Vietnam: Trekking with Sapa O’Chau

Located in the Lao Cai region of North West Vietnam and bordering China, Sapa is a very pretty (almost Alpine-ish) mountain town. It’s surrounded by lots of hill tribe villages,  rice terraces and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam.

After spending one night in Hanoi we took a 10pm night bus to Sapa. We booked it through baulau.com and it cost £8 per person, it was supposed to take 6 hours… but it took 8. It also wasn’t the most comfortable, we didn’t get much sleep and it got us into Sapa just hours before we were due to start a four day trek. The bus was an experience we will never forget.

We booked our trek through Sapa O’Chau, a social enterprise that gives back to the ethnic minority communities it works in and who are winners of several ‘World Responsible Tourism Awards’. They are the only not-for-profit tour operator in Sapa, which means that after covering the business costs, the rest of our trek fee goes to support the community.

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Sapa O’Chau run projects such as providing winter clothes to children (I can vouch, it gets cold!!!), improvements to the village schools and generation of jobs and income for trek guides, homestays and local businesses. There are only kindergarten up to secondary schools in the villages around Sapa, village students need to walk at least 15 km to Sapa Town where the high schools are to complete their education. Sapa O’Chau runs a boarding facility that provides accommodation, meals and government school fees to enable village students to complete their high school education.

We booked onto a four day trek (£120 per person, including all travel, meals and homestay costs), but there are so many others to choose from such as motorbike tours, market trips and one/two/three day treks.

Day 1 – 16 km, Sapa – Ta Van

Our trek started in Sapa town where we met our guide Trung. From Sapa we walked to Cat Cat village. In Cat Cat Trung introduced us to the different types of ethnic minorities and explained how to tell them apart by their headscarves and clothes. Cat Cat is a small village with many handicraft stalls, we were shown how some of these were made by using hemp, a loom and plant dying processes. From Cat Cat we continued through rice terraces to Lao Chai where we had fried noodles for lunch and had a go at a hand mill that turns corn into flour (very tough work). After lunch we headed to Ta Van where we stayed the evening with a Hmong family who showed us how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, play Da Cau (football with a shuttlecock) and introduced us to the first of many rice wines of the trek.

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Day 2 – 16 km, Ta Van – Ban Ho

Leaving Ta Van we stopped at a local home to see how rice wine is made and then continued through Giang Ta Chai where Trung climbed a tree to get some fruit (name unknown) that he prepared with ginger and lemon for lunch. The scenery is unreal, completely surrounded by mountains and rice terraces. Pigs, buffalo, dogs and chicken roam free. Terrain is pretty muddy and rocky, either walking through bamboo forests, fields or rice terraces (where you have to balance on the edge or face slipping into the bog). It’s very rarely flat, lots of ups and downs make it tiring work. Along the way at different intervals many young girls walk with us, they try to hold my hand to help me walk and ask if we would like to buy some handicrafts from them. They are very endearing and the bits of English they know are perfect (although all of them are called Lily, coincidence I think not?), however you really shouldn’t encourage them by buying or giving them money as it distracts them from returning to school and getting an education. We reached Ban Ho where we were to stay the night in Trung’s family home, part of the Tay tribe. Before dinner he took us to the village’s rice terraces to eel hunt. Skilled, tiring and very muddy work. It hardly seemed worth it with only catching a small amount of eels that took ages to clean and prep when we got back to the house but fried with garlic and ginger they tasted pretty good. For dinner we also had tasty homegrown rice, potatoes, cabbage, cassava and green onions. A couple more shots of rice wine and a rendition by Trung of ‘Hello Vietnam’ on karaoke we were ready for sleep.

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Day 3 – 10 km, Ban Ho – Thanh Phu

Woken early by the cold and cockerels, we were treated to a spicy homegrown ginger tea for breakfast. Leaving Ban Ho we stopped at Trung’s friend’s home in Nam Toong for some seriously sour fruit (again, name unknown) that you dip in salt to try and even out the taste (wasn’t a big fan). From there we made our way through rice terraces and down steep, slippy hills (I may have fell on my bum once or twice) to the Muong Hoa river which was low enough for us to cross by foot. From the river we walked up hill to Thanh Phu where we had pho for lunch and were to spend the night. That evening we were invited to a party to celebrate the building of a new home. We entered the party to a crowd of people sat on the floor shotting rice wine and eating dog cooked six different ways ( 😦 ). We were the only non-locals there and were invited to many toasts and cheers where we soon learned that once your glass is empty they will top it up and cheers you again. It was a very unique experience to say the least. We left the party early before it got too lairy and went back to the homestay where the older members of the village were sat drinking tea, eating sweets and mandarins and playing a local guitar-like instrument (this was way more up my street).

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Day 4 – 6 km, Thanh Phu – Ban Ho

Starting the day with some pho we began our journey back to Ban Ho following a different route to the day before, through a quarry and ready-mix concrete plant (obviously couldn’t help but compare HSE standards to back home). From the quarry we waded back through the river and a farm where Trung showed us how locals fish. We finished our trek back at Trung’s family home where his wife served us delicious belly pork, rice and fried eggs accompanied by Trung’s dulcet tones on the karaoke. A bumpy car journey took us back to Sapa where we mooched for a couple of hours before getting another sleeper bus back to Hanoi.

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Doing this trek at the start of our time in Vietnam gave us a wonderful introduction to the countries’ food, culture and people. Everyone’s so welcoming and despite many of them not having much they were always sharing food and drinks with us. Very kind. At times it was difficult, not just because of the walking, but because of the living conditions. It was often cold, uncomfortable and loud. Sleep was not in abundance over these few days. It is however one of the best things I’ve done so far on my travels. I learnt so much and met some amazing people. The fact that the money spent doing it goes to help the community that welcomed us so warmly is just the icing on the cake.

I am 100% certain we will be back in Sapa, we fancy climbing Fansipan and so will likely come back after heading down the country and meeting my parents in March. Hopefully the weather will be a little warmer and the ground a bit greener.

Thanks Sapa O’Chau!

Ciao xxx

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