Trekking 18kms through Sapa

10 December 2012
by Phuoc

Did you know that there are about 54 ethnic groups recognised by the Vietnamese government? All of which have their own language, cuisine, cultural and lifestyle.

The main ethnic group is the Vietnamese people, otherwise known as Kinh. One of the places in Vietnam to see some of the other ethnic groups is in Sapa (it is here that the Kinh people are a minority). From what I saw prior to our trip, it looked like such a beautiful place with stunning scenery. We wanted to get a taste of the life these ethnics people live so we booked a 2 day trekking tour for the two of us which included a personal tour guide and homestay in one of the villages.

It was a very cold and early morning when we arrived at Sapa. We had to wait in the office of our tour company before meeting up with our tour guide, Mao; a 17 year old H’mong girl who speaks really good English. What surprised us the most was that she had only spent 2 years learning to speak English by picking it up from tourists. For the next day and a half, she showed us around various villages. She informs us that we’ll be trekking 18kms during our tour; 12kms on the first day and 6kms on the second.

What was good about this tour was that we were the only ones on it. Well… Until our entourage came with us but more on that later…

When you arrive to Sapa, prepare to be swamped by ethnic ladies. Not just from one lady, but from at least 3! I swear, they are in on something, to stick as groups to gain bargaining power… “Oh you buy from her… Why don’t you buy from me?” and so forth. And these ladies can be very persistent as well! There’s only so much bracelets, bags and cushion covers that you can buy!

First up in our tour we are taken to the Sapa markets, which is split up into two sections; markets for the ethnic locals and markets for the tourist/non-ethnic Vietnamese locals. Here in the ethnic locals sections you’ll find clothing, material and jewelry made especially for the ethnic people. One of the reasons why non-ethnic locals don’t shop here is because the dark dye used for the fabric runs out and stains intensely. The non-ethnic market sold regular clothes, fabric and wares.

Below these markets are the wet food markets; where everything is freshly slaughtered or picked and laid out for you to see. Mao showed us some products that are produced locally in the Sapa region. Some of these included some fruit and veg, medicinal herbs and teas and she points out a potent apple wine made with dried pieces of apple. Unfortunately we didn’t get to try it but I’m sure it would’ve definitely kept us warm.

As we were about to make our way to begin our trek, we were informed that the grounds were muddy due overnight rains. I had noticed most of the H’mong ladies and Mao wearing gum boots so we decided to buy some for ourselves. Throughout the trek we encountered many muddy puddles that were almost knee-deep. Thank goodness we made the decision to buy these gum boots because 1) our joggers would’ve been extremely wet & muddy (there’s nothing worst than walking around for long distances with wet socks and shoes) and 2) we didn’t have a spare change of clothes with us (well we had a sport bag of clothes, shoes, towels etc but since we had to carry it with us for the entire trek we decided in the last minute to leave it at the tour office and only carry a few essential items in our small backpack). Best $5 purchase EVER!

It was an extremely foggy day, the fog was dense and our visibility was about 50 metres (or less!).

As soon as we begun our trek we had an entourage of 4 H’mong ladies following us. They all asked Ant and I our names, age and where we came from. Then they’d all reply back with “Beautiful name… So young…” We were expecting them to then try sell us things but they didn’t. Instead they walked with us to their village, Lao Chai, and helped us down steep and muddy slope! Most of the time they were extremely helpful and in most cases we’d have 2 ladies holding our hands and telling us where to step to make sure that we don’t fall! There was this lady who held my hand so tightly and in a very awkward position that I felt she was going to break it off at some point. Also, these ladies were small, so we couldn’t help but think “What could they possibly do if one of us (or someone heavier than us) was to fall?

There was one slope that we’d never forget; we had to go down this muddy slope that had an inclination of about 60-70° and not to mention that about 1 meter out from the base of this slope was a cliff! Oh and did I mention the fog? So if we were to stumble down this slope horribly, there’s no way knowing what was ahead of us if we fell over the edge.

Despite the fog, the views were amazing nonetheless. The fog added a sense of mystery among the rice paddy fields.

During the first day of our 12km trek through Sapa, at our first stop over, we were confronted with a bunch of children whom were roughly 6 years old. They were trying to sell us walking sticks made of bamboo. They were very persistent in trying to sell these to us and we did feel very guilty saying no to them. It was until Mao told us that these kids were skipping school (which is all paid for by the government) just to make money; so buying something from them would only encourage them to not go to school. We had no idea that this was the case! So Mao told us that if we wanted to buy something then we should do so from the older ladies instead.

