It’s early, misty and damp. We’re in Lao Cai, about 3 miles from the Chinese border. I woke up about 20 minutes ago as the 10pm sleeper from Hanoi pulled into the station. I’ve had maybe 2 hours sleep and regret getting excited at the prospect of train travel and paying £100 of my own money to upgrade to a VIP berth! I expected Hogwarts Express but experienced a night in the whomping willow! Oh well, just the 10 miles ahead of us today…
We checked in at the Sapa O’Chau office, paid our remaining balance, stored our big bags and loaded up on breakfast before being introduced to our guide, Giang and the rest of our group, Hugo and Emmanuel from Montpelier. We set off around 9:30am.
We headed through Sapa town, it was busy because it was the weekend. Most people heading in the same direction as us towards Cat Cat village. Originally it had no name. The French for waterfall is cascade, which the locals pronounced as CatCat. The name stuck. Giang laughed at how busy with tourists it was, the Vietnamese and Chinese rent the local dress and pose for photos in the village. They walk down the many steps to the bottom and then pay to be driven back up on a motorbike.
There’s lots of crafts for sale in the village, local dress and scarves etc. Soaps, wooden toot. It wasn’t long before we were out of village into countryside with only locals and westerners on treks. The Rice paddies here are empty until May so livestock is allowed to graze during this time.
The morning was spent following a river through a valley, crossing it on a rickety suspension bridge before climbing through the terraces. We stopped for lunch with other groups. The ladies who had been trekking with us for the last 6 miles told us they were from this village and tried to sell us some souvenirs. They were fairly persistent but I was enjoying my veg and egg fried rice too much.
After lunch we set off through the village asking Giang about the landscape. Some rice paddies are 200 years old. They start at the top and build downwards. They’re owned by the villagers but the ones who worked harder had more fields. Livestock roams free but can be recognised by the horns or feathers. All are rounded up at night.
There was a narrow concrete path pretty much the whole way around. At times it got very steep and slippery when wet. Only almost fell over once today! We’d passed a couple of schools and had been discussing the education system, languages spoke (Vietnamese now taught in schools as the primary language as there were 5 different dialects between the tribes in the Sapa area. We also asked a little about local life, Giang, our guide was married, she got married at 16 to someone who was both her and her parents choice. She has 3 children and lives with her husbands family in Lao Chai (not to be confused with the town of Lao Cai).
We arrived at Giang’s house around 3:30 pretty early compared to previous treks, anyway this is where we would be staying tonight. We had a cup of tea and then went for a walk around the village before showering. There’s not much to do here obviously! A few homestays and the beginnings of restaurants and bars and the odd shop. Giangs house is one of the bigger home stays we’ve stayed in and there is an actual bed! There’s also a cute little vegetable garden growing papaya, spinach, cabbage, marijuana, lettuce…
We didn’t end up having any marijuana for dinner but we did have amazing French fries with garlic. We also made spring rolls and had rice, morning glory, sweet and sour veg and garlicky green beans. The evening ended eventfully with one of the children falling off of a green cow shaped space hopper and cutting open her head. We had a first aid kit and patched her back together, although it turns out there’s a leaf which has coagulant properties! Who knew! Anyway we were in bed by 8:30 and Giang had gone off to a party with her husband.
A pretty late start compared to all the other treks we’ve done. After the early night and comfort of our accommodation we were up at 7:30. Katy had time to shower, I could spend time making blog notes. We even managed some stretching before banana pancakes for breakfast.
We set off around 9:30, I’d noticed a few other groups leaving the village slightly earlier than us. We left via a meandering path through the rice paddies in the middle of the village. As we left the town we crossed a small bridge. The river below was filled with plastic waste. Something that’s occurred to me across the whole of Asia is “imagine how beautiful it would be if the whole place wasn’t covered in plastic?” It is everywhere!
We started to climb at a relatively slow pace again, normally this would be fine as I’d still be a little stiff from the day before, but we’d had time to stretch this morning! As we got further out of the village, on a narrow path with a steep drop to our side, a young buffalo come charging towards us scared and being chased by a couple of dogs. I shout and everyone presses up against the bank. The buffalo tries to turn the corner but it’s sheer mass continues to travel straight on. It slides and falls straight off the edge of the path into the rice paddy below. The dogs are able to slow down in time. The barking from the dogs sets off the local dogs, this brings the locals out of their houses to find out what is going on too. The buffalo sets off through the rice paddies and the dogs eventually give up. We catch up with the buffalo round a few more corners, it’s found another herd and is curious whether they are family. We continue, agreeing that it’s tough out here!
