Sa Pa is a mountain village in the north-west of Vietnam, terraced with corn fields and rice paddies. With the recent completion of a main road connecting it to Hanoi, it has become even more popular with tourists. We booked a one night homestay and left our luggage in a hostel in Hanoi. Wearing trousers for the first time in a long while, a thermal top and a coat, we were warned that would still not be enough.
A sleeper bus wound us up the mountain, the weather outside becoming grey and wet. We overtook a shepherd in a bamboo hat, herding his oxen with a wooden stick. Three lone women had set up a market at the side of the road selling their home-grown produce, but looked to be getting little custom.
We were dropped off at a hotel with big double doors opening onto stairs that led to the reception. Locals, dressed in traditional outfits, crowded around the doors and sat on the steps. Colourful woven scarves covered their heads or strapped their babies to their backs. Here and there were knock-off Adidas trainers or jumpers, or plastic wellies that looked out of place. They called out to everyone walking past, asking their names or where they were from.
The homestay was in a smaller village in the valley and to get there we were offered a 40 minute ride on the back of a motorbike. Not wanting to drive through the twisting roads in the rain, we asked if the hotel had space for us and were instead shown to a room. With peeling wall paper, curtains falling of the rails, and a hole in the wall to the hallway, the best way to describe it was Shining-esque.
A warm haven
Because of the constant downpour and the fog that hid even the opposite side of the road, our trek for the day had been cancelled. We hid in our room, the wind rattelling the windows, and only left for dinner. We found a cosy, little restaurant with cushioned benches and a warm fire. The only customers there, we got the server’s full attention – when she wasn’t breast-feeding her child. She even offered us an umberella as we left.
The hike begins
By the next morning the rain had stopped and we were sorted into groups for a hike. A local woman had a scrap of paper with our names scribbled on it so we followed her outside with about twenty other tourists and locals. Mist still hid the mountains but the road was visible. Our guide led us along, swerving cars and motorbikes, and I began to fear the whole trek would be like this. Then she turned and slid down a mud bank at the side of the road. It was steep and slippery; I was still scared but for a completely different reason. I don’t like hills.
The locals went ahead and held out their hands to steady us. With them was a girl, Ki, who can’t have been more than 10. She held my hand though it wouldn’t have helped if I had slipped. There was also a lady with a baby on her back, and woman who was 57, both who were more sure-footed than us.
As we walked, they folded grass into horses and flowers into hearts that they tied up with thread from their scarves. They asked where we were from and if we had siblings. They congratulated my parents on their two sons that made up for me being a girl. A 22-year-old mother of two, who’d been married for 6 years, was surprised Sam and I weren’t married already. We asked where her husband and all the other men were. They were out working for food, either fishing or farming, she wasn’t sure.
We trudged up and down the mountain, following no real path. We walked through clouds, streams, valleys and flooded rice paddies. We balanced along the ridges while the locals waded through in their wellies. There was giant bamboo, and wild pigs and water buffalo.
After more than 3 hours we came to a paved road where people were selling sugarcane. There was a dam with an overflow, from which the nearby village got their water. It spilled over the road and we used it to wash our hands and the worst of the mud off our boots and trousers.
As we got closer to the village, there were more wooden huts and stray dogs. We crossed a rickety, rusting bridge to the main road. It was crowded with men in baggy, ripped clothes trying to sell us a lift on the back of their motorbikes.
On one side was a wide, concrete building – the restaurant where we were having lunch. It looked out onto the river on one side and fields on the other. There were children, cats and dogs running everywhere. We sat on wooden stumps and were served spring rolls, rice, spicy curry, cucumber and watermelon.
The guilt trip
As we’d arrived at the restaurant, the locals had split off from us. They rejoined us, their arms full with hand-woven bags, purses and scarves, and metal and gemstone jewellery. We politely declined, saying we already had bags or we were allergic to silver. They persisted, reminding us that they’d helped us down the mountain. Sam started to reach for his wallet, asking if I wanted a purse.
I did feel sorry for them, having to go to those lengths for the slim chance of a sale but it annoyed me that they’d only been kind to get something in return, and even more so that they’d managed to make Sam feel guilty. I had been happy to tip them for their help but now it seemed forced; maybe they weren’t the friendly locals we thought.
We toured the village after, with only our guide remaining. She showed us the school, though many children didn’t attend. I stuck my head in the classroom and they chorussed “hello” after me. One of our group took a picture with them, laying a hand on a confused boy’s shoulder. Don’t be that guy.
Elsewhere in the village was a man slicing the trunk of a banana tree; a couple carving religious statues; a pig trussed up in a cage, unable to move; a few duck ponds; and two men transporting wood on the back of motorbike. Laid sideways and as wide as the street, it threatened to turn into a slapstick sketch.
We followed the road to some waiting minibuses that took us back to Sa Pa in time for the sleeper bus back to Hanoi. Just like that it was back to shorts and sunglasses. Despite the guilt trip and only getting one of the two hikes we were promised (one was enough!) we really enjoyed it. You can do it alone but I’d be worried about getting lost. At $46 (£33) per person, a tour is well worth it.