How Not To Trek In Sapa – Our Two-Day Trekking Nightmare

Was it worth it for this? Sort of.

Trekking in Sapa sounded like a marvellous idea at the time. But then, who can blame us? When you see the pictures of cascading rice paddies, towering mountaintops, and majestically green plains, you think “yeah, I need to see that.” So your brain malfunctions and stops working momentarily, and you sign up for two days of trekking. Then you hand over your money and pay for what turns out to be physical torture with a side order of humiliation.

Well, in our case that’s what happened.

We booked a two-day trek in Sapa through our hotel, which was mistake number one. The information we had at hand consisted of a roughly drawn out itinerary, which was hastily put together by the hotel manager. We didn’t get to see any leaflets. We knew nothing about the tour company she was booking us with. And most importantly, we didn’t ask about the intensity of the treks.

Rookie mistake.

We were to leave Hanoi on an overnight train on Wednesday night and arrive in Lao Cai at 5am the next morning, where we’d be taken to Sapa in a shuttle bus. Then, our hotel manager informed us, we’d be able to check into our hotel, have a shower, eat some breakfast, relax for a bit and then head to trek.

Did that happen? Like hell it did.

We boarded the night train, which was supposed to be one of the more luxurious ones in Vietnam. The reality was rather different, though. The beds weren’t made with Westerners’ fat arses in mind, were as hard as a rock, and the AC had one setting – Siberia. The journey was bumpier than I expected, which was not conducive to a restful night’s sleep. You know, the kind of rest you NEED before you’re about to embark on a 10km trek.

How not to get a good night's sleep

How not to get a good night’s sleep

Ankit managed to pass out sooner than I did, and it was gone midnight by the time I finally drifted off. I was then awoken at 3am by some random guy who came into our room, shouted something in Vietnamese, and walked away. I then couldn’t sleep again. Cheers, dude.

So at 5am, we walked off the train and into the early morning glow of Lao Cai, looking like a pair of newly-born zombies. We were then crammed into a shuttle bus with 20 other similarly distraught-looking tourists, and began our ascent to Sapa.

At the hotel we were told we could not, as we were led to believe, check in until we got back from the trek. We’d have to take a shower in the grubby communal area, have breakfast, and then start the trek.

I may sound like a snob when I say this but I don’t care – I endured communal showers at university. At the grand old age of 31 I’m done with showering close to a drain full of other people’s pubes. I just will not do it.

We both forwent showers, loaded up on stale eggs, bread and bitter coffee at the breakfast buffet, and joined our group for the trek.

From this point forward, I’ll let the pictures do the majority of the talking.

What we were there for

The beginning of the trek

It all started well enough. The skies were slightly cloudy, but at least that meant we weren’t being directly blasted by the sun.

Picture perfect

Bamboo forest

Buffalos taking a bath

Buffalos taking a bath

For the first hour or so I was thinking, “this is pretty cool.” I mean, the views are, indeed, phenomenal. And the trek itself was easy – flat plains, gentle slopes, and the occasional bit of tarmac.

Then things began to change.

The route became rockier, and I started to worry about the prospect of slipping. This is bad enough when you’re just concerned about breaking a leg or an arm. Add that to the fact I had my laptop in my daypack, which is my lifeline, then what you have is a very stressed Andrea.

My smiles were short lived

My smiles were short lived

Along the whole way we were accompanied by a group of Black H’mong ladies. The H’mong are an Asian ethnic group that is found in China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. In Sapa, they live in secluded mountain villages, and they like to join trekking groups in the hope that tourists will buy their handmade bags.

The items that they make are absolutely beautiful, but at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old woman, the last thing you want when you’re exhausted and sitting for ten minutes of rest are loads of people insisting you buy something when you have no intention of purchasing a thing. Even if I wanted to buy a bag from them, I cannot – I simply have no space in my backpack.

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The Black H’mong ladies

We had just missed the rice harvest, so most the rice paddies looked like this

We had just missed the rice harvest, so most the rice paddies looked like this

What followed were two hours of very precarious trekking. At some points, I honestly thought of giving up. My trainers are NOT suitable for trekking in, and if I had an ounce of brain that had not been destroyed by binge drinking, I’d have realised that. So my toes were rubbing up against the front of the shoes and causing me excruciating pain the whole way.

I was grumpy. I swore under my breath in Greek (a lot) and exclaimed to Ankit:

“I’m paying for this and I’m not enjoying any of it.”

Woe is me.

This is 'the' face of my time in Sapa

This is ‘the’ face of my time in Sapa

 

Ankit was an angel the whole time – he kept trying to make me laugh by singing choir songs (as you do) and cracking jokes. I don’t think I could have continued had he not been there to keep my spirits high.

We then stopped for lunch, which consisted of…noodle soup. Yes, noodle soup. So as I was sat there dreaming of the biggest burger I could get my hands on, the H’mong ladies began their sales pitches again.

“You wanna buy, you wanna buy, you wanna buy?”

"You wanna buy?"

“You wanna buy?”

Sigh. I understand their situation, so I didn’t want to feel angry, but at that moment in time all I wanted to do was throw a massive tantrum and walk out.

