This travel post is written by Rachel who blogs at MalMal Our Inspiration. She travelled to Sapa with her husband and her petite travellers, Malcolm (11 years) and Marcus (6 years) in June 2015.
This holiday is perfect for families interested in hiking, trekking and roughing it out. It is also a great opportunity to expose your kids to the unique tradition of ethnic minorities and discover the natural and cultural wonders of Northern Vietnam.
Sapa, located at 1500 metres above sea level, is an incredibly picturesque town that lies in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam, known as "the Tonkinese Alps". Sapa and its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam.
We have enjoyed hiking in the French and Swiss Alps when we were living in France a couple of years back and thought it would be great to visit the Alps in Southeast Asia.
We went with a couple of friends who were very resourceful in looking up for information on the internet. If you ever decide to go on a hiking trip in Sapa, this list might be useful.
1. Getting There
I would say the adventure started from the moment we arrived at Hanoi Airport, a 3.5 hour flight from Singapore. With no nearby airport, the only option for getting to Sapa is to travel by road or rail. Despite being only 380 kilometres Northwest of Hanoi, the journey was time consuming regardless of the option you choose. I wouldn't recommend going by road due to the mountainous terrain and narrow winding roads. The journey takes about 10 hours by train and recently with a new highway, I read, it should take about 6 hours. Still, if you do the Math, that's less than 65km/hr on a highway.
We arrived at Hanoi at about noon and spent the afternoon exploring the area near the hotel. It was summer and the heat in Hanoi was unbearable. A thunderstorm came through that evening and uprooted some trees and injured a few people. Thankfully we were back in the hotel room as we later found out it was one of the worst storms they've had in years. We had checked into a simple hotel room so that the 7 of us could take turns to wash up before boarding the night train at 10pm that night.
We took an overnight train, which is the most popular option among tourists. You can choose the day train, which is more commonly used by the locals. However that would mean wasting one day on a train and the journey is 2 hours longer as there are more stops along the way.
The train ride to Lao Cai turned out better than I expected. We had booked a 4 berth cabin and I was happy that the sheets were clean. Despite the violent rocking and intermittent screeching of wheels, we actually managed to catch a good 5-6 hours of sleep before reaching Lao Cai at 6am the next morning.
From Lao Cai, we then transferred to a minivan and took another hour going up winding mountain roads before arriving at Sapa Town. Caution for those who are prone to motion sickness, get ready your pills! I felt more nauseous during the 1-hour car ride up the mountain than the 8-hour train ride.
Tourism in Sapa is booming and new hotels are slowly changing her skyline. So you needn't have to worry if you're like me, who has a fetish for clean white bedsheets. You will have plenty of options, ranging from cheap budget guesthouses to full facility 4-star hotels. We booked Amazing Hotel Sapa, which only started operation a few months, so everything was relatively new.
Our room had a spectacular view of the plunging valley, cascading rice terraces, and towering mountains in the background. The gym was however very basic and the roof top pool, despite having a breathtaking view, was a tad too small. Thankfully the hotel occupancy wasn't high when we were there and we got to enjoy the pool on the first day we reached. A clean room with a comfortable bed was really all we needed after a long day's hike in the mountains.
The joy of travel is incomplete without memorable food experiences and Sapa provided plenty of those. Given its French colonial history, Sapa boasts the best French baguette you can find in Southeast Asia.
Every morning, we would begin the day with the buffet breakfast at the hotel. The spread was simple with local staples such as pho, fried rice, vermicelli and french baguettes. We love their hot station which served omelette cooked in your favourite style and delectable freshly made pancake.
The day's activity would start after breakfast. A couple of hours hiking would usually take us to a local home where we would be served home cooked lunch. Famished by then, everyone including the kids would polish up whatever that was being served. Being Asians, the Hmong's cooking style is similar to ours which is mostly stir fried dishes served with rice so the kids had no problem eating their lunch.
By late afternoon we would be back in the hotel and as soon as we finished washing up, we would head out for dinner. With breakfast and lunch being taken care of on most days, the only time we got to try out the restaurants in Sapa town was dinnertime. Sapa has many good restaurants serving local and international cuisine, mainly French or Italian and some American. If you are into pizza, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from.
Our tour guide recommended The Hill Station Signature Restaurant which specializes in the cuisine of the ethnic minorities. We were told that they served authentic Hmong cuisine. Although it was a little pricey (by Vietnamese standards), we enjoyed the food there so much that we went back for several nights. Good thing that it was a short walk from our hotel because we couldn't handle anything more after a full day of walking.
