Our recent holiday to Vietnam was a blend of luxuriating in a 5 star resort, followed by a few days of roughing it a little. We spent 8 nights at two luxury hotels/resorts, followed by a night in Hanoi before we set off on a guided tour up into the mountains of North Vietnam. Our 3 day Sapa tour involved a couple of days of trekking in Sapa through tiny villages and the hillside terraced rice fields.
Our itinerary for our 3 day/2 night tour to Sapa was as follows:
It was rise and shine early for our pick up from our hotel, the lovely Hanoi Elite Hotel. A young guy turned up eventually on a motorbike and asked two of us to jump on the back of the bike to be taken to the bus, saying he would return for the third person. My husband jumped on the bike but the two of us girls weren’t keen so we decided to catch a cab to the bus.
We discovered that our mode of transport to Sapa was a sleek new sleeper bus that consisted of three rows of fully reclining seats similar to little bunk beds. Once I clambered up to the top bunk, almost treading on a fellow passenger in the process, I found the seat to be very comfortable. We were in for an at least 5 hour bus trip up to Sapa, with two stops along the way.
After a scenic drive through farmlands and tracing the Red River for quite a distance, we started to climb the mountains of Northern Vietnam to Sapa. At around lunch time we arrived into Sapa town and were whisked away on a smaller bus to our hotel. We checked in and were told to come straight down for lunch before we set off on the first of two treks.
Outside our hotel the local ethnic ladies, the Black H’mong, wearing their traditional colourful dresses, were waiting. Little did we know that they were going to accompany us on our hike, lending a helping hand walking down some of the challenging sections of the track.
Later on we discovered that their baskets tied to their backs, were full of handicrafts that they insisted we purchase as a souvenir at the completion of the trek.
We set off to explore the Muong Hoa valley, by following the main road through Sapa, heading south for about an hour before descending down a track through rice fields to Muong Hoa Valley. This section of the trek offered spectacular scenery of the highest part of Hoang Lien Son mountain range and Fansipan Peak.
Eventually we came to a bridge and crossed the river, continuing our trek uphill to Y Linh Ho village. Here we visited some H’mong families, watching them go about their daily chores. We set off again until we reached Lao Chai, a large village of the H’mong people and then followed the river bank to Ta Van of the Giay ethnic people in their stilted houses.
The weather had closed in. It was now raining and we were all wet and cold. After saying goodbye to our escorts, the lovely H’mong ladies, and haggling with them over the exorbitant prices of their handicrafts, a bus came to pick us up to return to our hotel.
A hot shower and a delicious meal were very well received back at our hotel. That evening we all slept like babies after our long day.
The next day we arose early, had breakfast and met our tour guide, Zhung, a local resident of Cat Cat Village. We were embarking on a short hike to Cat Cat village which is the home of Black H’mong ethnic people, located near the bottom of a deep valley at the foot of Fansipan Peak. The rain had intensified over night, so with raincoats, umbrellas and in my husband’s case, gumboots, we set off.
The spectacular scenery of mountains and terraced rice paddies unfolded before our eyes, (although somewhat obscured by low cloud and heavy rain) as we walked downhill. Once we reached the quaint Cat Cat Village the water was forming rivulets down the main street of the town.
Cat Cat Village is dotted with shops and market stalls and as you continue down the stairs into the valley they also line the side of the Cat Cat trail. The wares that the local villagers try to sell range from food to clothing with a lot of emphasis on hand-woven textiles in bright colours and some indigo-dyed dark blue.
We paid a visit to some of the local homes, witnessing their daily life activities and experiencing their hospitality. At the bottom of the village there was a beautiful lake with gorgeous mauve and white flowers surrounding it, that we never did find out the name of. There was a walkway made out of bamboo to stroll out on one side of the lake.
After a quick stroll around the the lake we continued walking down numerous stairs to the valley bottom, to the stunning Silver Waterfall where the French built a hydraulic power station.
The river here was thundering down the valley due to the high amount of rainfall we’d experienced. We walked across a swing bridge to more markets and a restaurant with lovely views over the waterfall. There were waterwheels in the river that we learnt are only here for show.
Once we’d had a look around the waterfall and markets we walked uphill in a loop around the valley and ended up at an alternate entrance to Cat Cat Falls. After a short walk we stopped for lunch at a what looked like a farmhouse – come cafe. Here we enjoyed a large bowl of Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, a few herbs, and meat.
