We had never heard of Sa Pa until we visited Hanoi, but in seeing the picturesque images across tourist agencies walls of green hills, rice fields and quaint village life, we knew this was the difference from 'beach life' we had craved.
Situated a 6 hour bus ride from Hanoi, in the north west corner of the country and only 45mins from the Chinese border, 2,000 metres ASL and only 7oc it could not have been more different than Hanoi or South Thailand.
We booked our experience with our hostel for $60 each but if you wanted to do this cheaper, I am sure you could book the bus which is only about £2 to Sa Pa and then go with one of the many locals who offer tours and homestay when you arrive. Not knowing this, we went with the hostel and the assurance everything was already booked. If you do decide to go, see if you can book it with Mao, our tour guide, directly. I am sure it would be cheaper and I can definitely recommend her.
We arrived in Sa Pa about 3am and were left to 'sleep' on the overnight bus for another 3hours. Once we were collected, we were led to Roxanna Hotel for our breakfast and the start of our trek. We also made a new friend in Diana from San Diego, California and were lucky enough to share the whole experience with us.
We were taken through rural life and with Stu's endless questioning soon learnt alot about the culture, environment, food and infrastructure. The people from across this area speak 6 different languages and have lived relatively unchanged in the area for over 1,500 years. Seeing them making their own clothes, building their own houses and growing their own food, gives a glimpse into their fascinating way of life.
The food on the trip was great, with plenty of stir fry and Vietnamese spring rolls to go around. We stayed overnight in a homestay, which was basic and very, very cold at night but offered great views of the valley and definitely an experience!
After breakfast, we then set off again, covering about 18km over the 2 days, on very slippery and uneven terrain. So much so, we both stacked it on separate occasions!!
A great little trip and I would say 2 days is enough, especially in the winter. I think we were very lucky with the weather. We had abit of fog whilst we were there but escaped the rain thankfully!
If you do get to go, I would recommend looking at the time of year. As in the summer, it would obviously be warmer and you'd see them working in the beautiful green rice fields fields - the downside however is there would be alot of tourists. It was very quiet for us, which we liked.
Other than the $60, there is not much else to spend money on. Unless you want souvenirs, beer etc.
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PS. One word of warning - if you think someone is just acting as a chaperone for your walk, the chances are they are trying to build good will and then try to sell you something. We got abit blindsided by this. We didn't buy anything but they caught us by surprise. You will also pay over the odds to these 'chaperones', sometimes 4 times as much! Obviously if you feel they helped, I would recommend a small tip and then shop around for your souvenirs - as there are plenty of shops and hawkers in the surrounding villages.