When a desk agent from my Hanoi hostel asked if I wanted to book a hiking trip through Sapa I thought, Sure. Why not? I’d hiked plenty of times. I had a limited amount of time in Vietnam and Sapa was supposed to be a “must see” place. A hike seemed like fun.
The journey started with a 5-hour overnight sleeper bus to Sapa. Hours before I was to board the bus I felt an unexpected wave of panic. I knew nothing about Sapa. It was in northern Vietnam and had mountains and rice paddies, but what else? How hard was the trek? How long was the trek? I’d signed up for a two night/three day tour. Did the night on the bus count as one night or was I staying in a homestay for two nights? Was the homestay someone’s house or was it a hostel? Was it going to be cold or hot?
The sleeper bus arrived in Sapa at four a.m. The guide said we could continue sleeping until six a.m. When we did leave the bus, different guides held signs with names on them. I was paired with a young French couple. Our guide, Hun, took us to a local hotel where we could shower and eat breakfast. After breakfast the French couple joined their day-trip hiking group. I waited in the lobby for the rest of the travelers who’d also signed up for the overnight hike.
Sapa was colder than I’d expected. I had two long sleeved shirts and a winter jacket, but I didn’t have a hat or gloves. My socks were thin and holey. The lobby had a NorthFace pop-up store and I bought thicker socks and a warm hat. Across from the new, shiny NorthFace gear was a basket of worn, muddy, green camouflaged rain boots.
Before I left Thailand, a guy I’d been dating told me about his own hike through Sapa. “They’ll have boots for you to rent,” he said. “Sapa is muddy. Rent the boots.”
“I have perfectly good hiking boots,” I said. “I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
“They’ll be ruined,” he said. “I threw mine away. You should rent the boots.”
I glared at the basket of mud covered boots. I didn’t want to do something this guy had advised. In just forty-eight hours of being in Vietnam we’d fought twice. Both arguments were petty and mean and left me crying in the hostel stairwell. Quite honestly, he was ruining my trip. In Sapa, I planned to leave my phone on airplane mode in the hopes that being out of contact would allow me to enjoy Vietnam rather than feel miserable over a guy (and, consequently, feel doubly miserable because I felt miserable over a guy).
Hun walked over to the boots. He told a nearby couple that they should rent a pair. “The mud is slippery,” he said. “It is deep and hard to walk through. You will want boots. Your shoes will be ruined.” The woman asked if Hun was exaggerating just to make more money. Hun shook his head and repeated that normal hiking shoes wouldn’t suffice. I noticed he sported his own pair of the camouflaged Wellies. I decided to be smart rather than petty and pulled out a pair that would fit my massive feet.
The overnight hike consisted of me and three couples: an Indonesian woman and an Australian man, a German girl and an ex-US Marine, and a Swiss couple. Hun gathered us around a map as we waited for a minibus to take us to the trailhead. He pointed to Sapa. “We are here,” he said. He traced his finger south. “We’ll hike here for lunch. We should arrive around noon. Then we’ll go here,” he moved his finger west, “and stay in the homestay. Tomorrow we’ll hike north to where the bus will pick us up and bring us back to the hotel.” We all nodded. “This is an intense hike. Everyone can do that?”
No one nodded. Hun looked concerned. “This is the most intense hike through Sapa,” he said. “You know that?”
“I knew we were going hiking,” the Indonesian woman said.
“Someone at our hostel booked this,” the Swiss woman added. “They didn’t say anything about the hike.”
Hun’s expression dropped.
“My guy just said I’d spend the night,” I said. I didn’t admit that I still didn’t understand where I was spending the night.
Hun drew a line on the map from where we stood to our lunch spot. “This is ten kilometers,” he said. He drew a line to the homestay. “This is seven.” The terrain would be rough, he explained–lots of mud, steep ups and downs, and narrow, rocky paths. On the second day we would hike seven more kilometers. He gave the various altitudes in meters, but my non-metric American mind couldn’t commit them to memory.
