Before setting off on the Sapa trek and homestay organised by Vietnam Backpacker Hostels, I was really apprehensive. I’d had to postpone it twice – once because of a serious cold that kept me in bed for almost a week, and once because I managed to cut the sole of my foot open after capsizing a kayak in Halong Bay. It seemed like the universe was warning me I shouldn’t go, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep up with the rest of the group thanks to my recent afflictions.
As it turned out, Sapa was one of the best tours I’ve ever been on, and here are a few reasons why.
MOUNTAIN VIEW HOSTEL
The Sapa trek and homestay tour is a three day/two night trip, but only the second night is spent at a homestay. After being transported to Sapa by minibus, our group was welcomed into Mountain View – a branch of Vietnam Backpacker Hostels. It’s located on the hillside with stunning views and a laid back atmosphere. Backpackers lounge on bean bags and carpets or sip a beer at the bar. It’s sociable, but it doesn’t have the intense party feel of Downtown in Hanoi. We were given a brief explanation of what there was to do in Sapa before deciding to rent motorbikes and check out a couple of waterfalls and viewpoints nearby. In the evening, we found a pleasant restaurant in town and got to know each other a little better before the hike.
OUR GUIDE COU
Our guide Cou greeted us the next morning and from the start he was upbeat with a fantastic sense of humour. He quickly learned all our names and nationalities, and made an effort to chat to each of us as we trekked. We stopped regularly – often to learn interesting facts about the local villages, customs and history. He helped us when the path became more challenging and was in no small part responsible for our night at the homestay turning into a crazy party – but more on that later.
RELATIVELY EASY HIKING
From the way other travellers had described trekking in Sapa, I expected it to be tough going. It’s a pretty hilly region and we were warned there would be some steep climbs. This was true, but our guide was so eager to make it an enjoyable experience for everyone that he included loads of breaks. With the opportunity to rest, take a few sips of water and admire the views every few minutes, we were rarely out of breath and group morale remained high. We were lucky that it didn’t rain, as one of the descents was hairy enough on solid ground, but we did have to be vigilant with the sunscreen. It’s a good idea to come prepared for any kind of weather and it even gets quite chilly up in the mountains after the sun goes down.
The scenery around Sapa is incredibly beautiful, with rice fields, dense forest, rivers, rickety bridges and huge waterfalls. The footpath winds through quaint villages and in and out of valleys where you can see for miles in every direction. At times, you may even catch a glimpse of the highest peak in Indochina – Mount Fansipan.
FRIENDLY VILLAGE LOCALS
For the first half of day one, we were accompanied by some women from one of the nearby tribal villages. They walked among us practising English phrases, teaching us a few words of Vietnamese, showing us how to make horses from plant stems, and guiding us across stepping stones. We watched a dance performance in a school, observed men cutting buffalo skin into strips, learned how the river is used to power rice-crushing machinery, and interacted with adorable local children. Of course, when we stopped for lunch, the women tried very insistently to sell us handcrafted souvenirs, but their company was so appreciated that most of us relented.
Our homestay couldn’t have been in a more picturesque location. As we hiked down into the valley we were greeted by excitable children waving enthusiastically and screaming ‘hello’ over and over again. The house itself was virtually surrounded by imposing mountains carpeted in forest, and a thin cascade of water plummeted towards the valley floor from high above us. We were given a heartfelt welcome by our host family who prepared snacks and a buffet-style traditional Vietnamese meal, as well as beers and rice wine. We stayed in dorm-style accommodation in comfortable beds with blankets and mosquito nets.
We’d been pre-warned by Cou that we’d be drinking at least ten shots of homemade rice wine each on the evening of the homestay, but few of us believed him. As it turned out, most of us smashed that target and kept on going. As we ate dinner, Cou would return to the table every few minutes and refill our porcelain cups, and we took it in turn to cheers to increasingly ridiculous topics. Not long after the first few shots we were all grinning like idiots, dancing to Backstreet Boys, doing limbo using our arms as a rope, leg wrestling and posing for photos like the one above. Suffice it to say that rice wine is the best drink on the planet and guarantees you’ll have an amazing night!
We may have already strained our vocal cords while under the influence the night before, but singing also provided us with a lot of entertainment on day two as we struggled up a massive hill, sleep deprived and mildly hungover. After becoming convinced that her struggles were ‘all in the mind’, one of the girls who found the climb especially challenging launched into a solo rendition of S Club’s ‘Don’t Stop Moving’. Some of us started to offer encouragement by joining in, and before we knew it, our group of relative strangers was skipping through the stunning landscape of Sapa belting out a rendition of Mariah Carey’s ‘Hero’ without a care in the world.
THE BEST GROUP
Sapa would have been an incredible experience whoever I’d shared it with, but thanks to Lizzetta, Joep, Bo, Kristina, Mo, Adrienne, Ge, Daisy and Jessica, it went far beyond expectations. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.