We got back to Hanoi and checked in with the hostel that helped us book the trip to Sa Pa. We had just been traveling by car for half a day so we dropped our stuff, packed small day bags for the trip to Sa Pa, and charged our phones/ used the wifi.
David and Tamir went out to buy small backpacks for the trip and they got some really nice northface (probably fake) bags for about $15 each. A minibus (fancy term for a van) was set to pick us up between 8:30-9:30pm and take us to the bus stop so we could catch our 10pm overnight bus to Sapa.
We chilled at the hostel, I asked a lot of questions about our trip and what it would be like, and then we ventured out to get some more essentials for the trip. David, Shosh, and I bought matching black long sleeve shirts ($6) which they recommended we bring because it can get cold up north and because there are a lot of mosquitos. I also bought a nice northface hat for about $3. David and Tamir bought pants and we were all hungry and exhausted so we set out for food.
We ate dinner at some restaurant the hostel suggested. I got tofu with rice vermicelli noodles and it was really good. The food in Vietnam is a bit more difficult than other places I’ve been because I don’t love pho but I want to be eating the local cuisine. They have some pizza places and Indian places but I would feel guilty eating pizza while in South East Asia. I guess for people who have been traveling for six months or so those options are really nice to have.
After dinner we got back to the hostel and waited for our ride. They kept our larger backpacks for us in the back so that we wouldn’t have to shlep them on our two day hike. Naturally we were the first pickup so we got dropped at the bus stop around 8:45 and waited until 10:15 for the bus to come. As we were walking towards the van we heard people speaking in Hebrew and it turns out there was a group of Israelis coming on our overnight bus. We told them we spoke and understood Hebrew and they were super excited so we got to talking.
Actually what happened first was pretty hilarious and important to understand the culture here in Vietnam. The people are great and everything is very casual but so much so that formal or by the book things don’t always happen, especially if you are a backpacker.
We get to the minibus which is taking us to the bus stop and they have filled up this van with five people per row when each row seats only three. Once they had seated those people we looked around and four of us were still not in the van. The guy grabs David and has him sit on the little steps by the door facing his back towards the driver. Then they look at the three of us leftover and shove us all in the front seat. A very nice girl from Belgium sat on my lap and we all just laughed at how silly and packed this car was. We drove out of the city for about ten minutes and they dropped us on the side of the road which had no real indication of being anything and they sped off to pick up the next group. We looked around and assumed we were in the right place so we got settled as we waited.
I will go back to the Israelis for a minute and leave you hanging in suspense as to what was going to happen with our overnight bus. We are all talking and Tamir tells them his parents are Israeli and David says his dad is Israeli and we all do the normal oh where in Israel do you live etc etc. Naturally two of the girls in the van say they are from Pardes Hana. For those who don’t know, it’s is a tiny tiny town in Israel with a small population, maybe five stores on its Main Street, and everyone knows everyone. It also happens to be where David’s dad was raised and where some of his family still lives. Once this connection was made chaos ensues. The Israelis are freaking out that in Vietnam they not only meet Americans who speak Hebrew but also that they meet Americans who have heard of Pardes Hana and have family there. David explains that his grandparents own a candy shop there and that his aunt still works in the shop. At which point the girls go, “that candy shop is in between our houses! We know your aunt!” It was such a funny connection and the world tour of David bringing together old employees, high school teachers (read my previous post), and neighbors from Israel continues.
We wait for the bus for about an hour and a half on the side of a road/semi highway. The minibus keeps pulling up with groups of people and our new Israeli friends help us push to the front so we get the best seats on the bus. The bus eventually pulls up and the group of travelers returning from Sapa get off the bus, a quick “clean” of the beds happens, and we load the bus. I can’t really explain to you what an overnight sleeper bus in Vietnam looks like but I will try. At the very least I suggest you Google image it because it truly is a sight to see. The bus looks like a typical bus but just completely emptied out with rows of bunk beds in place of seats. There are three long rows of bunk beds with about one bunk bed for what would have been every two seats. You can lay completely flat as the bus drives through the night. I actually slept pretty well partly because I can sleep anywhere, partly because I was exhausted, and partly because I took two sleeping pills.
