We've had some comments from people saying they're not sure if we enjoyed our trek with Sapa Sisters or not and that our blog sounds a bit negative. To be clear: we are really glad we trekked with Sapa Sisters and would recommend them to anyone, it was just the fact that we went under-prepared for the conditions (we went in Winter) that meant we got so cold and muddy. Despite that we enjoyed it anyway and if you have warm layers and proper boots then you'll be in for an even better experience.
We got a sleeper train out of Hanoi bound for Lao Cai, where we were hoping to be picked up by someone from Sapa Sisters. We arrived at about 5am after a bumpy, noisy journey. First impressions; it was blooming cold. In the dark we drove another hour to Sapa, climbing the whole time. We arrived in a much bigger town than I was expecting and the first challenge was to get out of the minivan without getting wet feet as the road was in a terrible state.
Nikki hadn't explained how our two day one night trek was going to work so I didn't know what was in store [Just so you don't think I'm mean, Josh often doesn't want to know what's in store and prefers a surprise! – Nikki] , I hadn't looked at any photos or information online. Hence my initial surprise at turning up in Sapa and it being a big town. We had a couple of hours at the Sapa Sister office to sort our bags out and decide what to carry with us, have a shower and some breakfast. Most of that time was spent trying not to get too cold. We'd gone from fairly consistent temperatures of 25–35ºC to about 5ºC and it was only going to get worse!
The guides turned up and everyone started to leave the office in small groups. Our guide, Gom, found us and before we could back out we were on our way out the door.
Even the road to the start point was wet and steep, I kept thinking "don't fall over yet, that wouldn't be funny". We reached the path that would eventually lead us to our homestay and bloody hell was it slippery. Each footstep was a study in trying not to fall over. About 5 minutes in Nikki lost that battle with her left foot and lost it down into one of the rice paddies, soaking her trainer way up above her ankle! That should make the next few hours interesting.
It was at about this point, if not before, that Nikki started regretting not hiring the wellies on offer at the office.
We walked for about five hours, with Nikki having to be held up much of that time by the two village women that had followed us from Sapa. We both kept thinking of our nice grippy walking boots sitting in my parents loft, and wishing we were wearing those instead of our significantly low on grip lightweight trainers! We've done harder walks, but trying not to fall on every footstep really wore us down and we asked our guide to take us the easy way for the remaining distance. Nikki was getting seriously frustrated with herself and her trainers. I followed along behind, keeping my balance most of the time and watching with amusement as Nikki tried to stay upright. Her best slide on the whole walk was about six feet long.
At one point Gom decided to take us straight down a rice terrace. Which meant Nikki had to be helped down the basically vertical mud walls of each terrace while I opted to jump down the four foot drops. When I looked around to see what we'd just come down I did feel a little like Indiana Jones, but without the hat and witty retorts.
For the first half of the trek we couldn't really appreciate where we were because we had to concentrate so hard on not falling over and spent the whole time looking at our feet. So it was a relief when we did eventually make it to the road and could look around a little. We did our trek in December so the rice fields were mostly bare and the views weren't as amazing as they could be but even so the landscape before us was stunning. The effect of intricate patterns the rice terraces made as they followed the contours of the mountains was fascinating. [It looked like a real life version of the contour lines on OS maps, it was super cool and made me miss walking at home where I wasn't slipping and sliding every ten seconds – Nikki]
Lunch was rice with chicken, served in a village en route and eaten while trying to bat away women selling various things. We watched with almost morbid curiosity as one couple showed interest and were soon surrounded by women.
Gom's baby daughter joined us at lunch time and was strapped to her back for the rest of the walk, having been dropped off by Gom's husband and would stay the night with Gom in our homestay for breastfeeding. After lunch it was a mercifully short walk to our accommodation for the night.
We were the first to arrive at the homestay, having taken the easy way out to get there. We waited another hour or so, getting progressively colder before the other guests arrived and we chatted and found out where we'd be sleeping.
Once again our expectations of 'basic' were shattered.
What we'd arrived at was essentially a wooden barn, where the meaning of luxury was a flushing toilet and a hot shower. We followed the motioning of our hosts and went upstairs to survey the sleeping arrangements. I say upstairs, I mean up the ladder into the roof space. There were about ten mattresses laid out on three sides and a massive hole looking down onto the ground floor in the middle.
