walk. We were challenged for the first time that day by having to hike up a short steep slope to give us a lovely view back across the valley, ignoring the hydro plant of course.

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We were working our way back towards the tourist trail and we saw more and more people as we reached the bridge back over the river and a waterfall. We were actually pleasantly surprised by the falls, they were far more dramatic than we had expected.

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There were at least 5 women selling their wares on the side of the pool, something we had largely avoided on the southern side of the valley. When we crossed the river and entered a village full of shops selling scarves and elephant trousers, a clear indication that we were back in tourist country. We stopped in the village for a quick lunch, after which Mao reappeared from nowhere, a tiny ball of energy with an enormous smile. She ushered us all in to a van, gave us each two bracelets to thank us for hiking with her family, and chattered to us the whole way back to Sa Pa. Back in town, we were reunited with our luggage, deposited next to our bus, unfortunately the regular sleeper not VIP this time, and bid a cheerful farewell. At 10pm, six and a half hours later, we arrived back in Hanoi, stumbled back to our hotel, showered and went straight to bed.

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Vietnamese people be tiny.

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