May 27, 2013

Sapa Trekking

Sapa Rice Terraces
Sapa Trekking Journal

After completing 8 legs of our Round Island Walk in Singapore we decided to take a break by going trekking in Sapa in Vietnam. We were itching to do some trekking outside of Singapore as in the last five years of walking together we have been to all corners of the island several times. The timing was perfect as it was late spring and the weather was warming up but there was always a risk of rain. This would mean muddy tracks. Instead we were blessed with 3 gorgeous days of sunshine, perfect for trekking. This trip was bandied about for more than a year, but we finally confirmed our booking for the trip in early April. Seven of us signed up. We were most fortunate to be recommended to a tour organizer who arranged for our trip from the moment we touched down in Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport, brought us to Sapa then delivered us back to a hotel in Hanoi. So here is the record of our journey to this mountain resort town and the treks we did.

Thursday Day 1 Hanoi

Our Tiger Air flight TR2308 was delayed in taking off but we managed to arrive at the Hanoi Noi Bai International Airport close to the scheduled ETA. We located the driver outside the arrival hall and in less than an hour were deposited at the Asia Star Hotel at the corner of Dao Duy Tu and Nguyen Sieu. This hotel is situated in the Old Quarter close to the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake, a major Hanoi attraction for both locals and tourists.

No rooms were available when we arrived so we left our luggage and were led to the neighbouring Vietnamese restaurant Pho Com Co for lunch (included in our package). We were satisfied with this restaurant (the food, price and the ambience) and returned several times. We decided there and then that we would go back for dinner but we never did as we ran out of time. We discovered there was wifi in the restaurant and were happily whatsapping to our friends and to each other. During our trip we found that every restaurant or pub or hotel in Sapa and Hanoi we visited offered free wifi. After lunch, we were given 2 day-rooms to freshen up before we hit the streets of Hanoi.

Before we explored the streets I explained how to cross the streets without too much trepidation to one of my fellow trekkers. He thought I was pulling his leg. “Just step cautiously onto the street and walk at a steady pace. No running, no sudden stop. The cyclists and bikers will compensate and adjust their direction in anticipation of your intended track”. This reminded me of the sixties when we used to cross the same way in Chinatown or Geylang. Of course we got to be more careful with larger vehicles such as cars, trucks or buses. These we give way first. After our trip, we found that this was more or less correct. But we did not experience the full force of the traffic as Hanoi was on 5 days’ holiday to celebrate Liberation Day.

View of Fansipan Range from Sapa Unique Hotel balcony
We walked along Tran Nhat Duac. The reward was seeing the largest mosaic wall (3,850 linear meters 6,950m² in area) in the world built  to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi. We asked for directions two times and the locals were very specific eg. walk past 2 traffic lights and turn right to the lake. For us in Hanoi there were two things to see and experience - the lake and the Old Quarter where our hotel was located. No museum tours for us. For the lake it was to enjoy the atmosphere there as the locals and tourists mingle. For the Old Quarter to discover and marvel at  the 36 specialist streets, each street generally specializing in one type of goods. The street next to our hotel suitably had several alcohol retailers where a bottle of Bordeaux was bought for 110,000 Dong.

We arrived at Hoan Khiem Lake and did the mandatory red bridge crossing. We did not enter the Ngoc Son Temple due to lack of time. We returned to the hotel by the same road. It was not so pleasant as the road was a busy thoroughfare. When we returned to Hanoi after Sapa we would follow a better route along Hang Ngang and Hang Dao. These were lined with shops dealing in the rag trade.

As we walked back to the hotel, we past the Prague Pub near the hotel. We stopped by and tried their Hanoi Beer at 12,000 Dong. The dark draft beer was at 18,000 Dong. We ran out of time and Y graciously volunteered to go back to the same restaurant Pho Com Co to pick up fried rice to be eaten on the train. Someone suggested this instead of noodles as it would not be soggy and this turned out to be true and delicious.

Sapa Town Cau May Street
The hotel sent us to the station with a staff to help us check in. Our vouchers had to be exchanged for train tickets. What with the noise and the crowd of tourists leaving for Sapa it was total chaos. We checked with our minder several times as he appeared to be lost also but he assured us not to worry. Finally the time came for boarding and we were happy to find our rooms and soon settled down.

We had two 4-bed aircon night berths. At first the ride was smooth but after leaving the city it felt like riding on a horse. Although the bunk was comfortable it was hard to sleep. I got up several times and had to struggle to avoid losing my balance while walking to the wc and within the wc itself. Toward the early hours of the morning the water ran out as well. At 5am, we were finally roused from our sleep by the the train staff as he shouted “lao cai” several times. We thought he was a food vendor offering some form of chicken. “Cai” sounded like “chicken” in Cantonese.

