After having an interesting experience getting to Sapa with our train catching on fire, we were very ready to relax. We were hoping for something much less hectic than Hanoi and could not have been happier with Sapa. It's a small town, situated in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains, with the tallest mountain in Vietnam, Mount Fan Si Pan, hovering in the distance at 3,143 meters (10,311 feet).
If you are looking to go trekking then Sapa is a great place to stay for a couple of days before you head out to the villages of Hmong, Dao, and Giáy. Going to either one will take you through the famous rice paddies carved into the mountain sides.
Sapa has more hostels and bed and breakfasts than a traveler could ever need. There are also coffee shops and store fronts with trekking gear coming out the wazoo. The hostels even have free beer most nights, and if the beer isn’t free, its only 5 cents a cup.
Talk about backpacker paradise
Upon arriving in Sapa your first experience will be the “mao” swarm, pronounced “ma.” If you have been to Sapa you know exactly what I’m talking about. The “mao” swarm is Hmong village women dressed in their traditional clothing swarming you and asking if you would like to go on a trek, homestay, or buy some of their jewelry.
Even though it can be annoying, I quite enjoyed the mao swarm. Often times the women have their children with them, wrapped up in a little baby sling, and every single lady had a smile from ear to ear. Even though they are trying to sell you on something it's still a great way to interact with the locals.
In addition to enjoying the lovely town of Sapa (and it's epic views just from just about every hostel) most people come here to go trekking through the rice terraces and stay a night or two in a locals’ home.
Going about choosing a trek and homestay can be somewhat confusing. There are so many different travel agencies and random people coming up to you and trying to get you go with them. But that okay, read on to get the crash course on how to choose the best trek and homestay in Sapa for you.
How do I choose the best homestay?
There are different ways to join a trek that will take you to a village where you will have the chance to stay in a local’s home and see their way of life.
• Sign up from an organized tour in Hanoi
If you want the complete package all rolled into one, with no worries about transportation, food, accommodation etc, signing up for a tour in Hanoi is the best way to go. You will be guided to the train station, picked up from the train station in Lao Cai, shown what to eat, where to sleep, and where to go. Easiest, but definitely the least bit engaging and adventurous way!
• Sign up for a homestay/trek through a tour operator in Sapa
This way you will be given a flat rate package which includes a guide (who could be the owner of the homestay) food and accommodation for the night (or however long you choose to stay.)
• Approach a “mao” and ask to take part in a homestay
This way is a little more authentic and adventures- but you don't always know what you’re going to get. You can of course ask the mao’s questions about the accommodation and but they will probably say yes to everything – “You want a 5 star resort with a pool? Sure! I have that!” (Even though they won’t) But this can be a great experience and you will be giving your money directly to the locals rather than a tourism company who's going to give only a small percentage to the person you stay with.
Choosing the way less traveled…
Luckily when we were on the Gibbon Experience, we met someone who was coming from Vietnam and going though Laos to Thailand. Perfect since we were coming from Thailand headed towards Vietnam! She told us of a Mao she had met in Sapa. She went trekking stayed at her house and had a great time. Then she gave us the lady's number and said to call her if we were ever in Sapa.
Well needless to say we called her as soon as we go into town and arranged to meet her at our hostel. After discussing pricing, and what the trek and accommodation would like, we decided to meet Ma outside out hostel bright and early the next morning.
Rice terraces and then… more rice terraces
The first day we trekked about 10 miles through the Hoàng Liên Son valley. We weaving our way through rice paddies and stopped to take pictures around every single bend. The Hoàng Liên Son Mountain range is one of the most picturesque places in Vietnam. You will pass through little villages where the children will run up to great you, giggling the whole time.
As we trekked we stopped along the way for lunch at a little hut where a local cooked us a delicious fried rice dish. All the while, this was our view:
Around every bend there was an even better view than the last. The rice paddies cascade down to the bottom of the valley and up higher than you can see.
We zig zagged our way through the paddies, carefully making sure to not fall into them. We passed through villages where children would be playing while men and women were out taking care of their crops.
We saw a lot of water buffalo and were told that having a buffalo signifies you have a lot of money. Mao told us she used to have a buffalo but unfortunately it got sick and died.
After a few hours we arrived at what Mao told us was her village and picked up some food to cook dinner.
Strolling through town we were pleasantly surprised to find these special little trees growing everywhere:
We hiked a little bit out of town as the sun started to get lower in the sky and then we finally arrived at Mao’s home; a brick house that she said cost her about $2,000 to build.
I helped Mao cook dinner while Ron and our friend Nick played with her children and tried to have a conversation with Mao’s husband (his English vocabulary was very limited).
Rice wine and stars gazing
After dinner we were offered to try some traditional Vietnamese rice wine. Mao thought it was really funny when we all crinkled our noses as the burning sensation went down our throats.
I helped Mao clean up while the boys played cards with the kiddos. Mao showed me some purses she had handmade and I couldn’t pass up buying one from her. (They were adorable and she only wanted $5.00) One purse had coins on it but the one I wanted didn’t, so Mao showed me her sewing machine and she sewed on coins to the purse I wanted right then and there!
She told us the story of how she used to live in a mud house, but she saved up enough money from offering homestays and selling her jewelry to build a brick house.
She told us how her husband is a rice farmer and they have chickens. They used to have a pig but it also got sick and died.
The simplicity of this life and authentic experience of seeing it first hand was something I'll never forget.
We spent a few hours talking and viewing the stars without any light pollution. Eventually we called it a night so we would be ready for the trek back to Sapa in the morning.
The next morning we were fed an amazing breakfast and started packing up to make our way back to Sapa. This sounded like a good idea the day before. But the rain clouds moving it drained the fun right out of it.
Mao told us we could either hitch a ride on a scooter or hike back. Sore legs...clouds moving in...yeah well take the scooter! We arrived back in Sapa and spent a few more days soaking in the mountain life and exploring the city. Before long it was time to move on and get back to backpacking Vietnam!
Have you ever been trekking/on a homestay in Vietnam? Did you sign up through a tour company or did you choose the way less traveled? Tell us about it in the comments below!