Taking the train from Hanoi to Sapa is such a memorable journey that one must experience in their lifetime. If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, go to Sapa for a long weekend. You are surrounded by nature, mountains and coffee plantations.
Sapa is home to over 50 distinct ethnic tribes such as Hmong, Tay and Dao. The French established a hill station in Sapa in the early 20th century. Today it is one of the most visited destinations in Vietnam. My travel plans in Sapa included a overnight homestay with a local family, visiting different villages, checking out rice paddies and bamboo groves. As soon as I got to Sapa I met up with other people who were partaking the same tour package with me. There were three British guys in their early 20s who were traveling together on their school break and an Asian girl from San Francisco.
We met up with our tour guide Woma. Woma belonged to the Hmong ethnic tribe. She spoke some decent English. Woma will take us to the house in her village where we would do our homestay that night. We also met a few of her family members from the same village. But what we didn’t realize is that they walk with us to the village and try to sell their handmade ornaments and jewelry on our way. It eventually stopped when some of us bought a souvenir or two.Woma and her family members led the way to their village. We lugged along our backpacks and walked briskly behind their back.
Woma provided some running commentary about the place, the people and the culture. I tried to follow along but it was hard for me to understand her thick accent. My mind was mostly focused on the path we were walking. It was steep and slippery with mud patches and gravel along the way. I didn’t have any good hiking shoes. I felt totally unprepared for this walk. I took extra precaution walking the uneven path where at some points were dangerously steep.
But the scenery was spectacular. It reminded me of my time in Munnar in southern part of India. We passed by some well-kept terraced paddy fields, which were mostly used for growing rice, wheat and barley. We noticed some Hmong women walking back to the home after a long day of work. They had the typical laden baskets on their back. Apparently in these matriarchal communities women work outside and men stay home and attend to children and household chores. Hmong people are originally from China and migrated into the mountain highlands of Sapa in the beginning of the 19th century.
I tried chatting up with Woma to learn more about the people in Sapa.
“How did you learn to speak English” – I asked her while looking at her with one eye and carefully paying attention to the path with another eye.
“I learned it from you people” – Woma answered.
“What do you mean? You mean from talking to other tourists like me?” – I followed up.
“Yes, I no speak English before, only when I am tour guide” – she said
So what I understood from her was that she learned to speak English only after she got into this tourism business.
I continued with my questions for Woma.
“So Woma, how do you call the language you speak in Sapa?”
“Oh we are many tribes here, we speak different languages. I speak my tribal language and also Vietnamese. Other tribe speak other language” – Woma answered with a smile.
“Then how do you communicate to people from other tribes?” I asked and try to keep up with her pace at the same time.
“We speak Vietnamese or English” – she retorted.
It was getting a little chilly as the sun begins its descent to the horizon. When we reached Woma’s house it was dawn. We dropped our bags off on the first floor where we would be sleeping. A series of mattresses were lined up with blankets and pillows covered by individual mosquito nets. Woma and her family cooked us some typical dish from the village. Later the night Woma gave us half a bottle of hard liquor, which was about 40% alcohol. It only took us a few sips to get drunk. The British guys were joking this is the kind of alcohol that would put hair on our chest. I said it would put hairs on your lips.
I woke up early next morning and walked outside the house to get some clean, fresh air. The view in front of me was just breathtaking with a huge cloud hanging in the deep valley in front of my eyes. I managed to take some photos. After our breakfast it was time for us to take another long hike across the hills to the town. We will pass by another town along the way where we would have our lunch.
Before I left Sapa, I managed to a nice Vietnamese massage. Massage and a herbal tea felt good on a cold afternoon. Plus it was a great way to end the journey before I took the train back to Hanoi.
If you are planning to take the train from Hanoi to Sapa and return, here is the train schedule.
Hanoi to Sapa
|Train Home||Leaves Hanoi||Arrival in Lao Cai||Ticket price|
|Orient Express SP1||21:35||05:30||$33|
|King Express Train SP3||22:00||06:10||$37|
|New Livitrana Express SP1||21:35||05:30||$36|
Sapa to Hanoi
|Train Name||Leaves Lao Cai||Arrival Hanoi||Ticket price|
|King Express Train SP4||21:40||05:30||$37|
|Fanspian Express SP2||20:55||04:30||$36|
|Livitrana Express SP2||20:55||04:30||$35|