Sapa – Rice Paddies and Minorities

Am I glad that I did the trip! Remember? Many people told me I had to go there, but I had considered skipping it as I thought I had seen enough mountains and rice paddies already. Seeing then that tours to Sapa can be easily booked as group tours through basically any agency and guest house here in Hanoi I opted for a two day/three night version: First night on the night train to Sapa, then one day of hiking there with a tour guide, doing “homestay” for the second night (which means to stay with a local farmer in one of the minority villages), another shorter day of hiking, and the third night back on the night train to Hanoi.

Rice paddies here look like rice paddies in China, no news. But the muddy walking trails were an entirely new experience as was the encounter with the minority people. Not because of their appearance or traditions, but because of their insisting way of persuing their “business”. We’ll come back to that…

Arrival by Night Train

SP_20070801_211720.jpg: Hanoi’s station, of which I was too occupied to take a pictures, is similar a joke as the airport is: There is not even a station sign “Hanoi” anywhere and you just cross over the rail tracks to get to the right ‘platform’; trains honking like hell when moving to warn the crossing passengers. The compartment, a soft-sleeper with 6 berths, is a bit cramped. We all agreed that it would make sense to pay the additional 2 USD for a 4-berth-compartment. Next time… The people you see here I never saw again. An English (I believe) couple and 3 french women. The four people I travelled with booked earlier and were on the same car, but different compartment.

SP_20070802_053750.jpg: Arriving in Lao Cai, a very small border city (you can cross to China here), but the train station looks a lot better than of Vietnam’s capital Hanoi. But arrival was kind of sudden: The train just stopped, no announcements…all people were still in their beds and started to hurry out then. But it’s a dead end anyway…no hurry. Out on the platform early in the morning only few people looked fully awake.

SP_20070802_055405.jpg: Lao Cai train station. Not big, but nicer than Hanoi.

SP_20070802_062828.jpg: We got picked up from the train station, were put on a full bus (enough seats, but not enough space for the luggage) and carried to Sapa, a nearly 2 hour ride. This picture taken out of that bus.

Sapa proper

We were booked on a tour organized by the Sapa Bamboo Hotel. We got off the bus there (all well organized…only few people spoke English, but showing our names again and motioning us out was enough of a sign language), got the hotel’s breakfast buffet offered, and then still had an hour to kill before the hike should start. Rain set in.

SP_20070802_092946.jpg: Sapa surprised with some extremely beautiful buildings. This are not even the best ones. It could really be a fantastic mountain ressort, if it would have less motor bikes and rain πŸ˜‰ Just hanging out there can certainly be an option. It’s not big, but bigger than it looks like on first sight as we noted only when leaving yesterday evening.

SP_20070802_093257.jpg: One of the main tourist streets with hotels, restaurants, and cafΓ©s. Traffic compared to Hanoi is very relaxed, but be on your guard anyway πŸ˜‰

SP_20070802_101334.jpg: I had even time for an overpriced cappucchino (making me decide to just stick with the superior local coffee), having this view down the street.

SP_20070802_100310.jpg: Seen from the cappucchino cafΓ© (which inside is a very nice place)…

SP_20070802_100736.jpg: …how people stand the rain.

Starting the Hike

We got a local guide and were combined with 3 more people, making a group of 8 in total plus guide.

SP_20070802_110941.jpg: Hemp plants, another major crop after rice.

SP_20070802_114859.jpg: The hiking groups (all of them I saw anywhere) got intermixed with minority people who were actually waiting in front of the hotel for our start. They tried to tie some links with individuals, like by asking for the name and nationality, kept a watch on you, and were readily available when later needing help in the mud. I was too proud using their help πŸ˜‰ but others used a ready hand or had the locals carry some small things like water bottle or camera for some time in difficult terrain. The minority people certainly expect a tip in the end or at least that you buy some handcrafts from them. And that’s all fine. I must say, however, that especially in the beginning they were a bit to persistent hooking up with people and, thus, spoiled a bit enjoying the scenery. That ceased quite a bit later, though, when the trails were too small for two people to walk side by side.

SP_20070802_121330.jpg: Rice paddies…

SP_20070802_130544.jpg: …under dark rain clouds.

SP_20070802_122326.jpg: After getting down from the upper path we ended up close to a river, which you can already sense in the back of this pictures. Very intense green all over.

SP_20070802_130630.jpg: OK…I obviously had to cut a bit on the edges of this picture, coming up with this weird format, to focus the spectator on this picturesque rice terraces, but it’s worth the trick, isn’t it?

