Trekking Off The Beaten Path in Sapa

Rice Terraces Sapa Vietnam

“Show me the hike on the map,” I said to Thuy, the skinny guide who was going to lead us into the hills of Sapa.

He traced his finger up a trail line. “First we go this way…” Then his finger lost the line and floated across whiteness to the ending village. “We finish here.”

I thought maybe he had the shakes or was drunk, unable to keep his finger on the black line, but it turned out that the trail maps were poor.

Normally, hiking is something that you should do on your own. You shouldn’t need to hire a guide to stroll through the woods. The forest is one of those last bastions where a person should be free from costs. But in Sapa, guides are mandatory on nearly every trail.***

Even if guides weren’t mandatory, Thuy’s local knowledge came in quite handy. The first time Thuy proved his worth was when we were walking down the street toward the start of the trail. Thuy was telling us about how he was going to propose to his girlfriend, when suddenly we turned down an alley. It led to the trail. (Trails in Sapa have no markings.)

For a moment I thought that if someone would have just pointed out this alleyway, I would be fine. But as we climbed into the fog bank that cloaked Sapa and as the rain came down, turning the trail into a waterfall, we stumbled upon forks that required a guide.

When we reached the first river, a herd of water buffalo were preparing to cross. The Hmong cowboy started yelling at us.

“We must go back and wait,” Thuy instructed.

“Why?” I asked him.

“This one is angry,” he said, pointing to a large beast that forced us to seek higher ground. We waited for the perturbed buffalo to clear out.

Water Buffalo Sapa Vietnam

We crossed the river and passed by the remaining herd, grazing along the edge of the trail. If we hadn’t had Thuy, we would have probably had our own running of the bulls or retreated in fear from what seemed like an angry Hmong man, who was in fact trying to prevent us from getting gored.

Not only was Thuy an expert navigator of the Sapa hills, we enjoyed listening to his gastronomical inclinations.

“Wait, you eat dog?” Marissa said when he admitted to us his favorite cuisine.

“I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize.”

“And if you see deer on the menu here, it is just baby cow. I’m sorry.”

The trail continued to split, taking us past minority villages, where baby ducks swam in puddles, puppies yelped from the thresholds of wooden homes, piglets munched at the ground beside roosters twice their size. Summer had brought forth calves and chicks and endless crops sprouting amid the verdant forest. All shades of green filled the valleys and the mountains above. There were jade sweeps of rice paddies terraces chiseled into the mountains. The prolific fields were sprinkled with yellowing grains, ready for picking.

Girl and Water Buffalo in Sapa Vietnam

“What’s that waterfall called?” we would ask Thuy.

“That is not a waterfall. It’s just today.” It had been raining for about forty hours straight. Water was rushing from everywhere. What were usually dry, unimpressive crevices in the mountainside were now gushing falls. “For lunch, since there is no view, we can eat at my friend’s house.”

The weather had erased picturesque views and created something ethereal as the greenest rice fields reached to the end of the cliff where nothing but fog filled the sky.

Rice Terraces Sapa Vietnam

When we arrived in the village, a few wooden huts sat in a row. A puppy, leashed to the front door, yelped. Thuy said something into the dark room and a young woman came running up the hill.

“She says we can come in and have lunch.”

It was a one room hut with a mud floor. The room was dark and the Hmong lady, whose home it was, flipped a switch. The one dangling light cast its faint yellow glow over the small benches we had set in a semi-circle. In one corner of the room was the makeshift kitchen. Dirty pots and bowls were set on the floor beside a large bag of salt. On the above shelf were picked greens. In another corner was the children’s bed. Her three-year-old and newborn slept above a chainsaw. A small fire was heating rice in the third corner. Behind a wall was the parents’ room. The village kids, all in filthy shirts, entered the hut to stare at us. The mother added the bowl of greens into the frying pan.

Hmong Girl Sapa Vietnam

Dangling from the rafters were cellphone chargers and plugged in flashlights. On the floor was the frame of a dirty remote control car and one pink lego block. Empty bottles were scattered around on the mud floor.

“Will they want our water bottle?” Marissa asked Thuy.

“Yes. They fill them up with rice wine. They drink a lot of this.”

“She wants to know if you would like some corn.”

“How many kids are hers?” I asked him. There were about ten muddy kids in the hut, each munching on a cob of corn.

Thuy asked her and reported back that only two were hers. She had had four, she explained to him, but two had died a few days after birth. She stroked the head of the smiling baby on her lap.

We left the villagers and continued the hike in the pouring rain, where waterfalls wiped out trails and fog crept higher into the rice paddies.

Waterfall Sapa Vietnam

***Note: Though guides are mandatory, if you want to do the popular, clearly blazed Lao Chai trail, which I wrote about in the last post, try to do it on your own. The only purpose my guide served on that hike was getting me through the permit gate. To get through the gate without a guide, you will need to follow a tour through (ie: sneak in). But don’t feel like skipping out on purchasing the permit is a crime. Vietnam claims the money goes to the hill tribes to build schools and hospitals, but as my unnecessary guide from the Lao Chai hike assured me, this money pads the pockets of corrupt officials.

On a separate note, if you’re planning on doing the multi-day San Xi Pan hike up to Vietnam’s highest peak, which I wish I had had the time for, the best time of year is September through November, though you won’t have the same stunning views that July and August afford. For San Xi Pan a guide is necessary.

Hiking Sapa Vietnam

Posted on by Noah Lederman in Asia, Somewhere

5 Responses to Trekking Off The Beaten Path in Sapa

  1. Suzy

    I would think you were grateful to have the guide, especially when encountering the herd of water buffalo! It sounds like a very mystical route.

    • Somewhere Or Bust

      The guide was definitely needed when encountering the buffalo. But it’s a strong possibility that the buffalo was mad in the first place because the guide had eaten his cousin as a main course before his appetizer of dog skewers and fake deer meat souffle.

  2. Hannia @ Roamancing

    Nice post! I love the way you described the experience. Everything looks so green in the pictures!

  3. Sue

    Sounds like a great walk! What trail (or what villages) was it? Where did you hire the guide — from a company or off the street?

    • Noah Lederman

      It was an incredible walk, Sue. We hired our guide from our hotel. I don’t know the name for the hike but just insist that you want to do a hike that is difficult, goes through the hill tribe communities, and has very few hikers on the trail. (Make sure you insist and commit to these three points because they will continue to tell you that you should do the popular hikes and nothing else.)

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