North to Sapa

It was time to leave the city and get back to nature. I love cosmopolitan places for a short time, but I’m really a country mouse at heart. In my opinion, there is nothing a trendy cafe or world class museum has on a stunning sunset over the ocean or sunshine glistening on fresh green leaves. I feel at home in wide open spaces, dirt between my toes and a lifestyle in harmony with nature.

I have always loved the mountains, I was born in them. Four days in Hanoi was plenty, so I headed north to Sapa. The ride on the bus was about six hours and gradually went from flat to the steep peaks so characteristic of the northern region. Everything became greener and soon I could see the terraced rice fields that are on every postcard or poster around Sapa. Unfortunately, I was there in the fall long after the rice had been harvested, so it wasn’t as green but still very beautiful.

I found Mao, a Hmong trekking guide, at my guesthouse. As trekking was my focus for being in Sapa, I was going to go with a company recommended online as I didn’t want to head out into the hills overnight with just anyone. But I had a really good feeling about Mao, so we planned a two day trek with a homestay in a nearby village.

We set out late morning in the mist, not enough to put a damper on the hike, but enough to make the trail slick and muddy. We began in town then climbed and descended then climbed again. The scenery was beautiful and I followed Mao down the trails and through the villages all the while asking her about life in the area.

Like northern regions of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, Vietnam is home to many ethnic minority groups including the Black Hmong, Red Hmong (getting their name from the color of their traditional clothes), Flower Hmong, Dzay and Dzao. Mao is from the Black Hmong tribe, but she sometimes likes sporting clothes from the other tribes which doesn’t seem to be an issue. I ask her a lot of questions about the clothes. Her top was woven hemp and batiked with indigo and the collar was hand embroidered. She made everything herself and she makes a new outfit every year which debuts at a big celebration during the lunar calendar’s new year in February. She is already several weeks in to working on this year’s garment.

We walked several hours and finally ended up at our homestay. There was a party of seven already there when we arrived. They were New Zealanders working at an international school in Ho Chi Minh and they were taking a mid term holiday in Sapa. We ate a wonderful dinner made by the lovely Dzay lady who is in charge of the homestay. My muscles were really sore, so I went to the village spa where I soaked in an herbal bath made of 16 local plants. It was amazing and I felt much better afterwards. Not sure if this was because of the warm water or the magical plants.

The next morning we set off after our banana pancake breakfast. As we started walking, an elderly woman came with us. I asked if Mao knew her, she said she didn’t. OK, cool. We got to know her along the way. Her name was Yin, she’s 75 years old, she was on her way to the bus stop to sell fabrics and trinkets to the tourists.

The weather was much better the second day and we took our time, resting often to check out the scenery, make hearts & animals out of the ferns and just enjoy being in the mountains. We walked through pastures, rice fields, villages and across bridges. Mid day we ended at the bus stop where there were loads of other hikers waiting to get back to Sapa town. Mao did a great job of choosing routes to avoid the herds. I hardly saw anyone the two days we were out there.

I was sad to be back in the town already and I should have stuck with my original plan of going for three days and two nights especially since the weather on the day we were heading back was getting sunny. I was happy to have had the time out there that I did. The landscape is beautiful and the people are incredibly warm and friendly. Where else in the world does everyone leave with a friendship bracelet? Now I know that Sapa exists and would be happy to return any day.