After lunch we were transported back to Sapa Town where we had the rest of the afternoon and evening at our leisure. Once again our clothing was saturated through and shoes were sodden and muddy. After a long hot shower and change of clothes we walked into Sapa town centre to have a look around.
On our third day of early wake ups we had to check out of our hotel by 7.00am for a 3 hour mini bus ride to Bac Ha – home of Flower H’mong ethnic people, via Lao Cai.
The road trip was long, and for me excruciating because of my tendency to suffer from travel sickness, but the scenery along the way was beautiful. We arrived in Bac Ha at about 10am at the busiest time because the local markets were in full swing.
We had free time here taking in the sights, sounds and aromas of these colourful markets. Our guide explained that the weekly markets were more like a celebration or social event for the local hill tribe people, the Flower H’mong ethnic people.
We discovered that the market, alongside selling clothing, handicraft and food, also sold livestock, from water buffalo, poultry to little piglets squealing their heads off!
There were many foods being sold off the ground by brightly dressed women, that were new to me, including a purple coloured slab of something that resembled rubber, which we found out later was a local specialty. There were also many unidentifiable root plants and curious looking locally grown tobacco.
After a few hours of browsing the intriguing market we enjoyed lunch in a local restaurant before setting off on a walk through Ban Pho village of the Flower H’mong and Tay people. This village sits in a valley overlooked by several hills with adjoining lush green fields of rice.
We strolled around and were intrigued by large amounts of corn kernels laying on the ground outside the houses in the village, drying in the sun.
Afterwards we visited the Hoang A Tuong palace, located in the centre of Bac Ha district. This palace was built in 1914 and its owners were father and son Hoang Yen Chao and Hoang A Tuong, Tay ethnic people who ruled the region and were referred to as kings. They had the reputation of being “drug lords” and held a stringent monopoly in trading salt, drugs (opium), food and exploitation of forest products for French stations.
It was time to drive back to Lao Cai city, with a quick stop to check out the border between Vietnam and Hekou in China, with the Red River forming the border. Lao Cai is a market town for timber, lying at the junction of the Red River and the Nanxi River and is the regional city for the Lao Cai province.
Our bus was returning to Sapa, however we were dropped off outside of Lao Cai city on the main highway to catch the sleeper bus back to Hanoi and the welcome sanctuary of our hotel, Hanoi Elite Hotel.
Our time in Hanoi was limited to an afternoon and two nights, however we did some exploration of the city on foot. We set off around Hanoi’s old quarter, the thousand-year-old district known as the “36 streets”. Each street once belonged to a separate merchant guild and is still pretty specialised – a street of shoes, of herbal medicines, of fake Ray-Bans. Shopping heaven really!
We also checked out the Saint Joseph Cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral in neo- gothic style, which was built about 120 years ago. This is amongst many of the French inspired architecture, such as the Opera House and the luxurious Hotel Metropol, that is still standing in the city today.
Not far from the cathedral we came to the central lake, Hoan Kiem Lake, meaning “Lake of the Returned Sword” and over the Huc Bridge to Ngoc Son Temple. The lake offers plenty of walking paths and big shady trees in which to escape the crowded city streets.
After walking the streets for a few hours, we worked up a thirst and decided to find the rooftop bar with the view over the lake, that we had visited 5 years earlier on our first trip to Vietnam. We remembered it was near a large roundabout and had no trouble in finding it. Sitting 5 floors up we enjoyed a Vietnamese beer and a quick bite to eat.
We enjoyed our 3 day tour of Sapa and Bac Ha, despite the weather and long bus trip. The scenery in the mountains of Northern Vietnam is breathtaking and the hill tribe (H’mong) ethnic people are beautiful. Although we were exhausted from our trekking and long bus trips we thought it was extremely worthwhile exploring this region in Vietnam. So make sure you put this on your itinerary when visiting Vietnam.
Kathy was a 50 something year old when she started up this blog 4 years ago, but has since turned over another decade and is now 60. She is married with two adult children and lives on the Gold Coast in Queensland. She enjoys living life to the fullest and loves to keep fit and active by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Some of her interests include reading, movies, travelling, cooking and blogging! Kathy works part-time as a freelance writer but her real passion is travelling and photographing brilliant destinations both within Australia and overseas and writing about it.