Sa Pa and the surrounding areas of Lào Cai province in Northern Vietnam boast panoramic views of lush rice paddies enveloped by vast and dramatic mountain peaks, and its honestly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Very rarely can you drive for miles and miles, stop in a random spot, look around 360 degrees and feel overwhelmed by what you see.
We arrived in Sapa at about 6.30am. It was 360,000VND (aprox $17) for a sleeper bus from Halong/Bãi Cháy to Lào Cai and this included a direct minibus transfer to Sapa.The journey took around 7.5 hours and I would recommend staying awake for the ride from Lào Cai to Sapa as the views of the rice paddies are incredible (unfortunately I was too tired to keep my eyes open at this point!) When we arrived the air was fresh and crisp so our hoodies went straight on. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were approached by a local ethnic woman with the most gorgeous baby strapped to her back. She was trying to get us to do a homestay with her and gave us her tourist review book to read. As we’d just arrived we didn’t want to commit to anything so we pinky promised we’d call her and let her know if we were going to do the homestay with her or not (to be continued later on in the post!)
The journey worked up quite an appetite so we grabbed a banh mi from outside the market and made our way to the first coffee shop we could find (amazing coffee – it was like a tiramisu with three layers). We hadn’t booked anywhere to stay and luckily the owner of a small hotel called The Honey Moon Hotel approached us and gave us a good price for a triple room. We bartered down from 120,000 to 80,000 dong per person, but only on the condition we didn’t tell anyone else the price. While we finished our coffees we could see lots of local women walking around looking for backpackers to do homestays, and one lady called Mumma K approached us. She was lovely and seemed like she had lots of experience doing homestays so we agreed we would meet her the following day. She gave us ribbon bracelets in exchange for our word. The hotel lady returned and escorted us around the corner to the hotel, we checked in, showered and then made a plan for the day.
Seeing as we had the whole day ahead of us, we rented motorbikes and drove into the countryside to visit some waterfalls (bikes were 100,000d per day and fuel 30-40,000d). To be honest you could drive aimlessly and not actually visit anything but be just as stunned by the natural beauty of the place. Acres and acres of green, brown and yellow rice paddies, rivers and little villages populated with enthic people doing their daily work. Many stretches of the road are upturned with rocks and potholes, but it’s a smooth drive as long as you’re mindful. Note: failing to dodge potholes really hurts your brain. We stopped several times and just stood at the side of the road to take it all in.
Silver Falls was the first stop. The entrance fee is 30,000 and it’s 10,000 to park your bike. It’s not a tough walk to the top and there’s a nice bridge where you can stand in view of the top and the bottom. The waterfall isn’t spectacular but it’s very pretty and for the price it’s definitely worth a visit.
Lovers Waterfall stole the show. It’s a little further from Sapa and entrance is 100,000 but it’s so worth it. The walk to the waterfall is 2k and on the way we saw buffalo, caterpillars and so many huge butterflies! It’s a very quaint walk with streams and stepping stones, and there are several mini waterfalls and pools. You can hear Lovers Fall as you approach it. There’s a big pool of water under the waterfall and we were gutted as we didn’t bring swimming gear with us – it was definitely swimmable!
Day 2 & 3
It was time for our homestay! However, let me just tell you about the drama we had as a prerequisite if you want to do a homestay. We walked downstairs in the morning and there was Mumma K – standing with the lady we initially saw when we arrived off the bus. There was a huge kerfuffle about who we were doing the homestay with; as we had pinky promised the first lady we would let her know – and didn’t – she came to see us at the hotel. She was very upset and started crying, saying that we didn’t honour our word and how you should never break a pinky promise (I know this too well as I have used pinky promises ever since I can remember!) The whole situation was very stressful as we didn’t want to upset anyone, and it was more awkward as they were from the same village. We tried to compromise saying we would trek and stay with Mumma K for one night and spend the next day with the other lady, but she wasn’t happy with that. After about an hour of going round in circles trying to find a solution, Mumma K eventually agreed to share a portion of the fee with the other lady and with that, we set off on our two-day trekking adventure!
We walked up a little side alley that took us up a steep-ish mountain. Mumma K was wearing flip flop-type shoes and she was going for it! Not even one dodgy step. It was the perfect day for trekking but boy was it hot! The sweat was pouring after ten minutes. We reached the top in half an hour and stopped for a well deserved rest, absorbing the stunning views of Sapa.
After another 30mins walking it was time for lunch. A hefty plate of fried rice did just the job. It was mainly downhill after lunch (yes!) through several villages. Mumma K showed us the plant they use to extract indigo dye and we dyed our hands blue. She also showed us lots of fruit, veg and herb plants – including huge fields of hemp (aka marijuana). They grow hemp in abundance in Sapa as they use it to make fabric for their clothes. Hemp has so many other uses and is such a sustainable resource as it’s technically a weed (get it) – sorry, that was terrible.
We also passed a waterfall and dunked our sweaty feet. As we left, we saw a father and his two sons climbing up to go in and wash their hair. It was interesting to see how the local people rely on and utilise these natural resources in their daily life. We passed lots of locals in the villages and they were so friendly! There were lots of children sat playing on the side of the road; one boy was running around naked without a care in the world shouting “Hello! Goodbye!”
After five or six hours of trekking we arrived in Mumma K’s village. We walked across the rice paddies and were warmly greeted by her husband – Poppa P – and their extended family of dogs, chickens, goats, pigs and a buffalo. The trainers came straight off – trekkng takes it toll! An added bonus was the hot shower in the newly built bathroom!
We worked up a huge appetite throughout the day, so when Mumma K invited us inside to eat a huge spread of food we couldn’t have moved faster! Morning glory, mushrooms, vegetable spring rolls and rice – spot on. It was funny though; the power cut out so we sat there eating dinner with the help of Mumma K’s head torch.
All day Mumma had been saying we were going to try her rice wine – or “Happy Water”. It wasn’t long before she whipped out a huge two litre bottle of the stuff! Now I’m not the best with shots or spirits but it’s actually manageable; it must’ve been as we ended up drinking the whole bottle! However, every time I had a shot I had to have a bite of spring roll or mushroom to counteract the aftertaste/afterburn. Our logic to why it’s called “Happy Water” is because it literally warms you up and we didn’t get a hangover, winner! Mumma K’s daughter and grandchildren also came round so we were outside acting like big kids playing hide and seek with them, too. It was such a memorable evening and they really made us feel like part of the family.
Around 9.30pm when the Happy Water started to make us feel sleepy, we went to bed. Beth and I slept upstairs where all the bags of rice were stored and Jake slept downstairs. The blankets were so soft! We slept like logs, straight through until 8am.
To the cockerel’s demand, we got up and sat outside. What an absolutely incredible view to wake up to! I sat there and wondered whether the locals wake up in awe and appreciation of this view, or whether they’re accustomed to it. Mumma made us coffee and called us in for breakfast. Again, so much food! “Being full makes stronger trekking!” She made us pancakes, omelette, noodles and bananas – an interesting combination but it was delicious. After breakfast, we had a bit of fun and dressed up in some local clothes.
Trekking today was only for a few hours and was much easier. We passed a school, visited another waterfall and walked across a very rickety bridge! It started to rain towards the end of the trek so Mumma arranged for Poppa P and two other guys to take us back to Sapa town on their motorbikes. We gave Mumma a big hug and thanked her so much for her warm and impeccable hospitality! She’s such a legend.
Our two-day homestay cost about $30, and this included trekking, lunch, dinner, accommodation and breakfast. We had an incredible time and I would recommend doing a homestay to anyone, as it’s the best way to experience the locals’ unique way life in the mountains.