Sapa Rice Terraces, Vietnam

Soothing Our Souls in Sapa

Being up in the mountains empties my mind and soothes my soul in a way that nothing else does. As soon as I catch that first scent of pine needles on the wind, fill my lungs with clean, cold air and look out at the endless peaks on the horizon I feel calm wash over me. My love of the mountains is a discovery I’ve made only recently in life, a gift from my travels. Now, I dream about the mountain towns I’ve loved and left behind and I long to discover new ones.

Sapa Rice Terraces, Vietnam

Sapa Rice Terraces, Vietnam

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After almost six months of teaching in hectic Hanoi, a dose of mountain life was just what I needed. Luckily, the TET (Lunar New Year) holiday afforded us a rare week off and the chance to spend some time exploring the mountains and rice terraces of Sapa. Accompanied by Jo and Bonner, two visiting friends from England, we started our adventure on the Fansipan Express, an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Unfortunately, Andrew and I were both recovering from a nasty stomach bug we’d picked up from school so the journey wasn’t all that pleasant and we emerged bleary-eyed and disorientated in the early-morning darkness.

Cat and Onions in Sapa Town

Sapa town on a Sunday morning

The Countryside in Sapa

The countryside in Sapa

From Lao Cai we boarded a mini-bus for the final hour-long leg of the journey up snaking roads to Sapa. As the sun began to rise we caught our first glimpses of mountain scenery; buffalos grazing in fields, solitary wooden houses clinging to the road-edge and the hazy staircases of rice ascending towards the clouds. We also spotted dozens of peach blossom trees being transported by motorbikes to Lao Cai; these trees are traditionally displayed inside and decorated with envelopes of lucky money and New Year wishes during TET.

The View from Sapa House Hotel in Vietnam

The view from our hotel

Walking in Sapa, Vietnam

Walking in Sapa, Vietnam

Shivering against the chilly morning breeze, we tackled the final incline to our hotel on foot. Having splashed out on a £20 per night room we were expecting something nice but we were absolutely blown away when we stepped into our room. Firstly, two of the walls were almost entirely glass, giving us a view of the town nestled beneath looming mountains. Secondly, there was a heated bed. Recovering from our recent sickness and overnight journey in a toasty bed with a staggering view of the mountains was just what we needed.

Sapa House hotel room in Vietnam

Our amazing hotel room in Sapa

Exploring Sapa Town

It was tempting to spend the rest of our stay in that bed but we hauled ourselves out to explore. Passing the stone Catholic Church, we made our way down the steep main street with its rows of shops, restaurants and massage parlours; the road was full of local H’mong women dressed in brightly-coloured traditional costumes attempting to sell purses and bags to tourists. Yes, Sapa definitely isn’t an off-the-beaten-track destination, but after so long cooped-up in Hanoi, the clean air, traffic-free streets and mountain views felt like balm to our frazzled minds and bodies.

Us at the Lake in Sapa, Vietnam

By the lake in Sapa

A Happy New Year Sign in Sapa

‘Sapa Year 2015’

It was a Sunday so we made our way via the lake to the large open-air market where the usual produce, meat and flowers were being sold alongside dozens of peach blossom and orange trees for TET. There was a festive feel in the air and watching locals strap trees to their bikes and load up on supplies for the coming holiday I was reminded of the atmosphere around Christmas-time in England; that last-minute rush to buy gifts and ingredients for holiday meals.

Sunday Market in Sapa, Vietnam

The Sunday market

Following a signpost we spiralled our way down a path towards nearby Cat Cat village. Although the views were obscured by fog we could still make out the shape of the rice terraces and the huge peaks of Mount Fansipan, Vietnam’s tallest mountain, towering steep and threatening above us. In February the fields are empty of rice and coloured mostly in shades of brown, but we were still awed by the scale of Sapa’s terraces, which rolled off far into the distance in a series of deep valleys and jagged mountain tops.