Tough is what it did become too! Proud at catching up with and overtaking some other groups on the steeper climbs and not needing as long at some of the rest stop/viewpoints along the way we turned off of the main path and descended through a bamboo forest. The next 45 minutes were spent carefully planning our next steps, holding onto bamboo and trying to avoid slipping or even just placing a foot into the sodden clay amounting to 98% of the path. It was the sort of mud that you’d lose a shoe in should you place any weight on. It was that sodden there’d been a landslide earlier in the year.
We emerged from the path to find all the groups we’d previously passed walking along the “long cut” completely clean. We all followed the same path to a waterfall where we washed our shoes. The next 2 hours of the trek pretty unenjoyable. We climbed the other side of the valley on roads with industrial traffic and unremarkable, in fact ugly views. The visibility was poor, we were in grey clouds, the road was grey from the concrete being used all around us, the only colour was from the plastic packaging discarded all around us. We were pretty happy when we stopped for lunch.
We’d stopped quite late and knew we were doing a similar distance to the previous day which meant the afternoon stint would be quite short. Slightly sleepy from our fried rice lunch we set off again, downhill on a less slippery path. We followed the huge pipes transporting water from the dam to the hydro electric power plant in the village we would be staying. An hour after setting off we had arrived at our next homestay. We chose our beds and we’re keen to get a shower before the other group arrived. The shower was unfortunately cold, I joked that they’d probably just not turned the hot water on yet… turns out that was the case!
The trekking today had been a bit of a chore, when it wasn’t the scenery didn’t make up for it therefore we deserved the beers we were drinking. The beers went perfectly with the garlic French fries which arrived 5 minutes later.
Dinner this evening was similar to the previous one, a buffet of rice, veggies, some spring rolls, steamed bamboo shoots and some meat options. Stuffed, and with the bonus of some wifi we downloaded a new drama on iPlayer and watched an episode before bed.
More banana pancakes and 3 in 1’s! Today was going to be a much shorter day. Apparently 3km to a viewpoint and back again. We could leave our bags at the homestay if we wanted.
We set off at 9:30 again. Giang was telling us about the Red Dao people, identified by the red scarf with white trimming they wear on their head which at first glance can be mistaken for a Santa hat. They have an arranged marriage, decided on by their parents. Once engaged the women start making their own wedding dress, decorating in the batik style. The whole village turns out to the wedding Giang says just to see the dress. Once married the women completely shave their heads and eyebrows for fear of a hair falling into the food the prepare for their husbands family. They do this for the rest of their life!
The walk to the view point was all uphill (who would’ve guessed). We crossed a large suspension bridge over a small river. The river used to be much bigger but there’s a dam further upstream for another hydro power plant. On the way to the view point we also visited a small school where only 5% of the children we saw that day seemed to be.
The views were amazing, however in the distance you could see more construction for another dam (there are 5 in the area). We heard explosions of rocks being broken to make new roads to build new damns. On the way back to the homestay to collect our bags the path was completely blocked with rock fall. There were wooden crosses on the side of the new road. These weren’t graves but a message from the villagers asking the construction to go no further as it risked the integrity of the ancient rice paddies.
Our final cultural experience came during lunch back at the homestay. They had 16 people coming for dinner and pork was on the menu. The pig was hog tied and killed probably 10 metres from where we were eating. It was amazing to see the care and attention that went into butchering it. None of this animal was going to be wasted.
The journey back to Sapa was long and bumpy, it was also really cloudy and with nothing to see out of the window it gave me time to think…
People visit Sapa for the natural beauty. They want to see the ancient rice terraces and the vivid shades of green when the rice is in season (planted in May). The new development here is not sympathetic to this, roads now cut through those terraces, waterfalls and rivers are now dry due to damming and what’s left of the rice terraces are full of litter.
This wasn’t the most beautiful trek that I’ve done, the weather and lack of visibility probably didn’t help – it is clearer in the summer months, but it will also be wetter. It wasn’t the toughest trek that I’ve done, we covered around 26 miles in 3 days compared to 40 in Myanmar. I don’t think it would come top in any category. So would I recommend it? No. I’d recommend doing a 1 night trek instead.
In fairness the company we used to trek with were great and they do offer a 2D1N version of the trek we did. For roughly $330* they organised return transfers between Hanoi and Sapa. You can even use their showers to freshen up before heading back to Hanoi. They’re a social enterprise working hard and giving back to the ethnic minorities in Sapa and their breakfast mushroom omelette is amazing!
*The price is dependant on the number of people who trek. We also upgraded our journey from Hanoi to Sapa to a VIP berth on the sleeper train instead of the bus.