Friday, March 15, 2013

Like Grains Of Sand

The main reason travelers come to Sapa is to trek, and we were no exception. As soon as we arrived we booked a two day, one night trek to see the rice terraces and minority villages Sapa is known for. It didn't turn out to be quite the experience I was hoping for but I still enjoyed many aspects of the trek. 

Traditional clothing

My four travel mates and I arrived at the travel agency in the morning to meet our guide, a shy but pleasant 17 year old Hmong girl named So dressed head to toe in traditional attire. We set off to begin our trek... along with 20 or so other people. Not ideal, but I figured we'd all take slightly different paths and end up making our own ways to the village where we would be staying. Unfortunately we were in a massive group the entire time and stayed almost entirely on main roads with trucks honking and passing us every so often. Sticking to main roads made it feel more like a long walk than a proper trek and gave me pretty bad shin splints from walking down steep roads all day! Still, the scenery could not have been better. The valley we were in was covered in rice terraces of all different sizes and had a clear blue river running right through the middle of it. It was also a warm, sunny day (somewhat of a rarity in Sapa) which made everything all the more beautiful. I also ended up bumping into an old friend from high school on the trek, which was a pleasant surprise!

Rice terraces

Mid-afternoon we arrived at our home stay in one of the minority villages. Now I didn't expect the village to be completely authentic; I figured it would be touristy but I hadn't realized just how touristy. The village was lined with 'home stays', which were more like guesthouses than actual homes. They were all clearly built to accommodate many guests and I never actually saw the family that apparently lived in ours. In addition to the numerous home stays the village was equipped with wifi, a bar and even a spa! 

Houses in the village

It was a bit disappointing to have access to so many amenities when I thought we'd be getting away from it all but we had a good time all the same. We spent the afternoon splashing around in the river and afterward headed back to our home stay for a delicious dinner cooked by some local girls. After we ate it was on to "chopsticks", a card-turned-drinking game that most people know as spoons. The loser of each round had to do shot of "Happy Water" (AKA rice wine). There wasn't anything happy about the taste of it if you ask me but luckily I only lost one round!

Playing chopsticks with my old friend from highschool!

The second day was much better than the first. After a breakfast of pancakes we were off, this time without the throngs of other trekkers. We were actually on our own for most of the trek and we went on more interesting and challenging trails. So gave us some information about the rice terraces and we began to understand just how vital rice harvesting is for many people in the area. She also told us more about life in her Hmong village. Not only is she married at 17, she's got a baby on the way! While us non-married 20somethings couldn't believe our ears (or eyes - she's already showing!) she explained that her situation was very common and that many girls marry even younger. In addition to learning lots we lucked out again with the weather and were able to enjoy more beautiful sights the valley had to offer. By early afternoon we were back in Sapa town and promptly headed back to our hotel for a nap.

So, our guide

Although I was slightly underwhelmed by some aspects of the trek it was still well worth it. The scenery certainly exceeded my expectations: I've seen plenty of flat rice fields before but had never seen anything quite like the layers and layers of terraces that make Sapa so famous. They reminded me of grains of sand on a beach - you really can't wrap your head around just how many of them there are. In addition to the unbelievable landscapes I enjoyed the sunny weather, scrumptious food and hanging out with my four lovely travel mates.

My travel crew for the last two weeks
My time in Vietnam is quickly coming to an end but I've still got another three days in Sapa, and I intend to make them count!