As we were trekking through the rice paddy fields, we stumbled upon some men who were cutting and weighing up portions of meat in the middle of nowhere. It turns out that their buffalo had died due to the cold weather. Water buffalos are seen as prized possession to a family; often seen to be apart of the family even. They essentially plough the rice paddy fields and therefore bring income into a family. So when this buffalo passed away, as sad/bad as it sounds, the family saw it as a lost to their income, so they had to sell the meat. Even in death, it still can provide something for a family.

Mao bought a piece for us to have later that night for dinner. I just loved how within 5 hours, we went from seeing the dead animal to having it on our plate. You can’t get any fresher than this! This experience was one that I would remember for the rest of my life and appreciate; because it’s not everyday life that you see something like this. In case we have some sensitive people here I’ve decided not to post the pictures but instead provided links for those who want to see what we saw. Men working on cutting up the buffalo and a man carrying the buffalo’s head and hooves on a bamboo pole.

We also learnt from Mao that the ethnic minority believe that the horn of buffalos carry medicinal healing powers. So when someone is sick, they heat up the cut end of the horn and imprint it on the temples or forehead, and they’ll recover within a week.

We eventually arrive at Lao Chai; the village of the Black H’mong ethnic group. It is here where we took a break and grabbed something light to eat before moving to the next destination. Lunch was a simple affair of a bread roll, piece of Laughing Cow cheese, some tomato slices and ham to assemble our own roll, accompanying some fruit; watching other tourist get harassed by the H’mong ladies.

Remember earlier when I said that we thought it was odd that our entourage didn’t pester us to buy their wares? Well when we arrived at the village, it was their cue to bring out their goodies. And of course, we had to buy one item from each of them! Don’t get me wrong, we were going to give them something for helping us out throughout the trek but we just thought it was funny that we got hit at the end with their more expensive goods.. Ahh well…

We make our way through the village and have a peek into some homes to get a sense of what the life is like for the H’mong people. From what I saw and gathered, they live their lives using only what they need. What they make, grow and can sell, they make do with only what they have.

For example, to make a dress, flax are processed to make linen fiber, and these fibers are then hand-woven to make fabric before they are dyed with natural ingredients such as indigo, saffron and betel. After this, the dyed fabric is embroidered and sewn to form a complete outfit. This process is taught to girls at a young age of about 7, as it is seen to be a criteria for good judgement of character and a way to find a good husband. The women essentially make one new outfit every year, and they get the chance to show off their handiwork when they celebrate the New Year. Think of it as the ultimate annual fashion parade for the H’mong people.

It was around 3pm when we arrived at our homestay. Initially I thought that we were going to be staying with a H’mong family but instead the homestay was hosted by a young Kinh family. This spacious two-storey homestay features plenty of bedding fitted with mosquito nets and a heavy, fluffy blanket to keep you warm and snuggly on those extremely cold nights where the temperature drops below zero degrees! There was a mini bar available for us to help ourselves to alcoholic drinks, a pool table to keep us entertained and that was pretty much it.

We had to hide inside the homestay for a bit as there were H’mong ladies standing outside waiting to pounce on us. Like I said, these ladies are very persistent!

Not knowing what else to do with ourselves, having a few alcoholic drinks just didn’t seem appropriate for the setting we were in and the fact that we’ll be trekking again the next day, we decided to watch the men that were building another homestay just across from where we were staying. It was quite entertaining to see the method they were using; basically sit on a log to levitate the house’s frame up as others placed blocks of concrete to level everything out. No need for machinery to get the job done.

Also I would like to point out the pictures in the top left and bottom right corners. Notice the fog? That was how dense it was! I took the bottom right picture early in the morning on the second day of our trek before the fog rolled in again. Also, what amazed me was that these men camped out overnight in those tents. We were in our beds and it was still freezing! I can’t imagine how these men managed to survive the night sleeping out in the cold.

Running out of things to do, we make our way back into the kitchen where we see Mao preparing our dinner, so I offered to help. I start chatting to the homestay host, despite her strong Northern ascent, I managed to understand vaguely that her husband leaves for work at the markets very early in the morning and arrives back home late at night while she looks after their daughter and maintains the homestay. Being able to speak to the locals definitely has its perks.

What you see is somewhat typical of a Vietnamese kitchen. The stove is tends to be powered by wood/fire (the old school way) or by gas. All of the food prep and cleaning takes place on the floor (don’t worry, the food doesn’t actually touch the ground). There are no benches for you to chop up ingredients so you have to do so by either sitting on the tiny stool or squat. Damn I suck at chopping veggies without a chopping board!