SP_20070802_123107.jpg: On the more narrow trails along the river down in the valley (but not too bad not to have time taking a picture). It is amazing how easily the locals move about these muddy paths on rubber boots or just plastic sandals, while we westerners in expensive hiking boots with super soles were sliding and slipping everwhere. We had bought bamboo poles for 5000 Dong (0,23 EUR), originally more to do the locals a favor, but the bamboo poles turned out to be a pure necessity as walking stick. We would simply not have survived (more or less) clean without them. Never go without them!

Bamboo’s probably the greatest invention of nature, highly stable, light, can swim, the younger branches still flexible while stable…there is so many things yu can use bamboo for.

SP_20070802_124920.jpg: The baby’s looking a bit skeptical. This was one of the ladies accompanying us on the trail. Don’t think she was in any way handicapped by carrying a child on her back…she moved around just like all the others, giving a hand where needed.

We had a simple lunch somewhere inbetween and I only now note that I don’t have a picture of it. The lunch by itself wasn’t so fascinating, but the minority people were standing all around the hut were we got the lunch served and started seriously selling off their handcrafts. Everybody in our group had to have his/her turn, especially trying to buy from the person who had helped them along the trail. I also had a young girl watching me. Though I had never needed her help I certainly noticed that she was always around. I really tried hard to buy something from her, but unfortunately her stuff was a lot less nice than the other peoples’. I did buy in the end a very nice wallet (which actually can serve me for the various documents I have to keep with me) and some arm bands. ‘My’ girl complained later that I didn’t buy from her and I encouraged her to show her stuff again, but she didn’t get me. Then I wanted to just give her some tip without buying, but after next stop at a local farmer’s house she was suddenyl gone… πŸ™

SP_20070802_143824.jpg: That farmer’s house, which we visited for 10 minutes. Here the blue color they use to dye their clothes. Some older people have all blue hands from this dye, which is consider being ‘experienced’.

SP_20070802_144237.jpg: Inside the farmer’s house: Very dark, very smoky. While the smoke from the cooking place certainly smells, it has the advantage that the hut stays dry and free of mosquitoes.

The Mud

The came the fun part…well…it was fun once thinking back to it…

SP_20070802_151358.jpg: Mud all over…actually, our guide was trying to convince us that what we see here is an infrastructure-improvement project in progress, performed at bad timing: During the rain season.

SP_20070802_152424.jpg: The result: Very dirty shoes…we could clean them later a bit at the homestay location and got it perfectly cleaned and dried for just 25.000 Dong in Sapa within 2 hours πŸ˜‰ These guys know where they can make business!

SP_20070802_152620.jpg: Locals vs westerners: ‘We’ try to find pahts where we don’t sink too deep, locals just walk through and wash there feet in the next creek.

SP_20070802_152646.jpg: Looks like Chrion (in the pink rain coat) is fleeing the water buffalo, isn’t it? In reality it was not so dramatic, the water buffalo just slowly moved along. But the pic has kind of a dramatic effect, no doubt πŸ˜‰


As said earlier the homestay locations are supervised by government, so they are in good condition and clean. And ours had a particular good location with great views from the terrace.

SP_20070802_162903.jpg: The ladies didn’t stop trying to sell their handcrafts to us just because we arrived at the destination. They found a particular liking with Chiron and he kept on haggling with them, finally bought one larger piece from each of the four ladies. And then finally, thanks to him, we could get rid of them and start enjyoing the evening.

SP_20070802_171524.jpg: Like by taking a bath in the nearby river. I unfortunately had no spare shorts with me and needed to watch, standing only knee-deep in the fresh water.

SP_20070802_172937_Nuno.jpg: The terrace entrance of the homestay house, after returning from swimming in the river. The rain had now, that we had arrived, stopped.

SP_20070802_181415.jpg: Terrace view.

SP_20070802_191509.jpg: The host family is preparing the dinner over open fire in the kitchen room.

SP_20070802_194042_Nuno.jpg: All of us at the dinner table: You see it is loaded with food, one dish better than the other. Meat dishes (chicken, pork, beef) and vegetable dishes, tea…and…certainly…rice wine. The host wife, in the bottom left corner, set the pace for emptying the glasses of rice wine. And she kept going thoughout the evening. There were 4 ‘hard’ drinkers in our group (yea…me amongst them) and we five basically emptied a 1.5 liter water bottle of rice wine plus some remainders from two other bottles. It was good and smooth stuff and we certainly got a bit drunk, but on the next morning no hangover whats’o’ever. Good stuff, as I said.

SP_20070803_090346.jpg: Breakfast next morning consisted of some of the best pancakes I ever ate, with banana and honey.

