Sa Pả, located within the very northern reaches of Vietnam was on our must-see list since leaving New Zealand. Nestled high up within the Hoàng Liên mountain range, this small town offers a geographical isolation that we had not yet seen during our time in Vietnam.
Sa Pả was a six-hour bus drive north of Hà Nội where we had four nights booked at a small family run hotel (see our review here). Like the majority of visitors to Sa Pả we came for the scenery and to complete a trek through the Hoàng Liên mountain range. Sa Pả town is 1,500m above sea level, so on our bus journey in (and up) we were treated to some fantastic scenery, giving us a taste of what was to come. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were greeted by local H’mong ladies who were trying to sell guided treks or handmade handicrafts to each and every passenger. This would continue throughout our four days, with countless approaches by both women and children selling their wares and tours.
On our second day, when we were exploring the town, we got talking to a H’mong villager named ‘Mama Chu’ who took guided tours. She spoke pretty good English and said she had a really good day trek that both the kids would be able to manage and included our must-sees, climbing higher up into the mountains and visiting some rice field terraces. At 1,000,000 VND ($60 NZD) for the whole family we thought it was a great deal, especially as it included lunch and a taxi back to our hotel at the end of the day.Having only three full days in Sa Pả we hoped to do the trek the following day, however the weather was against us and we woke to constant rain. A quick check of the weather forecast showed it was unlikely to improve during the day so we put the trek off for 24 hours, crossed our fingers and toes and hoped it would improve as the following day would be our only chance.
Not wanting the day to be a total bust, we decided during a break in the rain that we would take a short hike up the nearby Ham Rong (Dragon Jaw) Mountain overlooking the town. After walking through the town the day prior we had noticed the large umbrella at the peak, so after a little research and knowing it would provide a great view of the town, we set off. Thinking it should only be a two-hour activity we decided to risk the weather. As we started our climb we walked through the Ham Rong Gardens which is dotted with 12 statues between the flowers symbolising the Chinese Zodiac calendar animals, with even Mickey Mouse, Scooby-Doo, and Tom (from Tom and Jerry) making an appearance for their respective animal years.Unfortunately the gap in the weather was a mere 30 minutes before the clouds, rain and wind arrived again. With numerous paths and little signage in English we took a couple of unexpected detours, extending our visit while trying to reach the summit’s umbrella. At times the visibility was no more than twenty metres and us seemingly getting no closer to our goal we let the kids take charge and lead the way. Assuring us they knew exactly how to get there they took off, taking turns at choosing whether to turn left or right when we came to a fork in the path. As it is with children, when they are provided a chance to show up their parents they strive, and within 10 minutes we had reached the no longer mythical umbrella. With the clouds and rain there was absolutely no view, however we did manage a selfie to record the fact we actually made it. Being very cold and wet we made a quick descent, following the kids of course, and made our way to our hotel for a shower and a round of hot chocolates and coffees.Waking up the following day the weather had dramatically improved so we set off at 9am with Mama Chu through the town and into the mountains. Although there was no rain, the temperature was in the single digits where it would remain for the whole day. For the last year of travelling I don’t recall a day under 20 degrees and with the barometer generally set around the late twenties and early thirties this was definitely a shock to the system. However, we had all come prepared for Sa Pả’s colder weather after each buying a jacket in Hà Nội. Thankfully packing cells are a traveller’s best friend and we easily made room for them in our bags.
After 2kms Braxton was starting to feel tired, which conveniently occurred at the first sight of the mountain trail, not wanting to break his spirit this early on, he had his first of several shoulder rides. Our first stop was a Vietnamese tea farm, about 30 minutes up the trail, which was an unexpected surprise and gave us all a chance to catch our breath. After climbing nearly 300m we reached the first peak, which gave a stunning view of the valleys and the entrance into Sa Pả town. It is also where I learnt the H’mong word “zoo nkauj“ meaning “beautiful” from Mama Chu.As we continued our way we walked through the first of the three villages we would see, this one grew flowers to be sold at the markets, and like the rice fields, were planted on terraces. As we continued up and down paths, roads and muddy tracks we came to our lunch stop. The only restaurant in this small village seems to only serve hikers and their guides and was a welcome stop; especially for the kids, who after nearly 8kms were starting to feel the pinch. After a warm plate of noodles, rice and noodle soup we were off again. Thinking nothing was going to top the scenery we had seen in the ascent, I was about to be proven very wrong. Trekking along the side of the mountains nestled against a valley was simply amazing, with rice terraces reaching up to astonishing heights. It definitely reminded us exactly why we set out on Our Awesome World Adventure nearly one year ago. For a while there I think both Lincoln and Braxton even forgot about the soreness in their legs and were able to take it all in. The rice terraces were incredible and provided many great pictures. It would have been fantastic to witness them in full growth and bright green, however we were three months too early, although there was little to be disappointed about. At around 4pm and seven hours after we set off we reached Mama Chu’s house and the 14km mark much to our tired legs appreciation. Sometimes when you have high expectations of places or activities they don’t always live up to it, but this trek easily flew past them with consummate ease.Now I normally finish each blog with a little summary of what I liked or disliked, but for this one I think all that needs to be said is … “zoo nkauj”.
Average Daily Spend – $106.38 NZD ($66.12 under budget per day)
For anyone planning to visit Sa Pả and do a trek we would certainly recommend Mama Chu. She is a lovely lady with an infectious laugh. She does lots of different treks with overnight options available as well as she has her own homestay. Contact her via her Facebook page – Chu Sung (Mama Chu) for more information.