One of the things I loved most about traveling in Vietnam was seeing variations of the same dish. This was one of them; the simple spring roll. In the north, it is called nem rán, and chả giò in the south. The major difference between them is the wrapper used; in the north, wafer-thin rice paper sheets are used whilst egg wrappers are used in the south. As my parents are from the south, we grew up with the latter so this time was the first time I had the northern version.

Filled with wood-ear fungus, green shallots, carrots, jicama and crushed up instant noodles. These were possibly the best spring rolls that I’ve had in a while. Crispy exterior and moreish filling, you can’t possibly stop at having just one.

But there was more food to be had… There was another tour group staying with us in the homestay; a French mother and daughter duo. A generous banquet of fried tofu (done 2 ways; plain and with a tomato sauce), stir-fried pork with veggies, spring rolls, stir-fried chicken with capsicum and 3 vegetable dishes was served for the 6 of us for dinner! Ant and I felt so spoilt by the generous hospitality so we dug in and tried to eat as much as we could. It was a shame that the French ladies didn’t even bother to make an effort to eat the elaborate spread of food that was prepared for them “Oh we’re not that hungry, we had some biscuits before dinner…” That’s pretty much a slap to the face to the girls who cooked this wonderful meal for us.

This had got to be the best dish we had in Vietnam (tied with Cao Lầu). It was a simple stir fry of buffalo meat with some shredded cabbage. Initially we thought it might be tough and dry but the tenderness of the meat was out of this world. The best way for me to describe it is that it tastes like lean beef but not so “meaty”. We were so amazed by this dish and pretty much ate as much as we could because we knew it’ll be a while before we get to have it again.

So the night concludes at about 8pm when we head off to bed… I felt so old going to bed that early but I guess because there wasn’t much to do, the only thing that we could do was get some rest! And of course, being next door to a neighbour with a rooster certainly didn’t allow us to sleep peacefully too. I swear that rooster must’ve had issues with the time because it crowed multiple times throughout the night and loudly too!

After having some pancakes for breakfast and bidding farewell to our host, we were off on the second part of our trek. Once again, and on cue, we had our entourage assisting us that morning. The route was fair easier this time, just a little more muddier, but I refused receiving any help because I didn’t want to fall for that trick again.. However, I didn’t have the guts to tell Mao that we didn’t need the extra help. Maybe I should’ve told her that we wouldn’t have enough money for her tip if we had to spend more on these ladies.

The second day involved us trekking through a forest to get to a waterfall. Thankfully the day was much clearer, so it allowed us to see the stunning views around us. Rice paddy fields almost fill up every inch of land we set our eyes upon; all growing at various stages. The paddy fields require large amounts of water for irrigation and to avoid the growth of weeds; the watering system is strategically integrated into these paddy fields where they take advantage of the slope of the hills and feature channels where water can drain downwards from consecutive levels.

On the bottom right of this picture, a new rice paddy field that had been dug out could be seen.

Being knee-deep in mud throughout the trek was a joy. We felt sorry for those who were wearing sneaker/joggers as they had to carefully maneuver around and on rocks to stay clear from trapping mud and water in their shoes. I’ve said it already, but I’ll say it again. Best $5 investment EVER!

Finally, we arrive at possibly the highest vantage point that we are allowed to go. Here we get to stop to overlook the entire valley below us. Absolutely breath-taking.

Soon enough it was time for us to have lunch. We stopped over a little family-run restaurant for some noodle soup served with an omelette. As we were eating, I couldn’t help but notice the kids that were playing in front of us. They had got to be roughly 7 years old. It amazed me how much responsibility these kids displayed, with their parents probably working, they can still manage to baby sit their siblings and play at the same time! One girl had her baby sister sleeping on her back whilst she played elastics!

Making our way to the main road to get picked up by our driver, I turned around to look over what we had conquered and were about to leave behind. And what a beautiful sight that was…

The last dish I was adamant to have before we left Sapa was gà ác/đen; black chicken. No, this chicken has not been poisoned in any way, its skin is actually black and the colour of the meat has a hint of black as well. It is served to us poached, cut into pieces and with a gingery fish sauce dipping sauce. The taste is slightly gamey and firm and thought to be medicinal, although most of the time it is cooked with thuốc bắc; Chinese medicine.

What a whirlwind of an adventure that was. I would never be able to forget the experience and sightings that we saw during this 2 day trek in a remote place. It reminds me to appreciate and make the most of the things that we have. I make a vow to return to explore more of what this region has to offer. One day…


  1. john@heneedsfood

    What an amazing post! This trek brought back so many memories of the hill tribe trek we did in another area of Vietnam years ago. Man those women can be really persistent!