This was the point at which Nikki mentioned that she'd read that some people decided they'd rather just do a day hike and leave! We chose our mattresses and hung around for a while, hoping that we wouldn't get too cold overnight when the temperature dropped below 0! We showered in the thankfully hot shower, having a hot shower here really is seen as a luxury and not an expectation. The other two couples gathered around the fire downstairs and Nikki and I went down to join them for dinner, our hosts brought out some chips which were soon wolfed down. About twenty minutes passed and I started to wonder if that was it, I mean the chips were nice but a bit insubstantial. I mentioned this to the group and had evidently missed the explanation that the chips were a small teaser ahead of the main meal.
We got moved to the table next to us, away from the fire and our hosts brought out enough food to feed a group many times larger than necessary. Included in the array of dishes they brought out what was a very tasty tofu dish, which as newly converted not–quite–but–almost vegetarians we really appreciated.
The other two couples decided to head to a nearby bar after dinner but me and Nikki were way too cold and tired to go anywhere other than bed.
We slept well but woke up cold the next day and really didn't want to put on our muddy and cold clothes but we did. [We made sure to put our clothes in our 'bed' with us when we woke up so that they would hopefully gain some of our body heat before it was time to get up before breakfast – Nikki] We dreamed of being back in the heat, having not packed for temperatures this cold. My five t–shirts and thin coat were not keeping me warm.
Gom took us the easy way back to the road to be picked up and driven back to Sapa. We passed through more local villages with lots of cute kids running around playing. We made it to the road about two hours after leaving the homestay and we got into the taxi Gom had booked. We drove along a road which can only loosely be described as a road, with more pot holes than actual road surface. If the road had been in England even 4×4 drivers would look at it and think twice, but there we were bouncing around in the back of a normal taxi slowly making our way back to Sapa.
We showered at the Sapa Sisters office and repacked our bags. We'd arranged a transfer back to Lao Cai at 5pm and wasted some time finding lunch and then waiting in the waiting area back at the Sapa Sisters office. The minivan arrived with people already on it and a small group from Sapa Sisters filed out to get in. All the seats filled up leaving one passenger still outside! In the end a man in front of us had to have his ten year old kid sit on his lap the whole time. You'd be mistaken if you thought the driver might take this into account in his driving. Nor if he would take into account the hearing of any of his passengers as he cranked his music up to almost painful levels, only halted when a particularly cranky woman in front of us shouted repeatedly at him to turn it down.
Lao Cai isn't a great place to wait around for a sleeper train and we spent a boring few hours sat in the station waiting until we could board.
(As I'm writing this post a German guy is trying to explain gravity and space–time to another guy, in English, while sitting at the beach. What.)
A sleepless sleeper train ride later and we arrived back in Hanoi at about 4am. Thankfully we'd stayed at the hotel we'd booked the night before we went to Sapa so we knew how to get there. We walked there in the hope that they did indeed have a 24h reception as advertised but when we got there the shutter was half down and the lights were off. Refusing to believe we had to find somewhere else to wait eight hours for before we could check in I ducked under the shutter and found the door unlocked. I opened it and saw a shape move on the sofa at reception. Apparently by 24h reception they meant that someone sleeps on the sofa next to reception all night!
I felt guilty for waking her up and we spent the next few hours waiting in reception, with a sleepless Nikki brooding away and a sleepless me being way too tired to understand my book of choice; A brief history of time by Stephen Hawking.
Thankfully they got our room ready before the stipulated check in time of 2pm and we were able to collapse on the bed and fall asleep at about 10am.
We both really enjoyed our trek with Sapa Sisters, despite the cold and the mud. We wished we'd had some warmer layers and proper footwear. It seems quite expensive but when you look at it as two days worth of activity, accommodation and food it doesn't seem so bad.
We definitely recommend trekking in Sapa and were happy with Sapa Sisters but definitely set your expectations low for the accommodation. Take clothes that match the weather and be polite but firm when you get swarmed by women trying to sell you things.
(They've moved onto quantum computers and prime numbers now…)