Why Go to Sapa. Located in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwestern Vietnam, Sapa is by far one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. It is well worth the long journey from Hanoi and was the highlight of our Vietnam-Thailand trip. Sapa is the home of five ethnic minorities, include the H'mong, formerly nomadic people forced to settle. Still suffering from overt oppression, the H'mong struggle to meet basic needs, such as food, clothing and shelter. As tourism in the region increases though, some have been become trekking guides, offering both hiking and cultural experiences. Our experience with one such eco-tourism group, Ethos-Spirit of Community, was truly amazing and we highly recommend working with them specifically.
Day Two (Full Day, Hike and H'mong Experience): It's really hard to describe just how much of a lasting impression this day had on our family. If you do nothing else in Sapa, and are able to hike, be sure to spend the day doing Ethos-Spirit's H'mong Experience.
The day starts with a trip to the local markets where My, our H'mong guide, purchased all the food necessary to cook lunch. At that market, we also met My's Aunt. She sold us some of her beautiful handmade textiles, like a table runner we still keep in our front entry.
Carrying our lunch on her back, we began our trek out of town and through the rice terraces. We hiked all morning through the beautiful countryside. My was tireless but she often checked in with us. We crossed streams, traversed terraces, and walked through impoverished H'mong villages.
Poverty among these local H'mong families is profound. For our American teens, there was no better way to learn of the disparities between our life and others' than walking among these mud-floored huts. At the same time, they also saw remarkable resilience and kindness. Children laughed, played, and joyous. With My leading the way, we were welcomed to pass through yards, zig-zag through crops and fence lines, and other seemingly private lands.
Making Lunch with the H'mong. Midway through the day, we stopped at one such modest hut for lunch. Together we had prepared the lunch and our host cooked it over an open fire. The meal that My carried and cooked ended up feeding not only us, the H'mong family, but also that same family - for a week! We were honored and humbled by this lunch experience.
Afternoon's Challenging Hike. After the delicious lunch, we started the more challenging portion of the day with a hike up to the top of a ridge with 360 degree panoramic views. Portions of the trail involved thick brush and steep climbs through a remote section of Sapa.
My is an expert. There are no trail markers; no maps. She knew every trail like the back of her hand. She never tired and was always encouraging, funny, and happy to be there with us. Having a guide take us through these unmarked trails is a must. As we literally passed through some homes to get to certain trails, we do not recommend going it alone, if it's even possible.
The reward for your hard work is a breathtaking 360 degree view. You almost have to pinch yourself to see if you're really there. It's that amazing.
Now for something funny. Did you know (because we didn't, and Joey definitely didn't), that the mountains of Northern Vietnam have leeches. These tiny, literally blood sucking parasites are more of a nuisance than anything but they scared the bejesus out of Joey. In his defense, you do bleed pretty bad at first when you pull them off. We only encountered them on one short stretch of the hike but it was fairly constant, with each of us yanking them off at every stop. We still laugh at the fancy-foot work that Joey employed to attempt to avoid catching any. Joey's high-step jig didn't work but it did make for a good story. The bites do leave itchy, long-lasting lumps but apart from that, they were harmless.
More about Ethos - Spirit. Because they say it best, here is their brief "about us," description: "ETHOS are an ethical social impact business focusing on culture, women’s empowerment and environmental issues. We offer immersive, experiential adventures for conscientious travelers by creating unique adventures whilst empowering local minority tribal people in better providing for themselves. Our experiences are made for you & enhanced by our team of local guides who will use their vast knowledge &skills to support you in finding something special in the Northern Vietnamese highlands." There's a ton of information on their website about Sapa and their company. We were truly impressed by Ethos and we highly recommend using this specific organization for your tour guide needs in Sapa.
Getting to Sapa. The ride to Sapa was horrendous but don't let this deter you; just find a better way. A highway was more recently built to increase tourism in the area as a train ride takes a few hours longer. In hindsight, we should have taken the train and if we were concerned about losing a day, we could have taken an overnight train. Drivers, including our own driver, routinely, very dangerously passed vehicles at high speeds. The method of passing vehicles is to force oncoming traffic to avoid you and swerve onto their shoulder as your car goes into their lane - head on. The same also happens to your car, where you are routinely forced onto the shoulder. It was insanity and we did, in fact, pass a terrible accident. When we return one day, we will take the train.