  2. JJ - 84thand3rd

    What a spectacular adventure, I love those last minute save the day purchases! For us it was $2 walking poles for the Inca Trail – would have been lost without them. Beautiful photos, especially of the girls 🙂

  3. Tina @ bitemeshowme

    Amazing journey Phuoc. It makes me really upset that I’ve not even been back to Vietnam, nor have my parents since first fleeing. Posts like these makes me want to just buy a ticket stat and get my butt there!

  4. Isis

    Wow, what a great post! Makes me so excited to visit sapa next year. I love your pictures!!

  5. Jacq

    Thanks for sharing this, it looks like an amazing experience! If I ever do a trek in Sapa, I’m gonna have to remember to bring some gumboots with me!

  6. Eha

    A wonderful learning experience made even more unreal by these fantastic photos: methinks the fogs helped to create the atmosphere 🙂 ! And loved the look of that buffalo dish even before I read your comments!

  7. Helen (Grab Your Fork)

    Wow what an incredible trip. The scenery is stunning and the people are so beautiful although I can just imagine how much you would have been badgered. lol. And the trek sounds rewarding but terrifying!

    I would also like one of those spring rolls. Maybe five. lol!

  8. Vivian - vxdollface

    Such an amazing culturally enriching trip! Thanks for sharing 🙂
    It’s similar in remote places in China as well, a lot of the triads recruit kids and make them pester tourists to buy things and I always feel so bad when I turn them away!

  9. Richard Elliot

    I love experiences like this when I’m on holiday. It makes you feel like you’ve experience a bit of the local life and real culture. I’m sure the memories will stay will you for a long time.

  10. Phuoc

    John: It’s kinda sad that they have to do that, but I guess they are trying to make a living afterall.

    JJ: Thanks! Life-savers they are

    Tina: Well.. What are you waiting for?! Vietnam is super cheap. Get your butt over there asap. Because writing posts like this make me want to jump on a plane already.

    Isis: You’ll love it!

    Jacq: Haha yes!

    Eha: Thanks! If you ever get a chance to try buffalo, I urge you to 🙂

    Helen: I think you get use to it after a while or develop ways to handle the ladies (one might be to not make eye contact with them :P), just don’t do what I did and reply back to them in an annoyed voice :S I’ve found the closest thing to those spring rolls at Rice Paper, Newtown. So good!

    Vivian: Aww it breaks my heart to hear that. I know they are only trying to make a living with the increase in tourism but one part of me feels that it isn’t right and that they should stick to traditions. But times are a changin’ I guess.

    Richard: Yes they will, and I want to experience more, if only I have the time and money..

  11. billy @ a table for two

    I think Sapa is the only one place that I really want to go if I go back to Vietnam again. Did the French tourists eat the food or none at all? I guess have a few taste is alright even if is not your cup of tea, but straight away saying no then yeah perhaps is a slap on the face. Those black chicken also called silkie, gosh havent had them for a long long time, mum used to make herbal silkie chicken soup, loved it!

  12. Sara (Belly Rumbles)

    Fantastic post and what an awesome journey. So glad you shared it with us. Love the photos.

  13. milkteaxx

    im planning a trip to vietnam for late enxt tear so this will definitely come in handy!

  14. Phuoc

    Billy: From what I can remember, those French ladies may have outright refused from the start to try because they had “something (ie some biscuits) to eat beforehand” but they may have touched some of the food after seeing us digging in.. But yeah.. we thought it was a little rude at the time, not too sure on their diet situation though.. And yes, I realised they were called that later. 10+ years ago my aunt made Chinese medicine silkie and I could still remember the taste of it, so on my last visit I got her to make it for me. So good!

    Sara: Thanks! I always love an adventure and love sharing it too. Beautiful scenery helps..

    Milkteaxx: How awesome! Look out for more future posts, I have something big planned 🙂

  15. RagingCravings

    Looks like a wonderful trek. Poor French ladies, so out of their element.
    Did you find it hard to breathe due to the elevation?

  16. Phuoc

    Raving Cravings: Well they are in Vietnam afterall, what did they expect?! Breathing wasn’t an issue, I don’t think we were that high up

  17. Peter N

    Thank you for sharing, it looks like you had an amazing trip to Sa Pa. Your article reminds me of when I was there and had some similar experiences. I remember meeting a shepherd boy who was working in the fields and I felt a little sorry for him. But I then realized he worked and lived everyday in a place that was one of the most beautiful I’ve seen and he didn’t have to worry about the stress and headache of modern life that I have. He should feel sorry for me!

  18. Phuoc

    Peter N: It’s funny how we think sometimes hey? We can never be too happy with what we have (or don’t have), everyone faces hardships and deals with them their own way. Just appreciate the life you live in and make it the best possible one ever 🙂

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