We departed the overnight train from Hanoi in Lao Cai and hopped in a van for an additional 20-30 minutes before arriving at the Graceful Hotel, the headquarters of Sapa Sisters. We were allowed to offload and lock up our large packs and grab some breakfast at the hotel before we were underway. Once everything was ready, we met up with Zao, our guide, and began to walk out of town.
Sapa Sisters is a trekking company in the Sapa valley owned and operated by female Hmong guides. The company was started by two visiting artists and four Hmong women to empower native females in a culture that traditionally sees them as belonging to their husbands. The company gives the women an opportunity to make a fair salary by using their knowledge of an area they’ve spent their entire lives in. They offer multiple treks and tours, homestays, and other activities. We chose a two day/one night tour with a local homestay.
We were offered the option of sticking to roads or taking a more difficult path through the valley. We initially chose the more difficult path, but after sliding repeatedly down a hill and starting to get a little too muddy right off the bat, we went back with the roads. Usually, I’m pretty steady on my feet, and I just couldn’t stay upright. We felt this was a bad sign for LeeAnne, who is as clumsy as they come. It had just rained and everything was wet and overcast, so we decided to play it safe.
As it was only the two of us with our guide Zao, we got a very personalized experience. We could have a chat if we wanted, ask questions, and hear her story. We made our way down winding mountain roads, mostly dirt, through rice paddies and past oxen. Even when drab and overcast, the beauty of the valley was apparent. It was unfortunate that some people didn’t see the value of not throwing trash everywhere, whether it was in the streams or on the side of the road. I wasn’t sure if it was the tourists or the locals, but it was sad to see nonetheless.
Around lunchtime we came upon a small village and had lunch at a local restaurant. The noodles were delicious and the beer was cold, which was pretty much all we were asking for at that point. It was nice to have a few minutes to sit around.
As we walked the second part of the day, we moved into a more populated area known as Ban Ta Van. We passed a schoolhouse and learned more about the area from Zao before eventually arriving in the early afternoon at our homestay. The place seemed large by local standards, and had two floors with probably eight beds in total – it was clear this woman ran a homestay as her job.
Left on our own, LeeAnne and I decided to walk around the area for a bit and see what there was to see. We talked to some people who were staying and working for free room and board, and stopped at a bar across the street for some local beer. When we got back, we found out two German girls were sharing the homestay with us after originally being put in another home that they had misgivings about. We hung out, drank beer, and then the homestay mom cooked us dinner.
As someone who loves food–especially Vietnamese food–it was a treat to watch her cook. All she had was a wok and an open fire, and she made us a feast. We were taught how to roll spring rolls, and she made those in addition to tofu with tomato, chicken with veggies and fruit, garlic fried cabbage, pork with onions, and rice. After stuffing ourselves, she offered us a round of “happy water” – a local type of moonshine.
We slept well. The heavy blankets at our homestay kept out the cold, and after a day of trekking and a night of drinking with our new friends, we were ready to pass out. Our sleep lasted uninterrupted until about four in the morning, when the rooster next door started to crow. And apparently, roosters aren’t like they show in cartoons – they don’t only crow once when the sun comes up. They start crowing when it starts to get light, and then continue crowing forever.
After a breakfast of banana pancakes (which seems to be the accepted idea of a Western breakfast) and instant coffee (G7 brand, which I still buy), we decided to team up with the German girls and their guide for the last part of our trek. We walked through some more scenic areas (which was pretty much all that Sapa has to offer), snacked on raw sugarcane, and generally enjoyed being where we were, as David Ford sings, “Far from the traffic and the smoke and the noise.”
After stopping at a small hut for lunch, we were able to choose either taking a van back to the Sapa Sisters HQ or hopping on the back of motorcycles and riding back that way – LeeAnne and I, of course, chose the motorbikes. Winding back down through the hills, watching the scenery go by, and enjoying all of it; once I figured out how to balance, the ride was amazing.
Once back, we hung out in Lao Cai for a few hours with our new friends, having a few drinks and some food until it was time to take our van ride back to the train station. Once in that area, we waited once again for an overnight train back to Hanoi, of course accompanied by more drinks with our travel friends.
If you’re going to be in Vietnam, especially in the north, Sapa is absolutely worth taking the two or so days our of your trip for a visit. The area is quiet, friendly, and above all else, beautiful. Sapa Sisters would also be highly recommended – you will get a very knowledgeable guide, a great time, and you’ll be helping local Hmong women who really need it. Make this a part of your experience.
You can learn more about Sapa Sisters on their website, which has all the information you need about their history, their mission statement, what they offer, and even transportation. Do check them out.