All throughout Vietnam we kept our eyes peeled for the cascading rice paddies that we had expected to see everywere, but as we neared the end of our journey up the coast we were disappointed that we had not yet come across any. Our ears perked as a fellow traveller gushed about the beautiful trekking through Sappa that included cascading rice paddies as far as the eye could see… It was decided; we were going on a trekking tour in Sappa to get a taste of Northern Vietnam.
After a long nightbus from Hanoi we arrived in Sappa early morning with just enough time to shower and eat breakfast at the hotel that organized the treks. After freshening up we met our trekking guide, Chai, who is a local to one of the neighbouring Hmong villages and stood out from the tourists in her traditional clothes and hair style. We began our adventure with a 12km hike through some of the most unbelievable scenery and landscapes. After weeks of searching for the cascading rice paddies we were greatly rewarded with mountain after mountain of nothing but these fascinating agricultural designs.
The day was hot and the trail was labouring; narrow muddy trails winding through the rice paddies (you had to be careful not to fall in), and steep unstructured stairs led us through the valley towards a Hmong village that we would spend the night in. A group of around six young Hmong woman accompanied us during our hike, engaging us in friendly chat and offering a helpful hand through the steeper muddy slopes that we stumbled down. At first it was cute but it soon became apparent that it was neccesary as the young woman holding my hand prevented me from falling face first in the mud on more than one occasion. I felt a little foolish for needing their help since I was in hiking shoes and these woman were in slippers and had young children strapped to their backs, but they gracefully glided over the landscape as I imagine they had been doing all their lives.
We stopped for lunch at a small village half way through the 12km hike where we were immidiately bombarded by a swarm of little girls with fistfuls of bracelets and an eerie syncronized chant of “buy from me, buy from me, buy from me…”. After filling our bellies with a typical meal of rice, cabbage, egg (chicken for everyone else), and pineapple we continued the remainder of the day’s trek. Our international group of seven happily chatted with each other and the Hmong women as we passed pigs, ducks, horses and buffalo on the way to the next village where we would spend the night at a local homestay. The homestay was very friendly, simple and comfortable. We were provided snacks, dinner, and happy water (homemade rice wine) and could purchase beers or sodas. The evening was spent playing cards and enjoying beers in good company.
The second day of our tour included another steep slippery trek up the valley and through forests of bamboo that varied in sizes from pencil thin to thicker than I could wrap my hands around. On the way to the next village and lunch stop we visited a wide rocky waterfall that had minimal water flow due to the current dry season. We snapped a few group photos and took our water break while dreamily gazing over the vast scenery below us. As we continued our trek to the last village of the tour we crossed a few very shakey bridges that were fine to cross but when I stopped to pose for a photo nearly had a heart attack as the wooden plankes swayed below my feet.
After our final lunch at the last village we were picked up by a minivan to take us back to the hotel to board our night bus. Someone in the group had asked what wages a Hmong guide makes and found out it was a shockingly low $4 per day (with 4 to 6 days of work a week, that included the long tiresome hikes). We put togather a collective tip for our wonderful guide Chai who was modest in receiving it but we watched her walk away and break into a smile when she realized it was more than a few days wages.
This was our last experience in Vietnam and by far my favorite; the scenery, the people we met, the locals we encountered, and the trekking all added up to an amazing few days. I’ve had a blast in Vietnam but am also very excited for the next country on our itinerary, beautiful Laos.