1500m above sea level, on the border of china, is the region of Sapa. It covers a large area of the north of Vietnam, and boats stunning mountain ranges, so naturally we were eager to go.
Sapa town is a congregation of the local tribes and villages, the largest of which is the Hmong tribe. The town is centred around a small lake, with a market, square and all the supplies you could need. Shops are filled with winter wear and hiking gear, North Face coats and all. Between these are cafes and souvenir shops. Gone are the elephant trousers, make way for embroidered jackets, bright headgear and hunting knives. The market has food goodies too, with the cool climate allowing for root vegetables, forest fruits and honey!
I desperately wanted some of the beautiful things on offer, eccentricity is always at home in my wardrobe, but purse strings and backpack space wouldn’t let me. If you can, save a little space for Sapa and its handmade goods.
To drop a truth bomb on this wonderful image, the town isn’t a place to spend all your time in. After a whirl round the markets, the town has little else. Beware also of the hawking villagers. They are out to make a living and feel free to support their cause, but you will be followed, heckled, pressured and guilt tripped. Even a polite nod or smile can cause four locals to press bags and bracelets into your hands. Don’t get stuck in town. Instead, head into nature, the real beauty of the region.
Waterfalls and Mountains
Your hostel should be able to provide a map of the area and main sights. (In reality, the north of Vietnam could take weeks to get around, but the Sapa area can be seen in a zip-stop of four days.) The nearest to town is Cat Cat village, just down the road (I mean it). It’s a very easy walk that takes you through the main street of the village, down to small waterfall and round through the hill opposite. The village would’ve been nice, but with the entrance fee and waiting villagers, it feels like a walking ride in Disneyland, very artificial and awkward. We didn’t want to impose on their lives and they probably didn’t want a camera in their face.
Better places to go are the Silver waterfall, Love waterfall and Tram Ton Pass. All three can be done in one day and on one route. Hire yourself a bike, -it’s the way to get around- and get on the road. Silver waterfall is just off the roadside. With a small entrance fee and a little climb, you can see the whole thing. It wasn’t breathtaking, but a refreshing little stop.
The better of the two waterfalls is Love Waterfall, as much for the walk as for the water itself. The path takes you between two mountains, in a plain of grass, woodland and muddy buffaloes. Follow the stream to the waterfall and you’ll see what the fuss is about. Instead of a mass of water in one thick curtain, the rock splays the water into hundreds of little falls. Add in the moss, sun spot and pool below and it looks like a painting. Lovely.
My favourite part of this road trip is Tram Ton pass. It’s a mountain road that skirts a cul-de-sac of mountains. The road takes you from the heights of one, right round to the edges of another. The wind in your face, the pure mountain air, and that view. I’ll admit that I cried a bit. Psychotic peaks cut shadows in the sky, rock slices across rock, and forest smothers it all, green and endless. Tram Ton pass is the adventure we’re all looking for, a soul-filling, endorphin fuelling, masterpiece.
Now we’re talking. Tavan is the largest and closest village to Sapa town, and is by far a better way to see the area. The village is set on one of the hills, right in the middle of a gorgeous valley. Even from base camp, the landscape is beautiful. There are half a dozen homestays where you can make the village your home away from home. Here, you can access the surrounding hills and walking trails. Guides are plentiful but unnecessary, as the paths are easy to follow. With two days, we did two walks, setting of up the hill laden with bananas, water and sweat. Feeling adventurous and spurred on by the mountain air, we attempted a walk to a lake nearby. It was a 30km round trip. Even the locals thought we were mad. It took stubbornness, coaxing and motivational singing -just the two of us, we can make it if we tryyyy-, but we made it to the lake. Three hours up and two and a half down. My god we were tired, but it was more than worth it. The crisp mountain air, burning muscles and of course endless beauty of Sa Pa are just bliss.