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Sapa – the beauty of Northern Vietnam


It’s incredibly still in Hanoi today.  The rains have ceased, for the moment, and it’s cooler.  I can breathe again.  Before my journey north from Saigon, I was told about Hanoi’s annual four seasons but its suffocating heat day after day made me believe otherwise.

Hmong Women

I came to Hanoi to teach English as a foreign language, like so many others, but I began to wonder if I could withstand the debilitating heat, to be able to sleep properly or to function enough to teach without dripping sweat over unsuspecting students.

Off to the mountains

To escape the heat of the city, and to continue my love affair with train travel, I took a trip to Sapa in Northern Vietnam with a friend I’d met in Cambodia.  Sapa was originally a hill station, established by the French during the early 20th century, but now it relies heavily on tourist trade. It offers trekking through valleys and mountains and the chance to experience a completely different lifestyle, if only fleetingly.


“Sapa was originally a hill station, established by the French during the early 20th century”

It takes around 9 hours overnight by train from Hanoi to Lao Cai station, then an hour’s bus up into the mountains and town of Sapa.  We booked a 3 night, 2-day trip which included 2 half day treks and a homestay.  We boarded the train, found our compartment and bought two Hanoi beers for the journey.  We shared the train compartment with a couple from South America, who quickly tuned into Kindles and iPods.  I don’t need that kind of distraction, just lying back and enjoying the journey is enough.

The compost toilets on board were a thing of beauty.  Like an airline toilet you sort of backed into it, then climbed up with the aid of two handles, then read the instructions while balancing precariously over a large brown hole.

I need to find an overnight train that doesn’t awaken you with loud, jangly music about 2 minutes before you need to disembark.  Over the tannoy, the Sapa tourist board boomed out its virtues in Vietnamese and English, just in case we hadn’t done our research.  We grabbed our bags and an hour or so later we arrived at the Panorama Hotel in Sapa town for breakfast.

“The trek was fantastic, a real chance to stretch your legs in beautiful, fresh surroundings – it was hot, though”

Our guide, Hien, came to find us – he was going to spend the next 24 hours with us, taking us through the mountains, up to our homestay, and back down to Sapa town.  The trek was fantastic, a real chance to stretch your legs in beautiful, fresh surroundings – it was hot, though.  Not the humidity of Hanoi, but a fierce, dry heat.  We were followed by three Hmong tribeswomen as we left Sapa.  As the annual rice harvest finished, they made money by selling richly embroidered bags, hand-dyed indigo scarves and silver jewelry.  They were also on hand as I stumbled over some of the more uneven ground – tiny women with strong steady hands – they knew the area well.

On the way we passed farms, with chickens, pigs, ducks, cattle and water buffalo.  It was lovely to see local schools nestled in the hills, and as we walked past we were greeted with ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ from the local children, while their mothers sat in the shade.  The scenery is breathtaking, the green rice terraces carved out of the land, resembling watery steps.

The view around Sapa
The view around Sapa

After about 3 hours, I was starting to flag.  But we continued to trek uphill for another hour, until we finally reached our homestay.  During the journey, Hien asked if we would like a herbal treatment when we arrived: I immediately said yes, and although I wasn’t sure what I’d signed up for, I’m always up for some kind of pampering.  It just sounded good, particularly as the owners gathered the roots and leaves from the surrounding area.

The homestay and farm was run by a Dou tribeswoman and her family.  Made of wood and reclaimed material, the homestay had been modified to include two bedrooms at the front (each with four large wooden beds) and a separate bathhouse with two wooden barrel baths.  We sat down, I drank half a beer, then fell asleep for two hours.

“Believe me, after a four-hour trek in boiling heat this felt like the best bath I have ever had”

An oasis in the mountains

The bathhouse turned out to be the treatment I’d booked - a really hot herbal bath.  Believe me, after a four-hour trek in boiling heat this felt like the best bath I have ever had.  I sat there with my knees round my ears and soaked off the day.

Niki and the baby, Sapa Market
Niki and the baby, Sapa Market

The real highlight of the trip was being able to sit with the family while they prepared food for the evening.  To stave off our appetite we were given crinkle-cut chips with salt and garlic.  Over a wood-fired stove, the family sat and prepared food in turn: beautifully crisp spring rolls, sticky rice, stir fried tofu, pork and chicken dishes with spinach and chayote.  It was completely delicious and we toasted with what Hien called ‘happy water’: strong rice wine.  I then crawled under my mosquito net and slept the best sleep I’d had since I’d left the UK, some two months before.

The following day, after home-made pancakes, honey and yoghurt, we started our final trek, which Hien assured me was all downhill, well after the initial uphills anyway.

We reached Sapa town, with the afternoon to ourselves, so we shopped, ate and had a massage.  Sapa town itself resembles a ski resort – compact, lots of hotels, bars and restaurants and surrounded by mountains.  The local women lay out their goods to sell and there are lots of tourist traps to spend your dollar on local embroidered jackets, silver, and one woman offered me her baby (pictured, with my friend Niki) for 100,000 Vietnamese Dong – I think she was joking.

A great weekend, and a relief from the humidity of Hanoi.  Thankfully, now we’re into December the humidity has calmed.  Just in time for me to start my teaching job - wish me luck.