Friday Day 2 Trek from Sapa to Ta Van

We arrived at  Lao Cai at about 5.30am and were picked up by a driver who took us to the Sapa Unique Hotel in Sapa Town. It took about an hour as it is about 38km away. At that hour in the morning, the traffic was light and our driver skillfully overtook every vehicle that we came across. The scenes as we drove past were beautiful but nothing compared to what we were about to see when we trek. In Sapa Town we drove past the lake, then the public square. Hmong vendors were already laying out their plots to be used later to show their wares. We turned into Fansipan Road and within a few minutes stopped at the Sapa Unique Hotel. The hotel is run by Mr Viet and Mr Hung. They were short of rooms when we arrived very early in the morning. Some of us had to share a room to refresh then had breakfast before we start trekking. Our guide was a young fresh-faced girl from the Red Dao minority tribe. She spoke perfect English (better than some of our secondary school students) yet never attended English class. She claimed that her English was learned from tourists. She demonstrated great maturity by responding intelligently on any topic we threw at her.

We walked past Sapa market to Cau May where we turned right to leave Sapa southward. A few Black Hmongs trailed us. Their purpose was to sell us their handicrafts as they returned to their village which was also where we were heading. They were helpful when we negotiated tricky terrain always willing to lend a hand.

Just a few hundred metres out of Sapa Town we came to a road clearing where we could have an excellent view of Sapa Town and a promise of what's to come. I could identity the hotel where we were staying by its shape and colour. There were other groups of trekkers as well - mostly angmos. What surprised us was they would then pile into a minibus and go off. Further out we took a right turn down the valley. Here we had an amazing view of the Muong Hoa valley. We could see across to the Fansipan range. Everywhere rice terraces enveloped the hills or wrapped around the slopes. Houses were scattered all over the valley. We could see trails leading up to the opposite mountain range.

On the Way to Ta Phin
The trek was generally easy except for a shortcut we took where there was a vertical drop. But with plenty of helping hands, we quickly negotiated this.

Eventually we arrived at a bridge built to carry equipment and supplies to the generating station under construction. There were no railings and I carefully stayed in the middle as the valley the bridge crossed was way down below. Just after the power station, we crossed a bridge over the Muong Hoa River and arrived at a restaurant next to the river for lunch.

After lunch we entered the Lao Chai village and were shown an unattended water driven rice pounding machine and given a tour on how they produce cloth by weaving and then dyeing with natural dyes. We walked on past the village and observed at close hand the rice terraces, the domestic animals such as buffalos, pigs, ducks, etc. We continued walking past Ta Van until we crossed a bridge back across the same river to wait for our transport.

Back at the hotel all of us finally had a room each and we prepared for dinner at the hotel at 7pm. After that we roamed around and stopped at the Elysian Hotel for a drink. Next day we were told that Y had dropped his wallet (when pulling out his notebook) at the Elysian. He spoke to Hung who knew the manager at the Elysian. One phone call and he confirmed the wallet containing US$600  was still there. Hung biked Y over and recovered his wallet. It would have spoiled our trip if the wallet was lost.

Saturday Day 3 Trek from Sapa to Ta Phin

This morning the trek would be from Sapa Town to Hmong village Ma Tra then to Ta Phin. We walked past the public square and the church. Many villagers were at the public square with their goods laid out for display and sale. Just past the square was a small park where vendors were exhibiting their photos. After passing the lake we turned left onto a path that would lead us to a Hmong village. We entered a house that provided accommodation for 3 families. The building had an upper floor for storing their stuff. It had a low door frame and some of us bumped our heads because of the lack of light.  The villagers marry young and we saw a young girl nursing her baby.

After going through this village we tiptoed through some rice fields. We found that where the bunds were made of earth it was easy to balance but when they use stones it was harder. A couple of us almost twisted our ankles negotiating through here. R with foresight got a few bamboo poles and this helped us to keep our balance.

Bac Ha Sunday Market
After this stretch we accessed the newly cemented trail. It was only about 2 months old. This would make it even easier for both tourists and locals to walk especially in rainy weather when the old trail would have turned muddy. It was somewhere along this stretch that Y found his camera missing. He had dropped it earlier. Luckily P was the last in the group and he sighted the camera and handed it over to our guide thinking perhaps someone else had lost it. Y was about to return to search for his camera when the guide showed him the camera. We kept up our pace walking up and down hill slopes until we reach Heavenly Homestay for lunch. During our trek  we noticed that some of the rice fields were freshly planted as the planting season was just beginning.

After lunch another 20 minutes' walk brought us to Ta Phin, the home village of our guide. Every morning she would take a motorbike ride to get to our hotel.

At Ta Phin we met her mum who was kept busy selling her wares to us as we wanted to show our support. Then we moved on to the pickup point in the village. Here we saw minibuses lined up waiting for their passengers. When a new bus arrived, hordes of the tribal women approached them to hawk their wares.

The bus took us back to Sapa Unique Hotel for us to pick up our luggage to bring to the next hotel. Viet told us that dinner would be at his new restaurant Michell near the Elysian at 7 pm.