“What about the other hikers?” someone asked. At six a.m. there’d been about twenty buses full of travelers ready to explore Sapa. Surely the hikes were made for all skill levels.
“Those are day hikers,” Hun said. “Not many do the overnight.”
We looked at each other wide-eyed. No one had been warned about the intensity.
“Does everyone still want to go?” Hun asked.
“Is there a shorter route?” the German woman asked.
Hun looked at the map. “When we get to lunch, there’s an option to do fewer kilometers.”
“Maybe four kilometers instead of seven.”
Hun looked at us like we were toddlers who’d yet to master potty training. “Let’s see how we get through today.”
Our hike started in a field just below the town. A group of local women intersected with us and followed behind. They wore traditional colorful, woven skirts and jackets; clothing that reminded me more of Peru than Vietnam. Some of the them carried baskets on their back. One woman had a five-month old baby strapped to her.
The hike seemed deceptively easy. We tromped through calf-high grass and crossed streams over narrow logs. There were a few tight pathways and a slight incline, but nothing strenuous. Maybe the hard part was the distance, not the terrain, I thought. We stopped at an overlook that gave a great view of the town and surrounding mountains. We left the overlook and headed down into a tree covered valley.
Beneath the trees the path suddenly changed. Rocks stuck out of the ground like weeds in an unkempt garden. Hard dirt turned to mud. We walked more cautiously as the path started going up and down randomly. The women with the baskets grabbed our hands at particularly dicey areas. It soon became obvious that each one had sort of “claimed” one of us and had taken it as their personal duty to keep us from falling. The girl helping me, Min, looked fifteen. She was shy and seemed to be new to the whole “helping bumbling tourists” gig. She offered me her hand whenever there was a big step or jump. When the ground turned to slick mud she held my hand until we reached dry, solid earth.
Two hours into the hike we were still four kilometers away from the lunch spot. Hun’s face was that of someone who is annoyed, but trying not to show it. Clearly we weren’t making the progress he was used to.
When we did finally reach the lunch spot town, we said goodbye to the women. Min told me she had to go back to her village. “You will buy something from me,” she said. She held out a collection of embroidered wallets and bags. Where was she carrying those? I’d expected to give her a tip, but a bag was okay, too. Other children, younger than Min, appeared. They held up colourful bracelets and shouted prices. The three couples on the hike also bought scarves, bags, and wallets from the women who’d helped them. I left with two wallets, a purse, and a bracelet. The wallets I bought; the purse and bracelet were gifts from Min.
At the lunch spot we ate noodles and discussed whether we wanted to take the short hike or the long hike. A taxi drove by. “What the hell, there are cars?!” the Indonesian woman exclaimed. “Why aren’t we in one of those?” We watched groups of other hikers walk by. We judged the intensity of their hike based on how muddy they were. Mostly everyone was cleaner than us.
We finished lunch and told Hun we wanted to take the shorter hike. Our legs were already sore and we knew we weren’t hiking fast enough. Hun looked like he didn’t understand the question. “You said there was a shorter hike,” the Swiss woman said. “Four kilometers instead of seven?” Hun continued to stare at us. He had a pretty good poker face, but his eyes twitched as if he might laugh.
I gasped. “You tricked us! There’s not a shorter route.”
Hun smiled. “The hard hike is done,” he said.
“What we just did? That was the hardest part?”
“And it’s seven kilometers?” the German girl asked.
“Is it flat or is it more up and down.”
“It is easier. Some flat; some up.”
“Is there another way to the homestay?” the Indonesian woman asked. She pointed to the road. “There was a taxi. Can I get there by car?”
Like with the question about a shorter route, Hun’s face was blank, but in his eyes you could see him weighing whether to tell her the truth or not.
“You can take a motorbike,” he said. She would still have to walk with us to the next town. From there she could hire a bike.
The Indonesian woman clapped her hands. “Great! I’ll be waiting at the homestay for you guys. I’ll get the drinks ready.”
