Exploring the sprawling Sapa rice fields in winter
After the incredible Ha Long Bay, exploring Sapa was the last thing on our list of things to see in Vietnam. Famous for the sprawling rice fields that line the mountainous landscape, we had been eagerly anticipating our trip to Sapa. Unfortunately, we picked the wrong season to visit. Being the middle of winter a recent cold spell, which included several days of snow, ensured majority of the greenery in the region had died. We were prepared for scenery different to the postcards and we were even a bit excited to have the opportunity to see the heavy fog that blankets Sapa in winter.
With that in mind, we booked a bus and took off for a few days of winter in the highlands. When we were looking at Ha Long Bay tours, we also enquired about tours to Sapa. After hearing the tour started and finished with overnight buses, we quickly opted to organise our own Sapa trip. I was further surprised to learn the bus ride was only five hours and the overnight bus arrives between 2am and 3am. Instead, we chose to leave Hanoi early in the morning and arrived at midday. The best part was we were able to enjoy the incredible scenery as we wound our way up the mountains towards Sapa.
We were ecstatic when we arrived to a balmy 26degrees, and spent our first afternoon in Sapa exploring the township. As it was a Sunday and the last day of Lunar New Year holiday, the local people were all out celebrating. We were amazed to see most of the locals in the traditional minority clothing. It was obvious this wasn’t forced, or worn for the benefit of tourists, which was quite different to all the other occasions we have seen people in traditional minority clothing. With 54 recognised minority groups in Vietnam, it is clear those living in Sapa have maintained many of their traditions.
Shortly after arriving in Sapa we checked into the Lucky Hostel. Perhaps we jumped the gun a bit early on this one, it was a bit out of the main centre and quite noisy. With that said, it was perfectly priced and we didn’t mind the extra walk into the township.
The benefit of staying slightly out of the tourist area was we were forced to walk past all the local restaurants before we got to all the more expensive, touristy places. With menus mainly in Vietnamese, we stuck with the meals we were familiar with, including our staple Pho. Even after over a month in Vietnam we still really enjoy it.
We were served lunch at one of the minority villages on our tour, which was really nice. A lovely chicken and potato curry, spring rolls, and stir-fried vegetables were served with steamed rice. A beautiful meal after a morning trekking.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
We booked onto a trek at one of the local hotels after a fair amount of research into the various trekking tours. After much deliberation, we opted for the cheapest tour, which was more than half the price of the others. While the more expensive tours theoretically put the extra money into assisting the minority community, it’s difficult to justify the extra cost when you can’t be sure that it’s truly getting there. Instead, we decided we would buy something from the ladies selling crafts in the minority villages.
A soggy morning, we set off on our trek with our guide and a Dutch couple. We collected a few tag-alongs on the way; local women dressed in traditional clothing who were happy to come along on the walk, knowing they might get the opportunity to sell some of their traditional crafts at the end. These ladies were lovely, happy to chat and joke with us in surprisingly perfect English.
Early in the trek, I quickly realised it had been worth lugging my hiking boots around for this trek alone. As we weaved our way down the treacherous, muddy pathway I became more and more appreciative of my footwear choice. Our guide was incredible, cruising down in her gumboots, carrying an umbrella without any concern. The ladies tagging along were quick to offer a hand to help, however, I can happily report I managed well and without assistance. Quite an achievement considering my clumsy nature.
We wandered through the barren rice fields, I can imagine in planting season it would be a hive of activity and the vivacious green would be incredible. Instead, we had a mystical view, with the rice terraces being swallowed by the fog rolling through the valley. While not quite as picturesque, it was amazing to see the way people have adapted, creating the rice terraces that line the mountainside.
When we settled in for lunch we were swarmed by the local ladies, each showing us a collection of their handiwork. Knowing in advance this would happen; we had set a budget and decided what was reasonable. While I don’t necessarily agree with tipping, I really enjoyed the company of these ladies and their constant offers of assistance. In the end, I bought two engraved bracelets, spending the money we had allocated but probably paying much more than I should have. While it’s not the most noble contribution, hopefully it was of some benefit to the ladies.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
The trek we did in Sapa was amazing and gave us a great opportunity to see the more rural areas. While there were some aspects of the villages that were quite tourist orientated (such as cafes with Wi-Fi), the locals seemed quite happy and relaxed with everyone wandering through their backyards. They were friendly and welcoming, which is quite different to some of the minority villages we have visited in other countries.
I really enjoyed chatting with our guide, a young 22-year-old woman from a local village. We spent quite some time talking about family, which I found fascinating. She was telling me she has four siblings and is the second oldest. I was amazed to learn her older sister had never been to school as her parents needed her to stay at home to help with the other children and chores. Lucky enough to be born second in line, our guide finished secondary school at 15 and has spent the last seven years working as a tour guide. Chatting about education, she told me should would have loved the opportunity to study further but her parents didn’t have enough money. Her younger brother (who is 19), has continued his studies and her two younger sisters will have the same opportunity.
Now married with a 10-month-old son, we had a lengthy discussion about marriage traditions. While she got married at 19, apparently it’s not uncommon to hear of girls as young as 14 getting married. This is up to each individual and they each choose their partners. As in the south, people often seek the advice of a fortune-teller to gauge if they are compatible, but others forge forwards on their own accord. The husband’s family is required to give a dowry to the wife’s parents and once married the new couple move in with the husband’s family.
As our chat continued, my respect for our guide continued to increase. I was amazed to hear she returned to work one month after giving birth. She was completely unfazed telling me she couldn’t afford any longer off and would carry her son with her as she guided tourists through the valley. Now, her son is old enough to stay at home with her husband. When I asked if she was having more children she told me they would have one more, but not for another 4 years. This lead to a round about conversation about contraception. She chatted away, telling me they now have access to things to ‘stop’ pregnancy, which is great because in reality they can only afford two children. Interestingly, she told me the government would pay for a contraception option that lasts 5 years (she didn’t know the English word for it but I think she was meaning either an IUD or implanon) but not the contraceptive pill. She was quite honest, telling me how this now gives them the choice to limit the number of children they have, which means they can save and plan to have children when it is most affordable for them.
WHAT WE LEARNT
While I knew it was a hard life as a farmer in Vietnam, the trekking exposed us further to the every day life of a farmer. I was so fascinated by everything our guide shared with me. She was so honest and upfront, but also well aware of the vast cultural difference that exist between her lifestyle and mine. She was amazed that Jimmy and I are together; the concept of being in a relationship with someone from another country was completely foreign to her. It really is incredible; we have opportunities that she has never even dreamed of.
We went well with our budget in Sapa. Our accommodation was cheap and we had a great experience on a relatively inexpensive tour. All round a good few days.
We will head back to Hanoi and spend a few days organising the next part of our trip. I’m getting really excited to be looking at different countries and planning something completely different.