During lunch, Ankit asked how much longer we’d be trekking for.

“One and a half hours,” came the reply.

I could have cried. But I didn’t, because that would have been a bit weird. However, thankfully for me (and for Ankit), the rest of the trek wasn’t as traumatic as the beginning. I was in so much pain that even the flat surface was causing me agony, though. By this point, all I could think of was having a hot shower and a stiff drink back at the hotel.

The never ending road

The never-ending road

The final part of the trek entailed walking through a village while our guide gave us some halfhearted information on how the Black H’mong live. Yes, we had a guide with us and I didn’t mention him before now because he may as well not have been there the whole time. This was another pointless part of the package. We may as well have done the trek on our own.

And so with that, we finally reached our bus and headed back to our hotel. I then had the longest hot shower, moaned a lot, and then zoned out for the rest of the day. One thing was for sure – there wasn’t a chance in hell that I was doing it all over again on day two. Ankit on the other hand…

My idea of heaven - a load of chillies

My idea of heaven – a load of chillies

Day II – Over to Ankit 

Hopes of seeing a clear sky died the moment I stepped out onto the balcony in the morning – there were thick clouds everywhere. My legs ached, my ass wanted to get back into bed but my head wanted to do the second day of trekking. I kept telling myself that we’d paid a lot of money to do this. Finally, after snuggling in bed for a bit, I took a shower and got ready to leave. Andrea had two massive blisters on her toes and she decided to opt out and I’m glad she did.

The new group comprised of the American couple from the previous day, an Indian guy who’s been living in Holland, a French Canadian paramedic and me. We started the trek in the usual fashion. Today my mission was totally different; I just wanted to get one of those spectacular images of Sapa. Nature didn’t really help but I’ve put together some of the best ones I took for your viewing pleasure.

No luck with the Sun today either

Another grey sky. No luck with the sun today either.

Enroute the Black H’mong minority village in Sapa

Enroute to the Black H’mong minority village in Sapa

The Black H’mong minority is the biggest populations in Sapa. Their houses are scattered all over the village

The Black H’mong is the biggest minority population in Sapa. Their houses are scattered all over the mountains.

While heading to the dance performance by the Black H’mong people of Sapa, we came across a couple of waterfalls, this one was my favourite

While heading to the dance performance by the Black H’mong people of Sapa, we came across a couple of waterfalls. This one was my favourite.

A traditional dance by the Black H’mong people of Sapa. It was along the lines of the AO show in Saigon.

A traditional dance by the Black H’mong people of Sapa. It was along the lines of the AO show in Saigon.

Walking around the village and you get to see this. I don't think the photograph does justice to the beauty of the real thing.

Walking around the village and you get to see this. I don’t think the photograph does justice to the beauty of the real thing.

She kept staring at me while I tried to click her in the best possible way.

She kept staring at me while I tried to click her in the best possible way.

It was a saturday when we visited, schools were off and the streets were full of kids. Along the way, I met a poser

It was a Saturday when we visited; schools were off and the streets were full of kids. Along the way, I met a poser.

They were playing until they spotted me and started walking away the moment they saw my camera.

They were playing until they spotted me and started walking away the moment they saw my camera.

The last photograph I took before I got rained on with my laptop in the bag. Fortunately, I had the waterproof bag in the bag.

The last photograph I took before I got rained on with my laptop in the bag. Fortunately, I had the waterproof bag in the bag.

Meanwhile back in Sapa town, Andrea was enjoying a day of lattes and books

Meanwhile back in Sapa town, Andrea was enjoying a day of lattes and books while I was getting rained on…

Back to Andrea (and tips on how to do it better)

So following a day of lazing around Sapa and thanking my lucky stars that I didn’t go on the second trek, I met Ankit at the hotel and we began our journey back to Hanoi.

While the view in Sapa was spectacular, I’d highly suggest that anyone who wants to trek there should do their research before choosing a tour package. We did the Sapa Pathfinder two-day trek package, which cost us $152 each. Not worth it, and totally exhausting.

We highly recommend that if you take the night train to Sapa, you should spend the first day relaxing, as the journey is exhausting (unless you’re one of those people who can sleep in ANY conditions, you’re going to be knackered by the time you get there – trust us).

Also, find out beforehand how intense your trek is going to be. I genuinely thought my running trainers would do, but they absolutely wrecked my feet and I don’t know when I’ll be able to wear shoes again. You will need proper hiking shoes for this.

Overall, I’m glad we went and did it, but the situation could have been made much better with a bit of better planning. If we went again, I’d do it independently – book the train and accommodation myself, and find a local tour guide who actually loves their job to help us with the treks.

Further reading

  • For an example of how great trekking in Sapa can be when it actually goes well, check out Worldly Nomad’s story. They actually had a guide who seemed to have given them a lot of information!
  • Wikitravel’s guide on Sapa gives a good overview and tips.
  • Here’s another account of trekking in Sapa from one of our favourite bloggers – Audrey from That Backpacker.

Have you ever trekked before? Any stories to share?