Travel Log 2011: Sapa

Last Updated
Matt Mueller

Update 2023: This travel series was ported over from an older blog. In the previous post, I wrote about my time in Halong Bay. The content has been left in its entirety. Enjoy!

It's 11:00pm and the room around me begins moving. I just boarded a night train headed to Lao Cai, a Vietnamese city that borders China. The room was tiny and had a 3-story bunk bed.

I, of course, was assigned to the top bunk. We would arrive at around 6:30 in the morning. This would be a stopover for a much more beautiful destination. I am headed for Sapa, Vietnam. Sapa is a valley located high in the mountains.

Sapa is known for it's gorgeous cascading rice fields and hill tribes. I am traveling with a new friend that I met in Halong Bay. Her name is Rachel Choi.

map of Sapa

She's originally from South Korea, now living in Manhattan, and writing children's books. Her books are on Amazon and in the children's section of Barnes & Noble!

The other passengers in our room barely spoke any English, but they enjoyed our company. We tried to communicate for a bit but didn't get too far.

Soon after we turned the lights off and climbed into bed. I fell asleep quickly but woke up frequently during the night. I never thought that I would experience claustrophobia, but when I am three stories up, and my slightly bent knees touched the ceiling, I started feeling sick.

Highroad to Sapa

I was relieved when the train pulled into Lao Cai. When we arrived we were hassled by countless taxi drivers and minibuses offering us rides to Sapa. We bargained a bit and chose a minibus. The bus drove around picking up people. At one point we stopped at this gate to wait for someone.

A passenger pointed out that on the other side of this gate was China. I had a "wow" moment, where I thought about how far I had come. I thought of the map and how massive and imposing China is. I thought of how I would be entering through one of those Chinese gates in just a few weeks.

After packing the bus full of people we made our way to Sapa. The roads were windy and steep. After about 20 minutes of driving, we rounded a corner and my jaw dropped - we looked up at the jagged Himalayan mountains. we looked down at vibrant green and orange landscape that stepped down meeting in Sapa Valley.

There was a misty elegance to this place - we were at the same level as the clouds. Rachel and I marveled at the scenery all the way to Sapa town.


Sapa is a quant little town perched high in the mountains. Once a French province, Sapa has colorful, little villas with beautiful, white wooden porches. The surrounding area is known as Sapa Valley, which is where the cascading rice fields are and many of the local tribes live. The locals come to Sapa every morning to sell food and souvenirs to travelers.

We were greeted by three little girls wearing beautiful tribal dresses who spoke perfect English. They asked us where we were from and where we were staying. We asked them if they were from the village (they were) and how they learned such good English (they learn very early in school). Then they tried to get us to buy something. They offered bracelets, necklaces and other clothing.

The youngest girl was 14 - she had the perfect puppy face. I felt my heart sink a little bit saying "no thanks". They continued to follow us around, talking to us. When we finally walked too far, they asked us to pinky swear that we would come back and see them - Rachel and I both pinky swore.

We were both starving from the long train ride, so we grabbed lunch and made plans. We thought about joining a tour - I wanted to hike Mt. Jalosh, the highest mountain in southeast Asia. None of the tours really interested us so we decided to freestyle our first day.

A Beautiful Mistake

Rachel and I decided to hike to Lai Cai, one of the villages nearby. We grabbed a map and started hiking. The map told us to look for a trail that branched off from the road and weaved down into the valley. We saw found a path that looked promising but did not have a sign. We saw some other travelers hiking down so we decided to take it.

I was very unprepared for this trail. It just finished raining and the dirt path was steep and slippery. I was wearing my Adidas - they have absolutely no traction. After my first fall and ruining my white shorts, Rachel asked me if I wanted to turn back. I looked around at the breath-taking scenery and replied, "No way".

As we hiked down we passed farmers tending to their crops. At one point we froze in disbelief. We saw this little boy no older than 6 steering this huge water buffalo to plow the rice fields. We took pictures and continued down into the valley.

Halfway down the trail we were passed by a woman from the village carrying a basket full of rice on her back. The basket must have weighed 80 pounds. While I was slipping all over the place, she wore flip-flops and trekked down gracefully.

Farther yet down the path, we met a woman from the village we were walking towards. She told us that this village was not Lai Cai, but another H'mong Village. I was not disappointed, and if Rachel was she hid it well. We walked down a remote path towards a remote village.

On our way down we were surrounded by picturesque scenery and did not see any other tourists. This was Sapa how it should be. The woman talked to us further and we got the impression that she wanted us to stay at her house tonight. It's common in Sapa to have a home stay in the village. We thought about it, but decided that since we already booked a hostel in town, we would head back up.

We took some pictures of the tiny village and turned back around to started walking back up. Walking back up was more grueling but nicer because I didn't slide all over the place. We stopped for a water break and noticed this water buffalo just staring at me. I took a picture.

Walked closer and he was still staring at me. I took another picture and walked closer. Still unflinched. This water buffalo would make a killing in a staring contest. I took one final picture. Rachel and I had a good laugh about it and continues walking. We were exhausted when we finally made it to the road.

Despite the pain in our calves and the drenched shirts, we wanted to be prepared to see Lai Cai, so we continued walking down the road away from the village. After about 10 more minutes of walking, we found the sign to Lai Cai.

Great, we'll have to check this out tomorrow. We turned around and headed back for town. We ate dinner around 9pm and were asleep by 10pm.