Vietnam: Sapa

Sapa is a town which is rather close to the Chinese border. It’s known for for its rice paddys as well as a selection of surrounding hiking trails, which are often sold as ‘packages’ with a local home-stay for accommodation. I visited Sapa for a week along with some of the fellow volunteers from VCV, where I’ve been teaching English.

This is a photo I took from the top of a surrounding hill. The town itself lies at around 1500m above sea level.

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The bus from Ha Noi took around 5 hours and cost around 450,000VMD from memory. When we got there, we hired scooters and made our way to our home-stay, which is where we would be staying for the next few days. The home-stay cost 150,000VMD and included a home-cooked dinner every night.

For the life of me I can’t find a good photo of the place we stayed in, but it was essentially a barn with a couple of different rooms. We stayed in the loft. Here is a photo of the kitchen:

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The food here was, for lack of a better description, fucking awesome. They cooked french fries as an entrée  most nights, perhaps because we were white, but they were the best fries I’ve had in my life. The rest of it was authentic Vietnamese egg and meat dishes, as well as fresh vegetables. It was quite an experience.

I think this is a rat.

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Dirt floors and everything. The only downside of our trip to Sapa was that it was pretty frickin’ cold most of the time. At night it dropped below 0 degrees. I wore thermals the entire time I was in Sapa.

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Some more photos of the place we stayed at. Local children would play football in 0 degree weather among all the animals.

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During the day we would typically find a small trail to walk, or go for a tour of the surrounding rice paddys and small villages. It’s obvious that a lot of the locals realise there is money to be made from tourists, but that doesn’t take away from the authentic feel to the place once you get outside of the main town itself.

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The main Sapa street. At night, local woman will camp on the side of the road in freezing temperatures, hoping to sell their home made crafts for a couple of dollars. I don’t know how to feel about it.

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Over the course of a few days, I must have done around 200km on that little 110cc scooter. I have a lot more respect for those bikes after the beating I put it through!

This is a typical road in the Sapa valley.

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One day a few of us had to kill some time so we made our way to an abandoned building halfway up the valley where we were staying. We took with us a couple of bottle of $7 Vietnamese vodka (it isn’t too bad actually, only 33% though). While we were up there we were joined briefly by some Vietnamese tourists by Saigon, who offered us some of their rice wine. After drinking the wine (which, again, is essentially methylated spirits) I noticed what looked to be mushrooms in the bottom of the bottle. Thinking we might be tripping out for the next few hours, I asked what they were. It’s OK though, they weren’t mushrooms. Just cat’s ears.

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My Irish buddy Jack, with the cat’s ears wine.

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One thing I haven’t gotten used to is people (especially Chinese) asking for photos with me, because of my colour and height. This guy was over the moon when we agreed (we weren’t given much of an option) to have a photo with him.

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That photo above was taken on the way up one of the walks; here are some more photos. Thanks to my friend Hanna for some of these shots from her DSLR!

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It was so cold there that most nights we would leave the barn and brave the cold to drive to the main street to find a bar which would sell us mulled / hot wine. I developed quite a liking for this stuff.

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In summary – if you are in northern Vietnam, you can’t miss Sapa. You can do it on any kind of budget, and being a backpacker most certainly doesn’t exclude it. Sure, prices here are going to be slightly higher than elsewhere due to being so far away and being popular. But don’t go in the peak season and you’ll be fine.

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Tips:

  • Don’t stay in a hotel… stay with a home stay for a more authentic experience.
  • As with anywhere else, shop around for food and drink before deciding on a place. A 50m walk down the road off the main stretch can mean a 50% saving.
  • Get a semi-automatic motorbike. The hills are steep and you will want control of the gears.
  • Go in the off-season. It’s much nicer when there aren’t loads of tourists around.
  • Don’t burn semi-dry wood in the barn in the middle of the night, the smoke might kill your friends.

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