Sapa, Vietnam: Overnight Trains & Homestays
Posted On August 2, 2018
Hop in my DeLorean as we rewind to November 2016, where I spent ten days exploring Vietnam. I briefly wrote about my time in this gorgeous country in my 2016 Hightlights Post, however it is such a special place, it deserves an entire post on its own! (Never too late, right? Expect more back to the future type posts soon, there’s a lot I have yet to write about!)
Hanoi to Lao Cai
Upon arriving in Vietnam, I first met up with a friend from Korea in Hanoi and spent a few days exploring this capital city, which I surprisingly loved. After three days in Hanoi, It was time to head north and explore the more rural side of Vietnam- Sapa. At 10:30PM, we hopped on an overnight train, fully equipped with bunk beds, pillows, toilets, and sinks.
Other essentials: snacks. The pride we initially had for our seemingly good stockpile of snacks quickly diminished, as some Koreans we befriended with our basic Korean skills brought over a giant styrofoam container of meat and a bottle of soju. Korean Kindness strikes again, outside of Korea proving to be no exception! After chowing down, it was time to hit the hay. The sleep was bumpy and loud; my well prepared earplugs helping with half of this.
The town of Sapa lies at about 1500 meters elevation (thanks Wikipedia), so there is no train that goes directly there. Upon waking in the wee, dark hours of the morning from a rocky sleep (and not in the rockabye baby type way), we disembarked in Lao Cai. We then hopped in a mini bus and made our way up the winding, twisted, and carsick inducing mountain roads to Sapa.
By this point, morning had broken and we were welcomed to Sapa with clear, blue skies, and a gorgeous view of the mountains that surround the town. We were warned that it could get pretty foggy in Sapa, and this day was the clearest one we witnessed during our three days there.
While waiting to check-in to our hotel (as it was still so early in the morning by this point) what better way to kill time than drink Vietnamese coffee? We would have at least two of these a day, and it is seriously the best coffee (….or maybe it’s just the globs of condensed milk they put into it every time). Sorry, blood sugar levels!
Finally, check in time! We spent a good chunk of that day with our heads out that window. How could you not?
Trekking & Homestay
The previous day, we had organised a two-day trekking tour with a tour company in town. We would be trekking through the rice terraces and mountains, and staying overnight with a host family. Leaving our big backpacks at the hotel, we took what we needed for two days inside our smaller backpacks, and were on our way.
Low and behold- not such a clear start to the morning!
We spotted lots of “furry friends” along the way.
Some of our “guides”- women from one of the local hill tribes. Our real guide was a young man whose name I now cannot remember. These women basically follow any tour group down, make cute leaf objects and hold your hand down a steep slopes. This kindness however, comes at a price. A real price. They will expect you to buy some sort of handicraft from them at the end, and they are relentless. Tourists are one of their main sources of income, after all.
A well deserved lunch pit stop, fuelling up for the remainder of our hike to our homestay.
We made it! This was my first ever homestay, and I could not have asked for anything more. The family was kind and welcoming, and made us a delicious dinner. It was so interesting to see how they cooked and what materials they used; iron pots and pans, cooking over an open flame, feeding the fire as they cooked with the stack of sticks next to it.
The only food I can remember from the dinner was a dish with pig intestine and water buffalo meat- probably because I can recall hoping and praying I would not get sick from it! The homemade whiskey poured from a plastic water bottle probably didn’t help, either.
Besides eating, our night was spent being taught Vietnamese drinking chants, and bonding with the other travellers in our group. Despite being from all over the world, we were all communicating in English and connecting over this communal experience. Moments like this are why I love travel!
The sleeping quarters were excellent. By excellent, I don’t mean five star hotel. I mean clean, comfy, and fully equipped with mosquito nets. Up a rickety wooden ladder was a cozy little loft area and approximately twelve beds, where our entire group would sleep for the night.
Children of the homestay owners- the cutest kids with the most amazing English!
The next morning, we were cooked an amazing (and worry free) breakfast of pancakes and instant coffee. Bellies full, we said our goodbyes and continued on our trek, before finally heading back to our hotel for the night. Can you spot the people in the photo? Gives a better perspective on the size!
Things I liked about Sapa
- The views, scenery and outdoor activities
- The walkability of the town
- Ease of travel and communication
- The abundance of homestay options
Things I didn’t quite like about Sapa
- Surprisingly touristy for a “rural” mountain town
- The pushiness of locals
Overall, I think the homestay was such a unique experience, my only complaint was that it was too short! I would definitely recommend Sapa to anyone going to Vietnam, but don’t expect it to be as “off the beaten track” as you would think.