After enjoying three days in Hanoi, you can read more here, it was time for a two-day trek in Sapa. Sapa had come up on our must-see radar when we were researching places to see in Vietnam. The pictures of the rice fields looked amazing so we were excited to finally join the Intrepid tour for a two-day trek in Sapa. After experiencing the rice fields in near Hoi An Ancient Town, you can read more here, we had put Sapa trekking on our list of things to do.
Would we recommend a Two Day Trek in Sapa with Intrepid?
Hanoi to Sapa on the ET Pumpkin Express
Our Intrepid guide for the evening in Hanoi had organised to collect us from our hotel for a shared Vietnamese dinner giving us a chance to meet and introduced ourselves to the three others in our tour group. Bev a 65-year-old lady from Aussie travelling by herself, and Sam and Ella a young English couple who have been living in Sydney for the last couple of years.
The dinner was a great idea as we were given a large variety of dishes to try. And having a local explain the various dishes, encouraging us to try, seemed to relax our small group.
With dinner over, we all piled into the minivan to head to the Hanoi Railway Station. We had been booked with the ET Pumpkin Express carriage for our overnight sleeper cabin on the Hanoi to Sapa train.
Why the ET Pumpkin Express?
What we discovered is the carriages are independently owned and fitted out by various companies. The cabins are then purchased to tour companies or individual travellers. We were lucky enough to share a four berth cabin with Sam and Ella, while Bev was in a cabin with a Chinese woman and her parents.
The owner of the carriage arrived to ensure we were comfortable and offering a few safety tips including keeping the door locked. This seems to be a recurring theme for overnight Vietnamese trains.
The train departed on its 8-hour 290km journey at 9.40pm. Do the math and you will work out why it’s a slow journey!
The five of us spent time chatting for a couple of hours before bedding down for a good sleep – we hoped!
Arriving into Lao Cai
After a reasonable sleep, we arrived very early into Lao Cai and were met by a staff member of the Terminus Cafe situated across the road. So while we all thought we would get into a minivan, instead we were ushered into the cafe and encouraged to buy a breakfast.
Still being a bit bleary eye, we decided on a lovely Vietnamese coffee, our driver arrived to transfer us to Sapa.
So far, this was the fourth person contracted for our Intrepid Tour of Sapa and it hadn’t even been 24 hours.
The 34km road to Sapa from Lao Cai was slow and windy lasting close to an hour. We could see the impact of last weeks bad weather with lots of trees down, and some still across part of the road, this just added another challenge to the already crazy driving.
Our driver dropped us off at Long Chau Hotel, our accommodation for tonight only to find it was still a holiday weekend. It meant all rooms at the Long Chau hotel still had guests, so no early check in was available. Instead, the hotel gave us access to a day room with showers and toilets so we could get refreshed before our three-hour walk starting at 9.30am.
After our showers, we headed out into the streets of Sapa to get some breakfast.
First impressions of Sapa
Our first impressions of Sapa was an image similar to a ski resort with hilly streets lined with hotels, places to eat and clothing shops. The hills surrounding the village gave an alpine feel, with the temperature around the mid 20 degrees Celsius.
However, the roads were chaotic and noisy in the main streets.
Black Hmong Ethnic Group
Arriving back to the hotel, our guide was waiting for us.
Our local guide Li is from the Black Hmong ethnic group. Her distinctive dress is worn by the women and children most of the time, with the men only wearing the traditional clothing on Sunday as it is too hot to wear in the fields.
Cat Cat Village Trek
We left the hotel for our walk down the hill in the direction of Cat Cat Village to view some of the rice terraces, a waterfall and the people of the village.
The walk was reasonably comfortable going downhill to the village. And as we walked through the tourist village, lots of souvenirs were for sale. Maura deciding some silver earrings were needed for the jewellery box.
The local hawkers seemed persistent, but they do need to make a living. But by the end of this trip our attitude toward them had changed, not for the better.
Next was the opportunity to look inside a village home. The home was basic with a dirt floor and accommodating not only the family but also the feed for the animals. We found corn drying hanging from the ceiling and lots of ducks roaming inside and outside.
From here we trekked down to the waterfall and unlike a number of waterfalls we saw earlier in our trip, there was plenty of water falling.
If you go down, you have to go back up, so we started the climb back up to Sapa. The walk was steep, but not too stressful although we did notice people from other groups struggling and resorting to a motorbike ride.
Our walk took us past more animals including a mother water buffalo with her calf. Terry got nice and close for some photos but backed off when mum got a little ‘huffy’.
The temperature now in the 30s we were all ready for another shower back to the hotel.
We finally made it back to the hotel around 1 pm but were told our rooms wouldn’t be ready for another 30 minutes.
No problem as we were hungry so we headed along the Main Street for some lunch with Bev.
While Bev and Maura ordered coffees, Terry headed back to the hotel for a shower and a catch-up sleep, only to be to find the room still wasn’t ready. It had now been 90 minutes after the initial attempt to check in so Terry let them know his displeasure and miraculously the room became available immediately!