Sapa Rice Terraces, Vietnam

Sapa Rice Terraces

Tourist Traps and Trekking in Sapa

When researching our trip to Sapa I read many negative accounts about how touristy the town has become and how the local H’mong women hassle tourists relentlessly. On our first wander into town we were shadowed by two women in traditional patterned, brightly-coloured clothes. They chatted to us sporadically and eventually, half an hour later went in for the kill and tried to get us to buy some of their purses and bags. After that, aside from the occasional hopeful call of ‘Shopping?’ as we made our way through town, we were pretty much left alone.

Us on our trek in Sapa

The start of our trek

We had limited time in Sapa so we booked a basic trek through our hotel for the next day. We were under no illusions that the trip would be an off-the-beaten track adventure, such as we’d experienced in the Philippines, for example, and we weren’t wrong. We were driven to a starting point the next morning with a group of ten other tourists, accompanied by a local woman who would be our guide for the day. As soon as we disembarked from the bus we were met by a crowd of women all keen to sell us things; each one would casually attach herself to one particular tourist and follow them throughout the first part of the trek before trying to persuade them to buy some handicrafts.

A local H'mong woman in Sapa

A H’mong Woman touting her wares

Trekking in Sapa

This woman attached herself to Andrew

To be honest, since we knew to expect this in Sapa, it didn’t bother us too much. We’ve certainly experienced more aggressive sales techniques in other parts of Asia and the H’mong women were generally so polite, tiny and sweet that it was hard to be annoyed with them for simply trying to make a living. We’ve been in Asia long enough to know that a firm, polite refusal is the best way to deal with persistent sellers so pretty soon they found new targets.

Our Trek Guide in Sapa

Our guide and her baby

View of the Rice Terraces in Sapa, Vietnam

Views from our trek

In stark contrast to the toughest trek I’ve ever taken over the rice terraces of Batad, in the Philippines, the first half of our Sapa trek was a piece of cake. We ambled slowly down a well-paved road, stopping regularly to take pictures of the view; we were incredibly lucky weather-wise as the sun shone and the skies cleared while a light breeze cooled us as we walked. After lunch the trek continued and we got a bit of a shock as the difficulty level escalated somewhat; we had now broken off from the other tourist groups and were venturing upwards over rockier, less-stable paths towards a bamboo forest.

Trekking in Sapa, Vietnam

The rice terraces

A house and rice fields in Sapa

Country life in Sapa

As we climbed higher the views became more spectacular and the route became decidedly muddier. Suddenly all notion of photographing the views disappeared as we all struggled to maintain our footing, clutching at storks of bamboo and shrieking as we slid our way along the trail, which had now transformed into a bog. Anxious sweat peppered my forehead as I attempted to keep up with the light-footed guides who flew along in their bathroom slippers with babies strapped to their backs while my trainers got sucked deeper into the mud with every step and I concentrated only on making it down the hill without falling over.

Hotpot dinner in Sapa, Vietnam

Hotpot dinner in Sapa

Us getting a massage in Sapa

A well-earned massage

In the end we definitely got a taste of the more adventurous trek we’d been hoping for and we were relieved to get back to town for a massage, delicious hot-pot dinner and one last sleep in our wonderful heated bed. As we bid a sad farewell to our mountain-view the next day we vowed to return at the beginning of June when the terraces are lush, green and full of rice – I can’t wait for another soothing dose of Sapa life.

Dog in Sapa, Vietnam

Laid-back life in Sapa

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17 Comments
  • Jenia from HTL
    Posted at 16:42h, 01 March Reply

    It’s so great that you had a nice time in Sapa! It’s all about the expectations and the attitude 🙂 We researched Sapa, and knew that it would likely be incredibly scenic but also rather touristy — we weren’t really in the mood for that at the time, so decided to pass. But, also, we needed an extra good reason to come back to Vietnam – so Sapa and Halong Bay will have to wait until the next time we are there 🙂

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:06h, 02 March Reply

      You’re right Jenia, it is all about expectations and attitude. The first time we came to Vietnam we skipped Sapa too because we thought it would be too cold and we’d already seen amazing rice terraces in the Philippines. After months in Hanoi, a bit of cool weather and mountain scenery was just what we needed this year though, so Sapa was the perfect place for us to visit 🙂

  • Katie
    Posted at 19:16h, 01 March Reply

    Sapa sounds wonderful! We really wanted to go, but it was a bit chilly when we were in Vietnam over Christmas. We’re going to have to come back for a third visit I think! 🙂

    Hope you felt a bit restored from your trip to the mountains!

    Katie x

    • Amy
      Posted at 04:08h, 02 March Reply

      I do feel a bit restored, thanks Katie. Yep, there’s always more to see in Vietnam, we’re trying to squeeze as much in as we can over the next three months.

  • Gilda Baxter
    Posted at 15:29h, 02 March Reply

    Amazing views from your hotel room and that cozy bed sounds lovely, a perfect combination. I enjoyed all your photos, the rice terraces looked gorgeous. I love walking and this trek would be something I would love to do. We are in Tobago at the moment but going back to the cold in the UK tomorrow. I hope that you get to do some more exploring in Vietnam before you leave.

    • Amy
      Posted at 05:13h, 03 March Reply

      Tobago sounds amazing Gilda, can’t wait to hear about it. We will definitely get time to do some more exploring before we leave Vietnam; we’re planning a return to Sapa as well as visits to the countryside and some caves over the next three months.

  • Emily
    Posted at 20:45h, 02 March Reply

    Sounds like a lovely getaway! Was is cool? It looks like you had layers on. I’d love to go to Sapa…one day!!

    • Amy
      Posted at 05:11h, 03 March Reply

      Yes, it was quite cool Emily, especially in the evenings although the sun came out and warmed us during the day. It’s still quite cool in Hanoi too which I’m making the most of, soon it will be sweltering again!

  • Rhonda
    Posted at 21:56h, 03 March Reply

    I’m glad to hear you guys enjoyed your experience. We didn’t make it to Sapa during our time in Vietnam, but have since heard so many disgruntled stories from other travelers. A heated bed!! What a treat.

    • Amy
      Posted at 05:06h, 05 March Reply

      The heated bed was amazing Rhonda! I think because we knew to expect a bit of hassle and a more touristy atmosphere than we experience here in Hanoi, it didn’t bother us too much.

  • Patti
    Posted at 18:33h, 07 March Reply

    I love following your adventures, Amy, and this was no exception. I get to visit that part of the world through your photo lens and your words. The picture of your guide and her baby is just precious!

    • Amy
      Posted at 05:58h, 08 March Reply

      I was amazed by how those women trekked through the mud with babies on their backs wearing flimsy bathroom slippers! Especially when we were sliding all over the place 🙂

  • Jenny @ Till The Money Runs Out
    Posted at 02:45h, 16 March Reply

    Beautiful photos! We are in Mexico now and reading your post made me sentimental for traveling in Vietnam when $30 would be a big splurge on accommodation. We have found hotels to be so much more expensive in Mexico than SE Asia!

    • Amy
      Posted at 03:20h, 16 March Reply

      Hi Jenny, I had no idea Mexico was more expensive than Asia; I thought they were similarly priced. Better make the most of the low prices here while we can!

  • R Loo
    Posted at 15:24h, 31 May Reply

    Hi, we are going to Sapa in November. What is the name of the hotel you stayed in ? And where did you had the hotpot dinner?

    Thanks

    • Amy
      Posted at 15:42h, 31 May Reply

      Hi, we stayed in Sapa House hotel. We are actually visiting Sapa for a second time at the moment and we’re staying at Sapa Elite hotel, which isn’t quite as nice but it is a bit cheaper. The hotpot restaurant was called Sapa Memories, but they have the hotpot in pretty much every restaurant here. Have a nice trip!

  • Pingback:What's the cost of living in Vietnam?
    Posted at 10:23h, 03 December Reply

    […] money on occasional trips away to Kim Boi and Cat Ba Island, we’re also planning to go to Sapa for TET.  Although our language centre paid for our work permits, we then had to pay a one-off fee for […]

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