SP_20070802_203144.jpg: Quick wrap-up on the animals at the farmer’s house: A very young and very shy cat, which didn’t even successfully catch this huge bug lying helplessly upside down on the concrete floor.

SP_20070802_211927.jpg: But it certainly was a cute pet to play with πŸ˜‰

SP_20070803_100145.jpg: The house dog is female, very calm (but occasinally barked at local passers-by) and feeds on rice!

SP_20070803_093252.jpg: Water buffalos, certainly. But pay attention to that “albino” buffalo on the right-hand side! I got confirmed it is also a water buffalo, but nobody was able to answer my question as to why that animal is white.

SP_20070803_101317.jpg: Also a nice pic: A cock swaggering through the rice paddies.

Second Day Hike

At some time we started into the second day’s hike (yes, again accompanied by minority people, but this time I did not get hooked up with one of them):

SP_20070803_104749.jpg: It started simple, with dry paths…

SP_20070803_104837.jpg: …through colorful rice paddies…

SP_20070803_110051.jpg: …some colors at the side of the road, too.

SP_20070803_110305.jpg: Nice catch of two shades of green.

SP_20070803_110829.jpg: But we are closing in on the bamboo forest, on top of this picture. Looks from far like any normal forest. The pic shows another unknown group walking 5 minutes in front of us.

SP_20070803_114541.jpg: Inside the bamboo forest, however, there was a lot of bamboo, true, good to grap for support on the muddy paths. But the paths turned worse and worse. Here I still found the time to take a picture, later I was entirely occupied to find steps for my feet. I had more or less cleaned my shoes at the famrer’s, but half-way through the bamboo forest gave up again and just walked ahead, no matter what the shoes looked like. The basically ended up looking like the day before…

SP_20070803_115857.jpg: Leaving the bamboo forest we reached a waterfall where we had a break. Long enough to again clean the shoes, for the last time!

SP_20070803_123057_Nuno.jpg: A suspension bridge crossing a river. On the far side to the left we had our lunch break:

The End

SP_20070803_123515_Nuno.jpg: Which is here. This time we had more luck with the rain: Rain set in exactly by the time we sat down here. Most people went swimming in the river once more.

SP_20070803_131238.jpg: Two-class society: We were enjoying our drinks sitting at tables, the minority people, who had accompanied us and other groups were standing outside under the roof of the nearby house, watching us in the hope for some last selling opportunities, separated by heavy rain.

SP_20070803_144354_Nuno.jpg: From the lunch place it was just a few minutes up-hill walk back to the main street where a van was waiting for us to bring us back to Sapa, where we shot this group picture. Street hawkers came to offer cleaning our shoes, great! I had cleaned mine, but they promised to dry them, too, which was even more important. So I gave my shoes, too. And they came back very clean and dry shortly before we boarded our bus back to Lao Cai…

SP_20070803_202107_Nuno.jpg: …where we had a brief dinner and then boarded our train, right at the moment when torrental rains set in.

On the way back I slept fairly bad due to two people in my compartment (I certainly had again a different one then the other four of my original group from Hanoi) snoring all night. But we arrived save and sound in Hanoi at 05:30 in the morning, even Hanoi still sleeping by that time. Lots of taxis waiting in the traffic chaos in front of the station, but when we arrived back at the guest house the streets there were still entirely asleep. We, too, were still sleepy. We got into the guest house, sat down, finally lie down on the stone floor of the reception room, together with the guest house ladies, and tried to sleep some more until 7am, when the entire house awoke.

I then did not again get a room in the guest house, hm…poor planning actually. So they send me a man from another guest house nearby where I got a room.

Except for exchanging picture and writing this here we didn’t do much more. Two of the group had a tour to the Perfume Pagoda, the other tour were booked on a bus to Laos, scheduled for 6pm. So these two and me just walked around the city a bit, had a coffee here, a beer there, and an early dinner at yet another place. Well, yea, that was basically already today πŸ˜‰

Further Plans

…stay as stated, which means: Tomorrow (Sunday) morning I am on a tour to Halong Bay and will come back on Tuesday, but more or less immediately continue on a night train to Hue in Central Vietnam. I have no idea when I will be able to write about Halong Bay and especially when I will be able to find a connection for my laptop to the internet again. No problem to find internet-connected computers, but not WLAN access for my personal laptop. Even here in Hanoi I found only one cafe with WLAN access, where I always headed to do my updates. So please be patient!

Today’s Lesson: Go with rubber boots.

Categories: AsiaSapa

Originally Created: 08/04/2007 04:59:54 AM

Last Edited: 08/04/2007