After another night in Hanoi after our Halong Bay Cruise, we spent the day hanging out at the Lake waiting for our night bus to the Northern mountain town of Sapa.
As described in a previous post, if you sit at the lake long enough, you are bound to be approached by university students hoping to speak with you and practice their English. On this day we were approached by a 9 year old boy who spoke better English than almost anyone else we had met in Vietnam! He was super cute and convinced Jojo to race with him and play tag. He told us that his favorite foods were hamburgers and pizza and that when he grows up he wants to be the president of a bank. When we told him we were American, he changed his mind and told us he wanted to be the President of America! Too cute.
Our night bus was to pick us up at 9:00pm back at our hotel where we had booked the ticket, and on our way back we stopped for pizza cones…which is exactly what it sounds like.
The night bus was packed with backpackers dressed in cold weather attire in preparation for the journey north. Unlike the previous sleeper buses we had taken, this one had really thick blankets, which made the trip significantly more comfortable. Not only do the buses not have heat, but it is impossible to turn the air conditioning all the way off (which is not especially ideal in 40 degree weather.)
We arrived in Sapa just before 6:30am, and we were allowed to continue sleeping until about 7. When we got off the bus, we were immediately hounded by people offering hotel rooms and Hmong women from the surrounding villages inviting us to stay in their homes. As we wearily exited the bus, we tried to dodge them so that we could have a minute to think before we decided on our next move, only to be relentlessly followed down the street. After several minutes of trying to politely refuse their offers, one of the women (named Zein) finally broke us and started telling us about her village. For $60, she would guide us on two days of trekking, home-cooked meals included, and one night’s stay. We have no idea if this was good deal or the typical going rate for homestays but we thought it sounded fair, so we agreed to it.
A seemingly random guy on a moto rolled up and we were instructed to give him our packs so that he could drive them to the village. This was a little nerve-racking, but it didn’t seem prudent to argue. So, freshly off a 10 hour night bus from Hanoi to Sapa, we watched our bags being whisked away, and began what would be a 4 hour trek literally up and down mountains to the village of Hau Thao.
We had been freezing cold when we first arrived in the misty town, but we were soon sweating bullets as we made our way through the muddy terrain. Sometimes there was sort of a road, but it was mostly really treacherous rock ‘trails’ and the mud certainly didn’t help.
This was much more than your typical hike through the woods. 90% of the journey was on a 45 degree incline either up or down, and if we weren’t slipping and falling in the mud, we were squeezing to the edge of the trail to let a buffalo pass by or hopping over small streams to avoid wet socks.
Winter in the northern region of Vietnam is very wet, so the visibility wasn’t the greatest; but it was sort of magical walking through the mist and looking over the cliffs into nothingness.
After what seemed like a never ending trek, we finally made it to Zein’s home. The house was constructed out of wood with a cement floor. The house was very open and didn’t really have separate rooms as much as different areas for things like cooking or eating. There was hardly anything in the house apart from a table and plastic chairs, a tv, a firepit, and cooking supplies. We were warmly welcomed into her home by her husband and children as they started making us lunch. When she saw us shivering, one of Zein’s daughters brought us an electric stove to warm our hands, as the house had no insulation. They also had a lot of animals. Aside from the pigs and ducks they kept outside, they also had two dogs with several puppies and two scrawny cats that were running around and sneaking food from the table.
After a huge lunch of rice, tofu, pork, and vegetables, we went for a walk around the Hau Thao village. We carefully walked along rice paddies and visited the home of one of Zein’s friends who was also accompanying us, named Ma Ma Mue. Her home was a little smaller but almost identical in style with large open areas.
It felt like we had just eaten lunch when Zein’s daughters started preparing dinner. Her oldest daughter was only 14, but seemed to be responsible for most of the cooking and cleaning in the house. We sat around the fire and watched them prepare a dish with pork and mushrooms.
After dinner, Zein brought out a water bottle full of homemade rice wine that she insisted we finish with her. I could only stomach one, but Jojo and Zein had about six! Although her English was limited, she knew how to say “Cheers!” in several different languages and after a few shots, she started apologizing for talking too much. It was hard to understand everything she was saying, but she started telling us some of her drinking stories which were really fun to listen to!
We were pretty exhausted by the time 9pm rolled around, and decided it was time for bed. Our sleeping arrangements consisted of several thick blankets on the ground under a mosquito net, up in the loft where all of the rice was kept. While it was certainly a basic sort of accommodation, the welcome warmth of the blankets in combination with sleep deprivation and a long day of serious trekking lead to a long a glorious night of sleep.
We woke up around 7 or 8 to the sounds of the girls cooking. After a breakfast of rice and the absolute best fried spring rolls ever, we prepared ourselves for the long trek back to Sapa.
This time we followed the road which should have been significantly easier than the way we had originally come. This time we had to carry our backpacks the whole way though, so it was still just as difficult but in a different way.
The visibility was much better on this day so we could actually see the farms and rice paddies carved into the mountains. The view was breathtaking and it gave us more of an appreciation for what exactly we had hiked through the day before!
Several hours later we had finally made it back to Sapa. Originally we had intended to take a sleeper bus that night back to Hanoi, but we were beyond exhausted and unbelievably cold, so we decided to find a hotel and spend the night in Sapa instead. Our hotel had no heat, but it did have electric blankets so we happily spent the rest of the evening resting in our warm bed and had the receptionist book a bus back to Hanoi for us in the morning.
We were so happy that we went to Sapa on our own instead of through a group tour. We found out that group tours went to ‘registered homestays’ as opposed to the one we went to, where you and 20 other people are put in what is more of a hotel than a homestay and given a much less authentic experience. We were able to support a local family and given incredibly genuine, one-on-one hospitality by Zein’s family. It was a very unique experience and we would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of visiting this beautiful area!
2-Egg Coffee: 40,000vnd
1-Banh Mi: 20,000vnd
1-Caramel Freeze: 55,000vnd
2-Pizza Cones + Treat: 64,000vnd
2-Night bus to Sapa: 660,000vnd
Total Spent: 1,249,000vnd ($58.45 USD)
Total Spent: 1,535,000vnd ($71.84 USD)
Coca Cola / Chips: 25,000vnd
Total Spent: 614,000vnd ($28.74 USD)