4. Guided or Self Guided?
The area around Sapa is difficult, with wild uneven terrains. There are no road signs, trail signs or markers to guide you along unlike national parks in the US or Europe. There are times when we walked on trails that didn't look like trails. So, unless you are a hardcore trekker and are willing and able to bring all the maps, compass, equipment, and food along with you, don't go off on your own outside the town of Sapa. If you are satisfied with looking at the mountains from afar or walking along the tourist traps in and about Sapa, then it is fine to go without a guide.
5. Choosing a Travel Agency or Guide
Before going into this, there is a need to understand the socio-economic situation in Sapa.
There are at least two distinct groups of people that live there. The first group is the Viets. The Viets, as you can guess, are the majority ethnic group in Vietnam. They control the government and the economy in most of Vietnam, including Sapa. Many of them work in Sapa and are displacing the local ethnic minority groups in Sapa. They own most of the businesses including the hotels and shops. Largely, they employ Viets because the Viets are more well educated and modern.
The second group comprises the ethnic minorities - the Hmongs, the Dao, the Tay and the Giay - that have lived there since centuries ago. They migrated from the south of modern-day China hundreds of years ago and settled into the hills and lived off land through shifting agriculture (read: slash and burn).
Here's the catch. The local ethnic groups are becoming displaced in their own ancestral land and losing their livelihood. First, slash and burn has been outlawed since the government instituted land rights and demarcated public and private land. Without slash and burn and time for the land to recover its fertility, rice yields have steadily decreased over the years. Modern agricultural technology has not caught up in this area. Part of the challenge is the difficulty in modernizing and automating the agricultural process due to the hilly terrain and need for terrace farming. The other part is that nobody (including the government) is investing in modernizing agriculture. People are becoming hungry over a few months when they run out of rice and they are resorting to tourism and selling trinkets in the city to survive.
Second, the private sector has caught on the tourism drive. There are multiple casinos at Lao Cai serving primarily Chinese tourists that live less than an hour across the border. In fact, a cable car is being constructed to bring tourists up to the top of Mt Fansipan where eventually a casino will be built. Private investors are buying up ancestral agricultural land for peanuts. You have to remember that this is an inter-generational change. Most of the local tribes people cannot imagine what is a thousand US dollars. When offered a few thousand dollars for several hectares of land that can barely feed the family, the temptation is hard to resist. But that is not the end. The money is often splurged on alcohol, a brand new motorcycle, or something temporal. Nothing is left for the future and soon the family descends into extreme poverty, worse off than before. This scenario is continuously being played out today.
Thus, if you wish to help to conserve the livelihood of the local tribes people, get a tour agency that employs the local ethnic minority groups. The tribe people know the land like the back of their hand. This alone is good enough reason to choose a guide from hill tribes. What is a tough hike to us is really just a daily walk to town for them. They don't need maps or any navigational equipment to bring you from point to point. They will carry a picnic, water, umbrellas, your backpack, or even your little ones who are too tired to walk. My 5-year-old was being carried half the time on the long hikes either by my husband or by one of the local teenage guides.
Our travel agency at Sapa really considered our needs and the fact that we had little ones with us when developing our itinerary. I think that many of the hikes are original and off the beaten track because we hardly saw any other tourists along our hikes. Their guides are all from the hill tribes, and they brought us to see the real Sapa and the real tribes people. We also believe that they charged a fair price and are sincere about contributing to the local communities. They run a free school for the tribes people and a foster home for some of the teenage tour guides.
6. Highlights of our trip
Although Sapa and the surrounding mountains were beautiful, I think what really stole our hearts were the local people of Sapa. They were real people living in the real world. They are trying desperately to adapt and survive in their rapidly changing world. We never really spent that much time getting to know the local people in all the places that we have been so far. But for this trip, I think it was all worth it.
As for the train ride, it was more comfortable than we thought it would have been. We thought the kids wouldn't be able to sleep. We thought we wouldn't be able to sleep. As it turned out, the kids loved it. It was a great experience and one of the most memorable parts of the trip.
I have to admit that the initial thought of traveling to a remote village in Vietnam sounded daunting. I worried about food, lodging, weather and how well the kids could handle the new experience. Although it all started with trepidation, it all ended well. I realized that the kids were hardier than we thought and it is often the adults who often worry too much. For them, each day was a new experience, a new adventure, and a new opportunity to have fun. I realised that if we could approach each new experience with a sense of adventure, temper our expectations and loosen up, traveling with kids needn't be a daunting task, even if it is to some remote corner of the world.
Read more about our Sapa trip:
Part 1 of our trip : A Home Cooked Meal
Part 2 of our trip : Hiking the mountains
Part 3 of our trip : Children of Sapa
Part 4 of our trip : Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls