I um’d and ah’d about going to Sapa more than I have any other place I have visited. As I was already in Hanoi it would mean going North to Sapa and then back down to Hanoi before continuing South; a huge factor was trekking and whilst I enjoy a good hike I’m not as hot on walking as I am cycling as a physical way to explore your surroundings; it wasn’t on my original list of places to visit (not that this matters and it’s all part of the travelling experience to hear of somewhere new and change the routing in your mind, I just hadn’t accommodated for it until now.
Anyway, after 2 days out at sea on the Halong Bay tour doing some, but not a lot, of exercise, and then returning to the intense city that is Hanoi, I decided that time out in the mountains for some trekking and fresh air could be just what I needed. So, after returning to my hostel in Hanoi at 1am after a night drinking and shisha-ing with my Halong Bay peeps, I crawled out of bed at 6am to book myself onto the 7am bus to Sapa. I was first picked up in a taxi by a Vietnamese guy to be taken to the bus stop, and most of the journey was spent with him singing Hotel California at me and then delightedly slapping his hand on my leg when I enthusiastically joined in.
With Sapa, many hostels and tour agencies offer packages where you pay for transport there and back, trekking round the mountains, all your meals and a homestay at a nearby village. The cheapest I managed to find was 65 USD and, after doing some research, it seemed the tours all took their guests to the same villages so it was filled with tourists, they took you to villages where you were seriously hassled by locals (mainly children) begging you to buy their merchandise, and you didn’t go as far up into the mountains. I then spoke to two Australian girls on my Halong Bay tour whom had done the trip themselves and highly recommended the homestay they did with Mamasa (pronounced Mama Say) – they had got off the bus in Sapa to find many local women waiting, offering their homes and trekking packages, and they had loved Mamasa and the price she offered and went with her. I found her on Facebook and called her from my hostel just to check she would be at the bus stop when I arrived, and then embarked on the 5 hour journey (which cost 10 dollars, or 8/9 quid, each way). This was my first experience on a Vietnamese sleeper bus and it isn’t the most comfortable or peaceful!
I arrived in Sapa at midday to find Mamasa waiting – while I was chatting to her about the cost and what it would include, 3 other girls (Lou, Sophie and Lola) were trying to figure out what to do and where to stay and ended up joining. We each paid 25 USD for lunch, 2 hours trekking in the mountains, dinner at Mamasa’s, a stay at her house, breakfast he next morning, 2/3 hours trekking through nearby villages and lunch. I paid a total of 45 instead of the tour price of 65 and I really believe I had a more true experience. We were first driven to the top of the mountains where we had lunch in a place that had views of the villages, then we walked for 2 hours through the gorgeous mountains (and sometimes muddy terrain) to reach Mamasa’s. The only time we saw any other tourists were when two stopped by us on a motorbike, and we were not hassled by any locals.
Upon arriving at Mamasa’s we had the chance to have a shower, rest and take in the stunning views from her humble home – yet another gorgeous sunset I was able to really enjoy. It was so quiet and the air so thin and cool – it’s hard to describe how peaceful and still I felt.
Mamasa and her husband prepared dinner for us and it was hands-down the best meal I have had so far in Vietnam, the highlight being the spring rolls which were leaps and bounds above any other spring roll I have ever tasted or what we westerners identify as spring rolls that I almost don’t want to call them that as it doesn’t do them justice. In fact, I am renaming them Vietnamese Rolls. Or Mamasa Rolls. Anyway, the meal was incredible at it was so nice sitting around the table with her family eating a home-cooked meal. Afterwards she poured out shots of “Happy Water” (their name for rice wine), which was so strong I could have cried.
Since Halong Bay I had developed a sore throat and following the night of shisha and laughing gas my left gland had swollen and I could barely swallow. I mentioned this to Mamasa and she said she could do a local remedy on me, and used her fingers to gesture pulling on my neck. Well, while in Vietnam, I thought – what more authentic experience can you get than accepting a Vietnamese home remedy for an ailment? So I agreed to try it (“Are you sure? What if I make you cry?” Err…) she then poured something that smelled like rice wine onto her thumb and forefinger and proceeded to carry out what I can only describe as feeling like extreme pinching at a super rapid rate down my neck – it stung and felt sore but, being super brave, I stayed silent. It was only whenLou and Sophie came over to watch and their faces turned to looks of horror when they saw my neck that I started to think about the mark it may leave, and only when I later looked in the mirror that I realised how very bruised my neck was and how long it would take for the bruise lunes to disappear. But, it was certainly an experience and a local cultural one at that!
The following morning we had breakfast cooked for us (pancakes, honey, banana, watermelon and eggs) before we headed out for a 2/3 hour hike through the local villages and back towards Sapa. When we were almost at Lao Chai I realised what everyone had been talking about – roughly 20 tourists passed by us in the space of 30 seconds and then, when we stopped to buy water, we were literally surrounded by local village children (all girls) trying to sell us bracelets. No matter how many times we said no they were relentless, muttering “2 for 10,000; you buy” over and over again, and even following us for up the hill for 10 minutes. It was so sad to see them so young practically begging you to buy their stuff, and I’m so glad we only experienced this for about 20 minutes.
Around 3pm we had a taxi pick us up and take us back to Sapa where we had lunch at a local cafe (still part of the package) before we said goodbye to Mamasa and I got on a 4pm bus back to Hanoi (arriving at about 9:30pm). Mamasa was warm, hilarious and kind, and as I said goodbye to her I felt genuinely grateful to her for the last 2 days and said to be leaving her – we hugged, kissed on the cheek and she let me pick one of her bracelets for free as a souvenir. Going to Sapa and doing it all separately is one of the best (and, as a solo traveller, most empowering) decisions I have made.