Like everything else we have done, we put in many hours of research and found an amazing tour company, called Vega Tours. We booked consecutive trips to Sapa and Ha Long Bay. Vega took care of basically everything for us. They even drove us from their office to the train station, and their representative walked us into the train to show us our cabin. This was much appreciated. Although I didn't sleep well on the overnight train, it was a cool experience. The four of us had our own private dorm, just like Harry Potter. We had real, comfortable beds! Talia, a friend of a friend who just finished volunteering in Hanoi, joined us and was in the cabin next door.
We were promptly greeted by a Vega guide and drove about an hour up to Sapa. Sapa is a village that rests on top of part of the Himalaya Mountains. The drive was full of sharp turns along the steep cliffs of the mountain, but it was a breathtaking view to take in. It is insane how much the drive reminded me of going up the Swiss Alps a few years ago, but instead of snow, this drive was lined with rice terraces. Even when we pulled into the city center, we were in awe of how much it looked like a small ski village.
Our guide, Tu, met us at Sapa Hotel at 10 AM. Tu is an extremely cheerful Vietnamese man whose English was amazing and who never failed to laugh at his own jokes. He also called us bros consistently throughout the trip. I laughed every time.
With Tu's guidance, we ventured off into the rice terraces. As soon as we got into the lush greenery, I was in more awe than I had been on the ride up. There I was, surrounded by hills and mountains with tiers upon tiers of rice paddies.
We were immediately bombarded with the women of the Black H'Mong tribe. These women are covered in velvet from head to toe, and they try to sell their handmade goods to the foreigners. These women walked about 10 km with us, with a goal of having us buy things from them when we stopped for lunch. At first it was awkward, but then I found this one woman reaching out to help me at difficult parts of the trek. Here she was walking flawlessly in her rubber shoes that remind me of jellies, when I was of course stumbling on the paths. Another person sensing my fear, but I graciously accepted her help when I needed it, and I gave her a small tip at the end to show my appreciation.
Up, down, and sidestepping we went through dirt, rocks, grass, mud, and sand. Tu stopped often for us to rest and he gave us a history of the land as we went. It was not rice season quite yet, so the land was not as green as it will be two months from now. It was a perfect temperature for the long hike, and the scenery was just unreal the whole entire trek. Words and pictures could never do this place justice.
Around 6:30 PM, we arrived at our home stay, where Tu informed us that we had trekked 17.1 km, or 10.5 miles. No wonder my legs felt like they could collapse! We were invited to relax and recharge at the home of Pao and his family, who are also Black H'Mong. This family graciously welcomed us into their home. We showered, were fed like kings, and we had comfortable mattresses and blankets to sleep. They introduced us to rice wine that night, which none of us exactly enjoyed, but, Pao kept refilling our miniature shot glasses. Not wanting to be rude to the man putting us up for a night, we choked down the rice wine four times until we politely escaped to get to sleep.
In the morning, we were welcomed with coffee and a breakfast of crepes and bananas. A perfect start to the day, as we had another 8 km to trek. Tu, the jokester that he is, had promised us a nice and easy day. We saw that was a lie within the first 15 minutes, as we were consistently going uphill. With our sore legs from the day before, we pushed through and took in the view all we could.
We saw many children along the way. We tried to talk to them, but the majority knew little to no English. Most at least knew to say hello, with apprehensive looks on their faces. The seriousness cracked when we got them do do hi fives and blow kisses. They were all beautiful children and I think we stopped to talk to each child we saw. Of course, the teachers in us asked Tu if they go to school. He said that they do but have to alternate hours because there are not enough schools or teachers. Some children get the morning hours while others get the afternoon. Another girl we saw along the way was not at school and Tu asked her why. She said, My mom said I have to watch the water buffaloes today. It was very interesting to look at and observe this very different, simple life.
Tu made us soup for lunch at a stop in one of the villages, and from there we drove back to Sapa Hotel, where we had kept our belongings overnight. Before we left Sapa, we got to walk around and take in some of the small city. This experience was by far one of my favorite things in my whole stay in Southeast Asia. I know I say that about a lot I have done, but the journey through Sapa was truly authentic and we got to be immersed in the simple village culture. It's crazy how much you put into perspective when you have an experience like this one!