Sunday, 3 July 2016

3 Nights and 2 Days Sapa Trekking with Homestay in Ta Van Village

I already knew before leaving Singapore that I wouldn’t have enough time to look for any cheap tours going to Sa Pa - that was what I thought. I left Singapore on Wednesday morning and arrived at Noi Bai International Airport past lunchtime. I only had five days to roam around Vietnam so I decided to hire a private car which took me to my hostel from the airport (US $15.00), basically to save time. If I had more than enough time, I would have taken the bus instead. That would cost me only US $4.00. The travel time to Hanoi’s Old Quarter was nearly 45 minutes and as expected, the traffic condition was bad. It got crazy near the Old Quarter. I immediately got used to hearing honking and it didn’t bother me at all. The sight of the busy street and endless number of motorcycles weren’t an eyesore. Actually, they were pretty much entertaining (at least for me).  


Where to Stay in Hanoi


I arrived at Little Hanoi Hostel and was greeted with a lovely smile. In a second I felt I was home. Tam, the woman at the reception area, was really cheerful and friendly. She gave me a map and informed me about the places I should see. I guess I was really hungry though that I didn’t understand most of what she said. Or maybe because I didn’t bother at all since that wasn’t my first time in Hanoi. Or maybe because it was freaking hot when I was there. The initial plan was to find a place to eat and walk leisurely around the Old Quarter, but I couldn’t stand the weather. I decided to go back to the hostel to take a nap since I had a train to catch that night.


I booked a Standard Double Room (US $20.00) via booking.com. I became really particular about the reviews before making a reservation to any hostels. And I must say booking.com never fails to live up to any of my expectations (yet). Welcome tea and coffee were available at the reception area. Breakfast was also available from 7:00 am to 10:00. They served fried rice, noodles, bread, bacon, egg and sausages. I love the food, and the bread, and the coffee! I could seriously stay there all day long just drinking coffee. I wasn’t even a coffee person but I immediately became addicted! Wifi was also available and the connection wasn’t bad at all. There were laundry service, wake up service and tours and packages going to Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay as well. I should have known that earlier.


The hostel’s location was really good too. It was just a 10-minute walk to the Old City Gate, Hoan Kiem Lake, and St. Joseph’s Cathedral. There were plenty of restaurants and coffee shops nearby as well and it was just 2 km away from the train station (40,000 Dong if you are going to take a taxi, or 25 minutes if you prefer to walk). Overall, I enjoyed my stay at Little Hanoi Hostel and I would definitely book again for when I decided to visit Hanoi in the future!


Sapa Minority Trek (1 night village stay)


I booked the Sa Pa Minority Trek which includes 1 night village stay via Sapa Pathfinder’s website. However while I was wandering around the Old Quarter to look for a place to eat, I found a lot of tour companies offering the same tour at a cheaper rate. I didn’t bother to check why the price was less expensive than what I’ve got though, but at least I knew. From my hostel, I was picked up by a woman who took me to Sapa Pathfinder’s office in Hanoi to wait for the other travellers before heading to the train station. I rode a motorcycle with my backpack on and God it was crazy! I had fun though, even if it wasn’t my first time.


Train Ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai


The train departed Hanoi at 10:00 pm. It was an 8-hour journey from Hanoi to Lao Cai Station. My bed on the 4-bed sleeper airconditioned cabin was surprisingly comfortable. It was my first time and I was really impressed! There were bottled water and biscuits made available for the passengers too. The train ride was a bit rough and bumpy but I still managed to get a good sleep. The train arrived at Lao Cai Station at around 6:00 am. I got off the train, found the way out and was welcomed by touts.


There were lots of mini buses waiting at the station and I wasn’t surprised upon seeing a lot of touts. It seemed to be a normal thing there. I initially thought it was a good thing that I booked a package tour, since I really hate dealing with “touts”. From the station, a mini bus was already waiting for me which took me to Sa Pa. After an hour of drive uphill, we arrived at Sapa Panorama Hotel. A little information about the tour was given by a woman who works in the hotel, and then I was advised to have breakfast and get back before the tour starts at 9:30 am. The weather was bad and I secretly prayed that it gets better. I have my backpack with me, my camera and all my other belongings. I knew it would be a tough trail, and I am not an experienced trekker. The weather got worse, but I guess that made the trek more exciting.


