Trekking in Sa Pa

Getting there

The train to Sa Pa left Hanoi station at 9.15pm for a rattling rocking ride, following the long Red River Valley through the night to the north-west corner of Vietnam. At 5am it stopped at Lao Cai, a few hundred metres short of the Chinese border, to disgorge us and several hundred other bleary-eyed passengers into a fleet of mini-buses for the hour-long trip up into the hills to Sa Pa. As we climbed, we could see the lights of Lao Cai twinking in the valley below, but it wasn't long before the (in)famous mists of Sa Pa began to close in. By the time we arrived in the town itself, we were enveloped in a dense pall of fog that cut visibility down to 30-40m.

Sa Pa, a former French hill station founded in 1922, is perched on a ridge at 1500m below Vietnam's highest mountains and at the head of a deep valley. Since the rapid expansion of tourism, it has become the trekking capital of Vietnam, partly due to its mountain scenery and partly due to the presence of several minority ethnic groups - Black H'Mong, Red Dzao, Day and Xe Pho - who still wear tribal costumes and have rich cultural traditions. Hence for us it was a must-visit part of our trip. In Hanoi, we arranged to do a 3-day "hard trek", involving homestays at the villages of the hill tribes that dot the valleys and slopes around Sa Pa. It would be a good way to find out what the usual Sa Pa trekking experience was like.

Day 1 - Sa Pa to Ta Van (8 km - 60 m ascent - 580 m descent)


Red Dzao woman (R. Bykerk)

Time for a shower and breakfast at the hotel and we were ready for a 9.30am start to our planned 3-day trek. We met our fellow trekkers, Bob, Marti and Lily, an Australian family, and Dave from England, plus our guide, Lala, a 15 year-old H'Mong girl clad in traditional costume. Outside the hotel door, a gaggle of Black H'Mong women (so called bacuse of the dark indigo colour of their traditional costumes) had gathered, peering in and laughing.

Little did we know that our trekking party was being allocated out amongst them; the moment we stepped out the door, each trekker was adopted by a H'Mong guardian angel, who would be by our side, chatting, offering help, making small gifts out of grass blades etc. It was all very pleasant, but deep down the feeling that some large "debt" was building up began to grow.

H'Mong women waiting for unsuspecting trekkers

Lala led us out of town and into the swirling mists; a small entourage of trekkers in gore-texes and umbrella-carrying guardian angels wandering down a bitumen road shared by trucks, mini-buses and scooters. Other groups of trekkers with their own attachments of H'Mong were also heading out and we got the feeling that we would not be wanting for company. Soon we reached a small shelter, where 40-50 bamboo walking poles were thrust in the general direction of 6 trekkers by a gaggle of H'Mong children (and we were already carrying our own!). However, at 10,000 dong each, these are the best value purchase you can make if trekking in Sa Pa.

Heading off into the mists of Sapa

Surrounded by bamboo pole sales kids

Descending into the dense fog

My personal "guardian angel"

The walking poles were a sign that we were heading off-piste and soon we were following Lala down a narrow clay footpath into the Muong Hoa Valley, a valley whose bottom remained veiled in the depths of the dense and damp mist. The reddish-tan clay on the track glistened slickly, while rocks had been polished by centuries of foot traffic; the need for the walking poles became quickly apparent. We descended steeply in a small cocoon of visibility that passed through a series of terraced rice paddies, either bare or scattered with reshooting post-harvest tussocks. The fog thinned on the lower slopes, as we picked our way along a series of narrow rocky paths lining the channels that directed the water downhill between paddies, passing a scattering of H' Mong houses on the outskirts of Linn Ho hamlet to reach the valley bottom and the Hua Mong River, rushing down its stony bed.

Wending our way across the paddies

The entourage takes a break

Stony bed of the Muong Hoa River

Crossing the Muong Hoa River

Hmong house


Crossing the river on a bamboo bridge, we followed it downstream to a large shelter / restaurant, the designated lunch stop for all trekking parties. We were at Lao Chai, the village of our H'Mong guardian angels, and it was payment time for the debts that they had been carefully accumulating on the walk down.

The baskets on their backs were full of handicrafts and jewellery - "I walk with you all morning - maybe you buy something from me now". The word "maybe" in the H'Mong language is actually an imperative - we succumbed and tried to minimise our losses with feeble attempts at bargaining. Meanwhile a group of Red Dzao women, in their bright red headware, were watching and waiting their turn!

"I walk with you - now you buy from me!!!" (M.Bykerk)

Red Dzao sales women planning their strategy

The mists on the valley floor

Lunch over, packs heavier, wallets lighter, but alone at last, our group headed on, following the river across paddies and fields and past houses and schools to reach Ta Van village and our first homestay for the trek. It was a little after 2pm and we had only done 8 km - I was beginning to get the impression that this "hard trek" was not going to be so hard.

School's in in the Ta Van Village

A splash of colour on a dull day

Rice paddies at Ta Van

Dinner is underway in the kitchen

Still, the fog was getting thicker, damper and colder, and the large wooden H'Mong home seemd quite inviting in a dark and gloomy kind of way.

We settled in, joining a group of merry French women to spend the afternoon around the warmth of a charcoal brazier, swapping stories, having a good laugh and drinking home-brewed rice wine that we had picked up at the local store. I also bought a bottle of Dalat Red - after all it was New Year's Eve!

Rice wine around the brazier - happy new year!

Tired after an all-night train trip and walking in the fog, we declared the new year in at 8pm, along with everyone on the eastern seaboard of Australia. A strange place to celebrate it, in the middle of a fog-bound valley in a far corner of Vietnam, but all you really need is convivial company and that we had - Happy 2009!!!!

Day 2 - Ta Van to Ban Ho (10 km - 150 m ascent - 690 m descent)

It was a smoky night in the loft of the H'Mong house, with the open fired kitchen below, but we had slept warmly in the thick bedding and the morning cold seeped in when we got up next day, as did the bleakness of the Sa Pa fog, still there after 24 hours. Another late start was planned - plenty of time for breakfast and for the local H'Mong h'mafia to gather at the gate of the house. A strong feeling of deja vu pervaded the air and, as soon as we set off, the entourage followed - more like shadows than guardian angels.

The group poses for the traditional trekking photo ...

... as the H'Mong hardsell squad assembles outside

Crossing the terraced paddies

Lala led us down the road, but quickly headed off-piste again and we found ourselves picking our way along the narrow, slippery and eroding banks of the rice terraces; the plumply soft mud of the paddies on either side a strong incentive not to loose your balance. If not walking on paddy banks we were ascending or descending steep paths, covered with a thin film of slick wet clay. Normally sure-footed trekkers were transformed into jelly-kneed uncos on this treacherous surface and our H'Mong shadows were there to help, whether you wanted it or not. One slip or teeter and your arm was taken in a vice-like grip, sometimes a help, sometimes a hindrance.

One slip and its knee-deep in paddy mud (M. Bykerk)

The fair Nello's boots meet the mud of Sapa

Help is at hand - whether you want it or not!
Such were the first couple of kilometres as we worked our way downstream across the paddy fields and bamboo forests of the valley. And of course, payment time came at the bottom of the last hill "I help you down, now maybe you buy something from me". No escape - as we handed over the money for a few unwanted handicrafts, I could see the mynah bird in Hoi An almost falling off his perch "rip-off, rip-off, rip-off!!!!". Still, this is the culture and part of the Sa Pa experience - the only way is to take it all with a smile ..... just like the H'Mong women.

Entering a patch of bamboo forest

A small waterfall trickles down its rocky bed

Red Dzao lady selling a cap

Descending the bare clay slopes

Our hostess dying the indigo cloth that
identifies the Black H'Mong

Another steep slick red clay descent

Th paddies of Sapa (R. Bykerk)

Finally free of the H'Mongous horde, we headed eastward along a narrow concrete footpath that followed the stony bed of the river before crossing it on a rusty suspension bridge. From here a short steep climb brought us back out on the sealed vehicle road from Sa Pa.

The rocky bed of the Hua Mong River

A farmlet on the slopes of the valley

Horse in the mist

Water buffalo portrait (two heads are better than one)

Eroded landscape of the lower valley

View over Ban Ho village

We had now dropped over 700m from Sa Pa and were finally getting below the cloud layer, giving views of the lower valley of the Muong Hoa and the village of Ban Ho, another few hundred metres lower down. Sadly, it also gave views of a steep landscape scarred by roadworks and a hydro-electric project - erosion from the damaged slopes turning the river below a muddy brown colour. The one good thing was that the track was now much drier and we quickly picked our way down through the multi-coloured clay cuttings to enter the village, over 1000m below Sa Pa and our second homestay of the trek, joining a group of young Canadians and their Aussie-accented H'Mong guide. The house was similar to the first, though with a bamboo floor on the sleeping loft, rather than a wooden one.

Our home for the night in Ban Ho

Sleeping quarters for passing trekkers

The mountainous terrain lining the valley

Again it had been a short day's walk, giving time to explore the village and escape the small cluster of H'Mong and Red Dzao hawkers that we had accumulated on our descent. It was a chance to appreciate the Sapa landscape without fog.

Ban Ho village

A typical village house with aquaculture pond

The river downstream from the village

No escape - "why you not buy from me?"

Another filling dinner on the way

That night, as we ate our dinner outside, mists hovered about the peaks and the lights of the village twinkled beneath us; it wasn't quite balmy but much warmer than the cold and foggy heights of Sa Pa.

Day 3 - Ban Ho Circuit (7 km - 280 m ascent - 280 m descent)

The morning was clear and mild, though it did not take long for a light haze to creep down from Sa Pa. Today the irrepressible Lala planned a short tour in the hills around Ban Ho, first climbing up to Nam Toong, a Red Dzao hamlet of frail-looking houses perched on a steep hillside. As we wandered through, village life rolled on; flute music floated out of one house, a circle of red-hatted women and girls embroidered handicrafts for sale, a man passed carrying a stack of bamboo poles, and three young boys carved wheels for their bamboo scooters with a machete. To be honest, it all seemed a bit voyeuristic ... I wonder how we would feel if some foreigners came to watch us in our homes, cameras clicking.

Local women carrying a heavy load of wood

Three-pipe powered rice mill

Sapa rainforest

On the road back to Ban Ho

Climbing up to Nam Toong Village

The misty landscape revealed briefly

Terraced paddies - the stereotypic landscape of Sapa

Back down the mountain again, we detoured to walk upstream to a small but picturesque waterfall flowing out of a rocky chasm and into a boulder-filled pool in the river. It was the most naturally beautiful part of the valley that we had seen to date. For us this was the end of the trek - Bob, Marty and Lily were staying on another day, but English Dave, the fair Nello and myself were heading back to Sa Pa that afternoon. We thought that the waterfall would a good final memory of this all too short trek ... not so!!!

Looking up a sidestream, where at last ...

... there is a touch of native vegetation

Sidestream emerging from a rocky chasm

At the mini-waterfall

The lovely Lala and fellow guide

After returning to the homestay for lunch, Lala informed us that the minibus could not get down the muddy road to pick us up and three motor bikes were on their way.

Thus began an exciting 30km trip on pillion, climbing back over 1000m up to Sa Pa; racing down the narrow footpath in the village, winding up the clay road carved into the steep hill sides to climb out of the lower valley with the houses of Ban Ho tiny specks below, and then a more gradual climb along the valley, sometimes on bitumen, sometimes on slick orange mud.

The views down into the valley where we had walked the previous days were enlightening and for the first time we saw the landscape in its larger context; on the south-facing slopes top-to-bottom terraces of bleakly brown rice paddies that we had only seen small parts of in the fog, with paddies merging into bamboo forest on the opposite side of the valley.

The air became colder as we climbed and gradually re-entered the dense fog of Sa Pa. I'm not sure what was more impressive, winding up the steep-edged roads of the lower valley, racing through the glistening muddy sections as trucks and buses passed all to closely in the other direction, or the final moto GP effort on the 30m-visibility fogbound road with only an extra honk of the horn at each corner as a precaution. The drivers knew their road well and, in hindsight, it was a pretty exhilerating ride.

Start of the Sapa moto GP (R. Bykerk)

After three days the fog still enveloped Sapa

Sapa night streetscape

We finally arrived back in fogbound Sa Pa, paid an extra USD 3 for a heater and retired to our room to drink hot coffees and and eat pain aux raisins in our hotel room; a warm and comfortable retreat from the cold and the traditionally-dressed hardsell merchants. Time to reflect on our 2½ day walk through the valleys of Sa Pa. It was certainly not a hard trek - technically difficult in parts due to the mud, yes, but hard, no. Nor would you do this walk for the natural beauty as the landscapes of the Muong Hoa Valley have been largely transformed - older agricultural transformations of terraced slopes and new scarring of the landscape through infrastructure projects. This walk is more about people and, despite my occasional whinges about the high pressure selling, it is the hilltribes people that give trekking in Sa Pa its unique appeal.

Thanks Lala for showing us your land with enthusiasm and a big smile - thanks also to Bob, Marti, Lili and Dave for your convivial company and for allowing me to add some of your photos to this section. We had a very pleasant time.

Day 4 - Short walk to Cat Cat (5 km)

The costume of an unmarried Red Dzao girl

Our last day in Sa Pa was as our first, cold and foggy. We wandered about town in the morning taking in the the sights of the large market and throngs of minority villagers here to buy and sell. Their brightly coloured costumes provided some relief from the bleakness of the Sapa weather.

Chookscape at the market

Head-dress of a married Red Dzao woman

Turret rising from a misty forest

Then, in the afternoon, we decided to stroll down to Cat Cat, a nearby village and waterfall, largely set up for day tourists. The slope was steep and the fog was deep, as we wandered down the road and then, after paying our entry fee, down the cobbled path through the village.

Yet another walk in the fog - this time to Cat Cat

Cat Cat village

We were beneath the cloud layer by the time we reached the beautiful Cat Cat Falls, a broad set of cascades flowing obliquely into a rocky chasm. Here we stopped for a while to watch a display of the music and dance of the H'Mong and Red Dzao people, before wandering up the valley of the Cat River into the native forest of the region.

A few kilometres away, hidden by the mists lay Phang xi pang (aka Fansipan), at 3142m, Vietnam's highest mountain. It was good to be in amongst this natural landscape of clear rushing streams and steep-walled, bamboo and tree covered slopes - we would have liked to have headed deeper into the forest, but time was running out. We returned via a different route to cross the river on a high suspension bridge and take one more motor bike ride up the hill to town.

Cat Cat Falls

Water wheel

Upper Moung Hoa Valley

A deep pool on the Cat River

Cat River Valley

It was nice to be in a natural landscape

Views of Fansipan (somewhere in the mist)

A bridge too high

Our time was over and we were soon on our way back to Hanoi, but if you are visiting this area and plan to do some trekking, a day of exploring in Cat Cat and beyond would be very rewarding and a good balance to the transformed landscapes of the Muong Hoa Valley.