It turns out that the 9 a.m. van from Sapa to Điện Biên Phủ departs at 8 a.m. I was running late and as the last person to be picked up, there was no room for my duffel behind the last seat with the rest of the baggage. My bag stayed in the aisle for the duration of the eight-hour trip and was routinely sat upon, kicked and stepped on. Had I not been a packing expert, my toiletries never would have survived the journey. The owner of my hotel in Sapa booked my seat on the sixteen passenger mini-bus for 250,000 VND ($10 USD), but, clearly marked on a place card above my seat was a price of 185,000 VND. All legitimate buses and vans in Vietnam have a similar set of cards with the contact details and license number of the owner and the fare.
The van departed with a full load of 16 passengers and no air conditioning. It felt like there were far more people on board than the regulations allowed, but no, I did a head count; 16 souls plus the driver. The only other transportation option would have been to take a night bus, which I’m not fond of, or to take a bus to Lao Cai city and transfer to a full-sized bus, which would add at least two more hours to the journey. Fortunately, I would not be leaving Điện Biên Phủ by bus as I had purchased a plane ticket on Vietnam Airlines back to Hanoi instead of doing another long road trip.
Once we cleared town and got out on the highway the scenery was so stunning that I forgot about the heat, my crushed bag and the guy sleeping with his head on my shoulder. The two-lane highways in this part of the country are essentially carved out of the sides of hills and mountains which tower above the road, while deep plunging valleys lie on the opposite side. This is the rainy season in Southeast Asia and as a result the landscape of this region is green and lush. As the van moved northward towards our first stop, dozens of farming families could be seen tending to the rice that they planted in May.
Two hours into our journey we arrived in Lai Chau to drop off a couple of travelers, the only westerners on the bus besides myself, and to take a bathroom break. I believe that this was the first time my bag was stepped on. I’m sure that the departing backpacker put the full weight of his six foot frame on it. However, as we continued on our way, more people got off and the air conditioning miraculously began working.
Bus travel in Vietnam is often regarded as unsafe and avoided by many travelers, but I found our driver to be very cautious and competent. To say that these roads are winding is an understatement and the driver must remain alert at all times as a mistake could result in a vehicle tumbling off the mountain. The other legitimate reason to be concerned about road travel here is the possibility that dirt, rocks and boulders can rain down on the vehicle. It is very common, particularly after heavy rains, to see crews removing debris from partially closed roads.
We arrived at the bus station in Điện Biên Phủat at 4 p.m, right on schedule. Taxi drivers swarmed the bus looking for fares, but after sitting for the better part of eight hours, I needed some exercise and opted to walk to my hotel.
There is little doubt that the majority of Western travelers who journey to Vietnam’s mountainous north do so specifically to enjoy the region’s breath-taking scenery. Although it’s possible to view the lush green rice terraced hills and valleys from the comfort of a tour bus, trekking gives one an opportunity to get off the main road and really experience this beautiful country and meet its charming inhabitants. Trekking in Sapa is also great exercise and, if only for a little while, reduces our carbon footprints.
The undisputed tourism and trekking capital of Northern Vietnam is the tiny town of Sapa, in the district of the same name, located in Lao Cai Province 196 miles (316 km) from Hanoi. This small, but bustling, market town lies in the shadow of Indochina’s tallest mountain, Fansipan, and has been a retreat and vacation destination since the early 1900’s when the French Colonial administration sent their soldiers to “Chapa” for rest and convalescence.
Sapa town lies among the hills at the top of the magnificent Muong Hoa Valley. Running in a roughly north to south direction, the valley is divided by the Muong Hoa River which is fed by the area’s many spectacular waterfalls. Dozens of tiny villages are nestled within the region, inhabited by at least a half dozen different minority ethnic groups including the Black Hmong, Giáy, Red Dao, Tày and Kihn. Primarily subsistence farmers, these warm and friendly people have managed to cultivate crops from this rugged landscape. The entire valley is dotted by beautiful rice terraces, carved from the hill sides, utilizing century-old farming methods.
Trekking in Sapa generally begin with an easy walk out of town along Mường Hoa Road. One of the district's principle roads, it winds through the hills and mountains, providing trekkers with spectacular views of the valley below. It is not uncommon to share the main road with herds of water buffalo on their way to plow rice terraces. A few kilometers from town, trekkers leave the main highway behind and travel on narrow concrete secondary roads leading up into the hills or down to the valley. Walking on the paved roads is easy but at some point the trek will continue on the narrow dirt paths that connect the villages. Passing between farmer’s crops and livestock grazing grounds, these rugged dirt paths are often steep and can be quite slippery. Trekkers should wear good hiking boots or some other type of solid, closed-toed foot wear. As the weather is unpredictable and often very wet, it’s recommended to carry a light rain jacket, or better yet, an umbrella like the locals do.
A common question asked by travelers planning a journey to this region is whether a trekking guide is needed or not; my answer is yes and no. Most of the villages can be reached from paved roads, allowing access by car and motorcycle. Navigating from the main paved roads is easy, particularly with a good paper map and Google Maps on a smart phone. However, finding the correct dirt trekking paths which connect the villages can be difficult or impossible for first-time visitors. For example, I followed a fairly well maintained path down towards the valley for 25 minutes before it dead ended at a small cluster of houses. I had no choice but to turn around, go back up the hill, and look for an alternate route.
The majority of visitors who go trekking in Sapa go on guided treks which can be a half or full day or multiple days with overnight stays in the villages. Many travelers book tours well before arriving in Sapa as this can easily be done on-line through agencies such as Sapa O'Chau or Sapa Sisters. Although I have not personally trekked with either of these tour organizers, they are well regarded and receive a great deal of praise on internet travel forums. Trekking tours can also be organized after arriving in town through hotels, hostels and travel agencies. Another option is to trek with the Hmong and Dao women who sell handicrafts in the town center. These ladies are more than happy to guide you to their home villages and are very flexible in terms of departure times and length of the trek. I really enjoy trekking with these ladies and feel good knowing that, at the end of the day, the cash goes directly into their pockets.