It was springtime in Hanoi and it was hot. Seriously hot. Sweltering heat and no air conditioning in our house. Even the rats were sweating. One actually ran into my room looking for a fan. It was the last week of my volunteer teaching gig at Hanoi High School and the kids were hot too, and very disinterested in learning English. No air conditioning there either. We passed the time making up dramas and acting them out in English. Finally, after 10 weeks of intense stress, my teaching gig was over. At last, it was time to escape the stifling heat and urban chaos of Hanoi and head into the mountains to go trekking in Sapa.
My Hanoi housemates had made a trip to the village called Sapa and raved about it, so I put it on my “To Do” list for the day after my volunteer teaching gig was finished. I jumped on a night bus, excited to be heading north to where the air was cool and fresh!
After the 12-hour (surprisingly comfortable) bus ride along twisty mountain roads, I woke up in one of the most insanely beautiful places in northern Vietnam – Sapa. I felt like I’d been drugged and I finally stopped sweating in the cool, crisp mountain air.
I wandered through the narrow village streets and found my way to The Cat Cat View Hotel. Booked on Agoda, it was cheap ($20/night) and clean with a perfect location and an amazing view.
The first night wasn’t good (kind of sucked actually) with my small, stuffy room located right next to the office used by the hotel cleaning staff. I woke up at 5 am with some creepy guy’s face pressed against my window – not the view I was hoping for.
The next morning at breakfast I asked about changing rooms and was upgraded to a huge suite! A totally unexpected but much-needed gift and I really appreciated it! It was luxury compared to my rat-infested, non-air conditioned house in Hanoi and I was in heaven!
Cat Cat Village
A few kilometers down the road from Sapa is a little village called Cat Cat. It’s a nice downhill hike with panoramic views of the mountains, small local farms, and green terraced fields of rice. The Hmong village is well-known for their unique ethnic handicrafts, gold and silver jewelry, and a very peaceful waterfall. A friendly gang of traveling Hmong saleswomen often hang out on the road down to Cat Cat. A little aggressive and relentless with their sales pitches, but they’re fairly harmless. They’re just trying to make a living.
The hike back up the hill to Sapa is more challenging, but the moto-taxis stationed along the route are ready to help the out-of-shape foreigners back up the steep road to Sapa. Nice relaxing village to wander, shop, and take time to observe the local Hmong people living their life. Interestingly, despite the name, no cats were spotted in the village or on any restaurant menus.
Trekking in Sapa among the Hmong
The most popular activity in the Sapa area is mountain trekking – exactly what I needed after 3 months in the intense urban chaos of Hanoi. With limited time, I opted for the shortest trek – 2 days/1 night – and joined a melting pot group of “Wonder Women” from all over the world – British-Nigerian “Super Model”, Dutch, Korean, and Austrian. They were “20-somethings” – I was a “50-something”, and felt really fortunate to be able to keep up with the young babes at my advanced age!
After a relatively easy and somewhat touristy first trekking day, we checked into our home-stay, much more luxurious than expected with indoor plumbing and real showers. We slept on fluffy futons in an upstairs loft, sort of barn-like but comfortable. Our host served dinner at a large outdoor picnic table instead spread out on the floor like in An Lac village, where I had done a previous Vietnamese home-stay.
Before dinner, we wandered around the neighborhood and stumbled upon the most beautiful happy hour spot, a small gazebo set among rice paddies with a stunning view. We hung out there and watched the sunset, an American, a Dutch, a British-Nigerian – three women of different generations, different backgrounds, connected in that perfect spot. We talked about meditation, swapped travel stories, took a deep breath and soaked in the perfection of that moment.
Our trekking guide was a 17-year old Hmong girl with a sassy personality and a high level of sarcastic English. The stories of her life made me appreciate, once again, being born in a country with opportunities, where arranged marriages at 12 or 14 years old were not the norm. She was in her late teens, still unmarried and very independent. She was unique among the Hmong women.
Trekking among the muck
The second day of trekking was much more beautiful and also much more challenging, trekking across rice paddies, balancing on the slippery edges of slimy muck. Some of the trekkers needed a hand navigating the slick edges. Others eventually gave up and walked barefoot in the deep, squishy slime! Thanks to years of practicing yoga, I was able to breathe, focus, and walk the slippery balance beam without falling.
We made it through the muck and then climbed through butterfly infested forests. The final descent downhill to the riverside villages was steep and the people-watching was incredible. And, sadly, our amazing Sapa trek was over way too soon. But there will be a next time when I’ll climb Fansipan, the local mountain conquered by my former housemates. At just over 10,000 feet, I may need to train harder for that one!
Back in Sapa, I spent my last day on the back of a motorbike. I hired “Moto Man” for half a day to take me to some nearby waterfalls and paid only $6. My only regret – I should have just faced my motorbike fear and rented one myself. The traffic in the Sapa area is light and the roads are easy to navigate. It’s a perfect place for novice riders to get over their fear of driving. It also allows more freedom to explore interesting and remote places.
Sapa – a natural high
After 3 months of intense stress – leaving the US, learning how to teach English, studying for my TEFL teaching certification, living in the large, chaotic (and HOT) city of Hanoi – Sapa felt like a natural high. Magical and intoxicating, and definitely one of my favorite places in Vietnam.
The next time I visit Sapa, I’ll rent a scooter and explore the remote and undiscovered ethnic villages. Maybe I’ll even wander across the nearby Chinese border and see what’s there.