We were on a budget tour so we were in the 3 stars older hotel, but as we all found, the rooms allocated were noisy (karaoke for Bev late arvo) Sam & Ella (window with a brick wall view) Terry & Maura (2 roosters crowing at 3.30pm). While the others got a room change (for rooms just as noisy) Terry crashed to sleep which left Maura the task of ringing reception to have the roosters removed or killed!!
Roosters were moved – great effort Maura 💕
Another late start this morning at 9 am for the trek to the village homestay. Down steps from the hotel, we were soon on a path amongst farmland to find waiting at the first corner was a group of Hmong teenagers and children.
With us all a little wary of hawkers, everyone kept their distance until 15mins later the guide said the children belonged to a hill village and would be walking with us.
Terraced Rice Fields of Sapa
It wasn’t long until we saw what we had come for, the terraced rice fields against the alpine backdrop.
We passed by many fields with the local farmers readying some rice fields, or the water buffalo grazing happily. The trek took us along some bush tracks and across streams muddy from the overnight rain. The sun now providing heat, there was a chance to stop and purchase water or Coke at a shelter in the middle of nowhere, with the locals have adapted well to the tourist trade.
The Hmong girls tagging along made each of us a flower or horse from the local fern growing wild, very creative and clever.
Time for Lunch or Was It?
There were a lot of groups trekking this morning, so the trekking at times is a little slower on some of the paths. Three hours after starting we arrive at a small village for lunch, and here it got interesting.
The group of Hmong girls who had walked with us would now be returning to the hill village. But not before they got a sale from us.
When travelling through Asia, we were advised by local governments not to purchase goods from children. So when our guide moved away and let the girls harass us all into buying from them, joined by some local woman hawkers, it was a bit of a dilemma.
The girls wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and just kept persisting. It was interesting to see the product from China they were trying to sell as handmade wasn’t working until they produced some handmade items.
Maura decided on a shoulder bag and a small purse from one of the girls. This only invoked the others, as if you buy from one, then you must buy from another. After 30 minutes, our guide finally saw there was no more buying happening today.
Lunch was now served and the hawkers backed off after their ‘allocated’ hawking time.
It was disappointing to be served sandwiches rather than a traditional dish from the local area.
After a brief western snack, we walked along some village houses with duck pond enclosures beside the house, pigs nestled up to the wall of the house, and water buffalo having a munch along the fields.
Ta Van Village HomeStay Sapa
We arrived at the homestay in Ta Van Village about 3.30pm in need of a shower and a nice cup of green tea.
It’s always interesting to see how other people live, so we were given a quick tour of our homestay for the night. There was one large gathering room with a large basic kitchen off to one side having a bench for two woks and the washing up area was a basin on the floor.
The extended family slept in three rooms off the gathering area with the five of us upstairs in a loft built to accommodate at least 15 people. However, there was only one toilet and shower room for us all, even family! So, not an ideal situation.
Not a lot to do in the village, we decided to have a foot massage while enjoying the view of Sapa. Next was a beer with the group back at the homestay with the family providing a western snack of fries and garlic.
But no, it can’t be, the hawkers have arrived to interrupt our solitude with “you buy from me?”
There was some viewing of tablecloths from the others, with one sale and the hawkers finally leaving after waiting another 15 minutes.
Oh well, time for a game of cards – Cheat, new to three of us and it was a lot of fun while we waited for dinner to arrive. And what a dinner it was. We sampled and savoured a lot of Vietnamese plates. So tasty. With more cards played, it was time for bed for another day of hiking in Sapa tomorrow.
Trek back to Sapa, or so we thought
After a late breakfast, of delicious crepes with bananas before our trek back to Sapa left at 10 am. With only one hawker travelling with us, we set off along paths slippery from last nights rain.
We passed by rice fields, walked through a bamboo forest, before arriving at an amazing waterfall. Only to be told it’s time for lunch. But it’s only 12 noon and we were expecting a full day trek.
But of course, the hawkers are ready. We are now accosted with not only Hmong women but also another hill tribe.
So once again another half an hour is allocated for the “buy from me” before lunch is served. The McKenna’s resisted the hawkers as no room in the backpack. At least we were able to enjoy a traditional lunch.
Thinking our trek was to continue, we found our walk across the bridge and up a path was to meet the waiting van. The trek was over and we were transported back to Sapa to freshen up at the hotel communal room. We were then back in the van for our ride back to the Lao Cai train station.
So, it was back to the Terminus Cafe for dinner while we waited to board the overnight train back to Hanoi.
So, what were our Impressions of the Two Day Sapa Trek with Intrepid?
We had booked our Sapa Two Day Trek with Intrepid before we left New Zealand based on the recommendation of our travel agent.
Having enjoyed our Intrepid tour of Thailand and Laos, we were expecting the same experience with an interactive guide. But sadly the Sapa Two Day Trek with Intrepid was not a great experience.
If you had to choose between two days in Sapa or two days in Halong Bay, we would recommend Halong Bay. You can read more here.
For more travel ideas while exploring Vietnam, check out our 15-day itinerary of Vietnam here.
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