When we arrived at the next hotel Sapa Lodge the rooms were not ready so 2 of us temporarily shared one to refresh. After that we went to a sports shop to buy North Face bags, shoes etc. They also sold a cap that is foldable and can be put in the pocket.

At 7pm we went to the Michell Restaurant for dinner. We were happy with the variety and the taste of the food. The trek had worked up a good appetite in us. Hung offered us rice wine gratis.

After dinner we went back to the Elysian Hotel (out of gratitude) where Y recovered his wallet the previous evening for a few beer on his account. We had some unhusked almonds so we had to use the back end of the bread knife to knock the almond. We created such a racket that after awhile the manager politely asked us to reduce our noise. We respected his request as we were indeed creating quite a ruckus. We saw the same group of Thai tourists the previous night. They were busy repackaging the North Face bags they bought. They also bought 3 hiking telescopic poles for US$10.

Sunday Day 4 From Sapa to Bac Ha Sunday Market

I woke up to see clouds billowing below my room through the valley to the left. The view from the bedroom and balcony was indescribable and the air fresh.

We checked out at 8.30am. Our guide was now dressed in jeans instead of traditional costume for the previous 2 days. The bus took us to Bac Ha. On the way we stopped at Lao Cai to view the border crossing with China.

At the Bac Ha market we walked past tourist stalls to the animal market where horses, birds, buffalos are sold. Then we walked through the market stalls where the locals come to have meals, fraternize, blind dating or buy their supplies. Here all types of freshly slaughtered meat (including horse meat) were sold.

After lunch we were taken to a trail where we walked another 20 min to reach the boat landing. The boats were built of metal with long-tail engines. Because of the low water level we had to get off the boat at certain spots to help to push. Luckily our boatman knew the water so we only got off at one short stretch. When I got out of the boat my toe scraped the side of the boat and sustained a cut but a bit of cotton wool and plaster soon stopped the bleeding. Surprisingly there was no feeling of pain. Could be the mineral content of the river water. The other boatman was not so experienced as his boat got stuck often despite his son and daughter helping him. At some stage, my fellow travellers had to get off the boat to help as well.

Where we landed was a sand mining operation. Sand and water were pumped out of the river and sand deposited along the shore. Later trucks would come by to haul these away for construction. We walked up the slope to the bus which took us back to rest at Lao Cai and for dinner before boarding the train back to Hanoi at about 8.30pm.

Monday Day 5 Hanoi

The train attendant woke us up at about 4.30am shouting Hanoi! Hanoi! warning us of our impending arrival at Hanoi. As we left the station, we met our taxi driver who had a 7-seater taxi. The size was good enough for 7 pax without luggage. It was a squeeze with the bags pressing against my back and my head. After a short ride he stopped outside a hotel that was not familiar to us. We refused to get off and told him it was the wrong hotel. He finally understood and drove us to the Asia Star Hotel the same one we used when we first arrived in Hanoi on the first day. Luckily we knew our hotel.

We managed to get a room to share to freshen up after our long night train journey. After that we walked around the Hoan Kiem Lake and had breakfast of pho (Vietnamese noodle) at 50,000 dong for each bowl. We noticed that the vendor collected money from us as soon as he served us whereas for the local he collected later and at a cheaper rate.

We had lunch at Pho Com Co and ordered US$7 set per pax with a complimentary glass of wine each. We were in high spirits. We observed a local in his thirties come in to the restaurant with his son in tow. After he sat down, they brought him a bottle of red wine. This is impressive for a guy to finish a whole bottle alone for lunch. We continued to watch him as he poured a bit of wine into his glass swirled the wine then pour away the wine into the spittoon below the table. This is even more impressive using wine to clean your wine glass.

We went back to the lake to buy tickets for the water puppet show then do a bit of shopping followed by a drink to while away the time near the northeast end of the lake.

We had dinner at Hai San Seafood Restaurant at US$6 per pax consisting of several types of shellfish including oysters, a vegetable dish and noodles. After that we returned to the Prague Pub for the dark Vietnamese draft beer.

Tuesday Day 6 Hanoi - Singapore

We had breakfast in the basement of the Asia Star Hotel. This was included in the room rate. We observed that the waitress was doubling as a cook and later in the morning we saw her cheerfully helping in the hotel upstairs to carry items to the lift.

After breakfast we took a walk to St Joseph's Cathedral near the southern end of the Hoan Kiem Lake. It occupies a huge compound. Then we walked to M2 shop opposite the Melia Hotel. M2 sells branded clothes but no sports stuff - it was a of waste of time. Then back to the hotel to rest and prepare for checkout and to the airport.

GPS Tracks - Sapa Treks to Ta Van and Sapa to Ta Phin

View Sapa Treks in a larger map

GPS Track - Sapa to Bac Ha to Lao Cai

View Sapa-Bac Ha-Lao Cai in a larger map