The more clustered the region, the more I find its multiplicity awe inspiring. Although the terrain to and from can be treacherous, especially in rough weather, the proximity of Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay from each other and from Hanoi nestled conveniently between the two is a prime example of Vietnam’s geographic and cultural diversity.
Sa Pa was a bit more of a mission to get to, but that’s the beauty of overnight busses, especially when you’re dead tired from an entire day out in the city and are able to just crash into unconsciousness for the potentially nauseating winding mountain roads. The goal is to reach a mental state where exhaustion overcomes discomfort and tight spaces and loud noises matter little in the grand scheme of things.
Teresa and I fell asleep on a dark country road outside of Hanoi and awoke in cool, misty mountains early in the morning, refreshed and ready for breakfast and a hike. We’d booked this Sa Pa excursion through our hotel in Hanoi for under $100 USD each which got us transportation, a guide for 2 days, meals and accommodation at a true guesthouse in the mountains. While ethnic Vietnamese have migrated here, largely to partake in the tourism industry, the population mainly consists of northern hill tribes like the H’mong and Dao.
Our guide was a young Tay girl, not much older than 16 I’d wager. She did a fantastic job of leading us through the Muong Hoa Valley where we got our first ever glimpse of spanning rice terraces as far as the eye could see. I’d seen images like these on National Geographic and Planet Earth-type documentaries, but this was the first time I’d set eyes on the real thing. It was beautiful, and although hundreds of tourists abound, it’s such a vast open space that it never felt overly crowded. We ended up in a group of about 10-12 people, Germans, Dutch, French, and I think Spanish as well.
It was cool and wet at first and had just rained the previous night, so much of the pathway was thick with mud. As the day progressed, the sun pulsed on all of us, making the upward climbs more draining. We stopped at a spot for lunch. My only complaint is that it seemed to be overpriced and underwhelming food, nothing too different from what you could get elsewhere in Vietnam, especially places along the country highways where tour busses often stop. I was hoping for some authentic local food, but it wouldn’t be until we arrived at the homestay that we got to enjoy this type of cuisine.
The hiking pretty much lasted all day; we didn’t arrive at our hillside destination until about 4:30 PM. When we finally settled in, a bunch of us went down to the river that snaked its way through the centre of the mountain range. It was cool and refreshing to dip our feet in and relax after an entire day’s worth of hiking.
That night, we were prepared a wide variety of meat, rice, and vegetable dishes that were all delicious. We played cards and board games at the wide long table, as well as some drinking games later on. The sleeping area was atop a ladder and circling the walls of the second story with a large open space in the middle where you could look down at the main floor. I remember one of the homeowners catching a massive beetle that emitted this extremely vocal buzzing noise, probably the loudest sound I’d ever heard an insect make.
The next day essentially consisted of more hiking, back to our original destination where we would get cleaned up, enjoy another meal at the end of the day, and head back to the small bus terminal that would return us to Hanoi on another overnighter. It turned out that several of the hikers in our group were actually staying right across the street from where we were. Teresa and I arrived back at our hotel at about 5AM when the hotel gates were still down, so we just sat on the street as the sun rose and the first of the city’s daily illumination unfolded.
Since I’m trying to keep these articles a bit shy of essay length, I’ll leave Ha Long Bay for the next article on Vietnam. It’s almost as sad wrapping up my literary musings on this amazing country as it was to actually leave it, over 2 years ago. But forward I must go as far more adventures await. Next time, Part II: Ha Long Bay!