When you board the bus you take off your shoes and then dash to find a bed. The bottom bunk is also where people walk (it is ground level) so I opted for a top bunk. They provided us with blankets but there was no way I was touching that thing. It was like one of those fleece blankets with cartoon characters on it and I just knew it probably had never been cleaned. I was warm enough without it so I put in my headphones and slept until we arrived at 4am. Once the bus arrives we stop and are allowed to sleep for two more hours until they kick us off the bus at 6am. They did this by blasting Vietnamese house music and suddenly we were all awake – except David of course who can truly sleep through everything.
We got off the bus, used the bathrooms, and waited for our guide to pick us up to begin the trek. Sapa is a northern town in Vietnam which is only about a one hour drive from the China border. In the hills of Sapa are small villages where tribes of people live and work. It is a ten mile hike to the villages from Sa Pa and many villagers earn their livings by running home stays for tourists. They pick you up in Sapa, hike with you back to the village (6 hour trek) and then host you for the evening and take you back to Sapa the following day. The package we bought was $65/person and includes the bus to and from Sa Pa, three meals the first day, two meals the second day, and a place to sleep.
We met our guide Jain – although I’m sure that’s not how she spells it – at about 7am and grabbed breakfast at the local market. David, Tamir, Shosh, and I had heard from another traveler that we should rent rainboots for the hike because it was rainy and muddy and our sneakers would be ruined. We asked Jain and she took us to a place about 15 minutes away walking that rented rainboots to us for 30,000 dong (about $1.50). They also required a deposit of about $5 to be returned when we brought the boots back the next day. I also bought a poncho and we walked back to meet the rest of the group and begin the ascent at around 9am. We had set up our trip through our hostel and a few other travelers had done the same so we were all matched up for the hike and home stay. In total we were 14 people including a couple from England, four people from Belgium, and another couple from Germany. Everyone was in their 20s and all had various reasons for traveling with some people just taking two weeks off and others traveling the world for six months.
It was extremely overcast but still stunningly beautiful throughout the hike. We got rained on a bit which was refreshing as we were walking uphill for many miles. Jain had great English and told us about her life. She is 23 and has been married for six years. She doesn’t have any children but would like to have children and is trying. Her sister in law, Mao, runs the home stay and lives in a village called Hau Tah which is where we spend the night. Jain lives with her husband in another village about two hours away by foot. Many of the villagers have motorbikes which allow them to travel quickly from their remote homes down to the city of Sa Pa.
After walking for three hours we stopped for lunch at a small no thrills restaurant tucked away in the mountains. The restaurant was also home to the people running it and there were many children around playing games on the floor. We continued hiking for another three hours until we reached the village of Hau Tah. We stopped along the way and learned about various plants, saw vast corn fields, miles of rice farms, and scenic waterfalls. Sa Pa is simply stunning. If you do nothing else but visit Sa Pa when you come to Vietnam it will have been enough.
Because we were so close to China the food had a slightly Chinese influence with more dishes like fried rice, fried noodles, and egg rolls. We settled in Mao’s house and showered and hung around until dinner.
Our guides were very bubbly and had the warmest personalities. They were so happy to have us and genuinely friendly people. We had a delicious dinner which they cooked for us and we all sat around and enjoyed each other’s company for a few hours. Mao brought out rice wine which is a strong alcohol that is brewed in their village. It tasted like a cross between sake and vodka. Interestingly enough the other travelers in our group had never heard of sake and some had never even tried sushi! I guess we assumed since sushi and sake are so popular in the states that other western countries would also have adopted the craze.
After dinner and some drinking a bunch of us decided to go to bed while a small group stayed up to play cards and drink more. It was a long day but it was so rewarding and meaningful.