We took an overnight train to Sapa. It was my first sleeper train. It was much nicer than I was expecting, despite an extremely bumpy ride. We left at 10pm and rolled in at about 6am. Overnight trains are great because you get transportation and a night’s sleep all rolled into one, and since you’re traveling while you sleep, you don’t waste any valuable time.
Sapa is a small mountain town, so the train doesn’t actually stop there. We had to take a minibus up the mountain from the town of Lao Cai. Remember when I wrote about the intensely windy road to Pai? It was like that, but I feared for my life a little more. To pass slow-moving trucks, our driver kept driving in the other lane so we were constantly swerving to avoid oncoming traffic. Then we reached the fog and visibility plummeted to zero. That didn’t seem to deter the driver though, as he kept snaking around slow truck and bikes, and oncoming traffic. If creative driving were a sport in the Olympics I think Vietnam would get gold every time.
The plan for Sapa was to spend 2 days trekking with a homestay in a hill tribe village.
Sapa O’Chau is the company we booked our trek and homestay with. It’s a social enterprise, which basically means they use their profits to benefit the communities they work in. It is the first Hmong owned homestay in Sapa doing socially conscious trekking. Sapa O’Chau supports ethnic minority high school students and provides job opportunities such as trekking guides, café staff, tour staff, and craftswomen.
Like Thailand, northern Vietnam is home to several ethnic minorities commonly referred to as hill tribes. The two main groups we met are called the Black Hmong and the Red Dao.
Our trekking guide, Pai, is from the Black Hmong group. She says black is because of the very dark indigo color of their traditional outfits.
I asked Pai how to say hello in Hmong and she said that there is no word for hello. Instead you say “where are you going.” She taught me some other key phrases as well.
I counted, and I can say hello and thank you in 11 languages.
After trekking 15km (a little more than 9 miles) through hills covered in veggie patches and rice paddies, shrouded in a never-ending mist, day one of our trek comes to an end at a homestay in a Red Dao village. It was so, so, so good to take off those rain books and sip green tea by the fire.
The family that opened their home to us is so welcoming and friendly. They welcome trekkers to their home all the time. They shared their delicious food and told us about their lives and customs. Before dinner we were treated to a medicinal herbal bath. They were cooking herbs over a fire in preparation when we arrived. We were led into a room and told to strip and get into tubs. The tubs were full of hot water and herbs. The room was more like a curtained off corner, and the tub looked like a big barrel. When in Rome……get naked next to your friend in a stranger’s house and hop into an herbal bath!
The water was soothing and warm. As I crouched down and let the water sooth my muscles, I realized I smelled like soup. Did the dinner menu include tired tourists?
Dinner was amazing (and foreigner free) and afterwards we shared “happy water” (rice wine).
We trekked 24 km total over 2 days, that’s about 15 miles. I am sorry for putting you through that feet, but it was definitely worth the soreness.
After another overnight train back to Hanoi I lost track of the days.