We said goodbye to the Indonesian woman and started the last leg of Day One’s hike. We headed up. And up and up and up. We were on pavement and going through towns, but the incline became so steep that I wondered whether I should just crawl using my hands.
An older woman dressed in the traditional Sapa garb appeared beside me. She asked my name and where I was from. She looked strong, but weathered. I guessed she was about eighty years old. Just like the women before, she carried a large basket on her back.
The pavement ended as we entered a bamboo forest. The ground once again changed to mud, but worse than before. The mud was slick–very slick. We slipped and slid as though we were on a sheet of ice. When our feet sank, the mud held until you used both hands to wrench your leg free. Twice my foot came out of my boot. The mud reminded me of my father’s art studio, where we made “slip” to stick pieces of clay together: wet, mushy clay that acted like glue. The older woman held my hand throughout most of the walk, occasionally pulling me straight up a few feet.
I thought about Hun’s promise that the hard hike was behind us. He either lied again or this was unusual. The first ten kilometers had been hard, but the bamboo forest was excruciating. My body wanted to collapse. I slipped and tripped; saved from falling only by the freakishly strong older woman. My legs felt like toothpicks trying to support a coffee table. My pants were covered in mud from the constant spray of stepping in puddles. I couldn’t look up so I had no idea how the others were fairing. All I heard were groans, grunts, and the squish of boots in the mud.
We finally reached a waterfall just outside our homestay. We caught our breath and looked at one another like we wanted to blame someone for the misery, but who? Hun stood to the side. He looked dry, fresh, and energized.
“I thought you said the first half of the hike was the hard part,” I said. He smiled sweetly. For a moment I hated him.
The video is shaky because I hit ‘record’ on my camera and kept walking. It was too slippery to not have both hands free.
Tired, muddy, and drenched in sweat, we trudged into our homestay. We took showers, drank beers, and sat at a riverside pavilion, while our host and Hun prepared dinner. We chatted easily for hours. Vietnam was my first time really solo traveling, and it amazed me how well we all got along after only having met twelve hours before.
We all ate dinner together: the three couples, Hun, the host, her husband and young son, and myself. The spread was large and delicious with spring rolls, fried pork, salads, tofu, maybe some dumplings, and other Vietnamese dishes. I was so hungry I didn’t care what we were eating. The host brought out a bottle of “magic water.” She and her husband poured shots for everyone. As soon as our cups were empty they poured more…and more..and more…I think there were eight shots in total. Somehow I got away with only doing five. I still don’t know what the liquor was, but it looked and tasted similar to moonshine.
We slept in a loft on side-by-side mattresses. Each bed had a white, gauzy mosquito netting, and the most plush, fluffy, soft comforter I have ever used in my life. Seriously–if I could have taken that comforter with me, I would have.
The next morning my legs felt as though someone had run over me with a motorcycle and then dropped a boulder on each thigh for the hell of it. I’d slept on the bed at the end of the row and I got up before everyone else. I didn’t want anyone to see as I slowly and awkwardly lifted my body off the ground using only my hands and arms. Going down the ladder that led to the loft, I held onto the hand railing tightly, again making my arms do all the work.
Hun finally had pity on us (or maybe he was just tired of fighting) and said we didn’t have to hike again. We could chill at the homestay until eleven, when we’d head out of the valley and meet the minibus on the main road. The walk out of the valley was still longer and steeper than my legs wanted, but at least we were done with the mud and the rocks and the slipping.
One thing I will say for Sapa, it did make me forget about my torrid dating life for about twenty-four hours. There’s nothing like torturous exertion and boot-camp-like exhaustion to get your mind off boys.
If I had the option to do it over again, would I take the same hike? The hardest, most arduous hike of my life? The hike that left me limping and unable to walk up and down stairs like a normal person for four solid days? The hike that made me sincerely hate our sweet guide for about one hour?
(For those keeping up with the blog: biking 470 km in India was still more painful than this trek.)