I must confess that upon arriving in Sapa town my first impression was not favourable. Immediately you are greeted by gaudy multicoloured hotels, insistent touts, and a general microcosm of all of the detriments associated with being a hot spot on the tourist trail. However, the sun was shining, and we decided to make the most of it by hiring a guide, Vu, of the Black HMong tribe and getting out of the town as quickly as possible.
Upon leaving the town the difference is immediately palpable. The air is fresher, the greens are greener, and generally speaking it still felt much like it must have in the 90s before Sapa opened its doors to mass tourism. I was shocked by the lack of other people hiking through the rice paddies.
Although the seemingly never-ending cascade of rice paddies aren’t in use at this time of year, the reflective nature of the flooded pools in combination with the sunlight made for an easy backdrop and certainly reduced the difficulty of the day’s 12km hike. It felt as though around every corner a stunning vista awaited to take your breath away. About 2km from the home stay where we would spend our first night the rays of sunlight shone through the clouds in what can only be described as a photographer’s dream. I’ve seen many rice paddies throughout Southeast Asia, but the sheer magnitude of the paddies in Sapa are a true testament to human ingenuity and agricultural skill.
On our second day we set off early, and although the light wasn’t as prominent as it was on the first day (in hindsight we were extremely lucky to witness conditions like that, quite a rarity in this hilly region which generates its own rapidly changing microclimate), it was still a beautiful walk. We passed through bamboo forests (with thick pools of mud – before leaving the town we opted to rent rain boots, a decision that paid dividends time and time again), waterfalls, peaks and valleys, and of course, more rice paddies.
For the second evening we were invited to spend the night as a guest in Vu’s home with her family. We spent the afternoon immersed in her world with her family and the multitude of farm animals, sipping coffee and generally slowing down the pace in a manner that can only be accomplished outside of cell phone range.
On our last morning we awoke to a blanket of fog so thick that you couldn’t see five feet in front of you. We trekked about 5km before resigning ourselves to the fact that the fog wouldn’t be abating, and returned to Sapa to board the bus and return to Hanoi. All told, despite the first impression, we had a wonderful time in the Sapa region, becoming one of the highlights of our time in Vietnam.