Minority Trek and Homestay


Together with the local guide, Jaymin, a young Australian lady who was travelling around Southeast Asia, and I left the hotel to start the exploration going to Muong Valley. We trekked for about six hours and visited Y Linh Ho and Lao Chai Villages. It was an awesome experience though it was tiring. It was like staring at a postcard the whole time! On our way to Ta Van Village, we had a deep conversation with our guide, So. She told us real life stories about living and growing up in Sa Pa. She’s a 21 year-old mother of 2, living in the minority Black H’mong community in Northern Vietnam. She got married when she was 17 and she’s working as a guide to help feed her family. There were moments she said, when she had to strap her youngest to her back while guiding. It was truly an inspiring story.


After having lunch at a local drinking shop overlooking the river bank, we continued hiking to Ta Van Village of the Dzay where we stayed overnight with a local family. There we had the opportunity to experience their daily life and original customs. We had dinner, tried the local rice wine, and got to know some local traditions too. Jaymin and I had a couple of hours to walk around the village and were both amazed of how beautiful the place was. It was like walking while looking at a real life painting the entire time. We woke up to breakfast waiting for us the following morning - coffee, pancakes with locally harvested honey, and bananas. My legs still hurt but I didn’t care. I ate my pancakes and drank my coffee. I packed my banana, I knew I would need that later. A few minutes after breakfast, we thanked the local family who wholeheartedly welcomed us and then left. We took the trail uphill and hiked through the bamboo forest until we get to the top of a waterfall. The view was really amazing; I didn’t want to leave.


At around 2:00 pm we were back in Sa Pa. The weather was still crazy - one time it was foggy and misty, the other time it was clear and cloudy. That didn’t bother me at all though, although I hoped it doesn’t rain. I bid goodbye to Jaymin and then spent a couple of hours wandering around the small town. There were a lot of tourists posing for pictures in front of Sapa's Stone Church. I was a bit annoyed but I guess that was something beyond my control. I walked and walked until I got tired and then went back to the hotel to pick my things up. Together with other travellers heading back to Hanoi, I took a small van going to Lao Cai Station. I was a bit early so I killed time watching a football game. I didn’t understand anything though, but still.


The train left at 9:00 pm. I made myself comfortable and then went to sleep not minding about my aching legs. I woke up the following morning; I was already back in Hanoi.  


Included in the tour package that I booked were the following : two-way train tickets (Hanoi - Lao Cai, Lao Cai to Hanoi), 1 night village stay with a local family, meal during the entire duration of the tour, and two-way van tickets (Lao Cai to Sa Pa, Sa Pa to Lao Cai Station). It was a good idea that I booked my tour in advance, I guess. Everything was pretty organised. I only had to pay for the water I drank during the entire trip because it wasn’t included in what I’ve paid for. I had so much fun despite the crazy weather, I wish I stayed longer.


Travel Tip:


If you are coming from Hanoi and spending just a couple of days in Sa Pa, do not bring too much stuff. Just bring the things you would actually need because no one wants to lug a heavy backpack while trekking for hours (I supposed). Do not forget to bring bottled water as well. That was a rookie mistake for me, as there was no place to get some while trekking through the rice paddies. I was dehydrated!


Local people will swarm into you to sell souvenir items, that’s one thing for sure. At some point I got annoyed because even if I politely said “No, thanks” to one of the sellers, she didn’t stop for like 15 minutes. I ended up just ignoring her. Do not ask any seller anything about what they are selling, especially if you don’t have any intention to buy. They will literally (all) bombard you and won’t stop persisting. You will definitely lose your patience, be prepared!


Wear a pair of proper hiking shoes too, especially if you are going there during the rainy weather. I’ve seen a lot who were wearing running shoes and I am really sure they regretted it. It wasn't only muddy, it was slippery too. If you don't own any hiking shoes, wear a pair of good running or walking shoes with a good grip instead. You would thank me, I am sure you would!


Take a lot of photos! You would never ever regret that!


I was told that there are a lot of taxi drivers who cheat in Hanoi. If you are staying at the Old Quarter, the taxi fare from the train station should only cost around US $3.00 (60,000 Dong). I asked one taxi driver who was waiting outside the train station and he said it was 200,000 Dong. I walked past him and continued walking further down the road. I hailed a taxi (Mai Linh Taxi), asked the driver how much it would be and then he said it’s 40,000 Dong. Avoid being cheated. Here are two good taxi operators which my hotel recommended : Hanoi Taxi (+84438535353) and Mai Linh Taxi (+84438565656).


Happy Travels!


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