After spending a couple of days getting settled in Hanoi, we took a respite from the constant honking, traffic and crowds in the city by escaping to Lao Cai, which is situated in the northern countryside near the border with China. To reach this part of Vietnam, we booked a 7-hour sleeper train that embarked at 11pm. We both love trains (especially compared to flights), and were excited to check out the amenities in our private sleeper cabin. The overnight journey was loud and so bumpy that we thought we might skip off the rails at times. At each stop, the train suddenly halted with no warning. Yet we loved every second of it.
We arrived in Lao Cai at sunrise, and were greeted by our guide Pen, who would accompany us for the next 3 days. Pen is a tiny, sweet Vietnamese woman from the tribal villages in northern Vietnam. She learned English by accompanying other guides on tours and she speaks with a slight Australian accent. For our first day in the north, Pen and our driver took us two hours into the countryside to Bac Ha market, a huge outdoor market where all of the villagers come together to sell their crafts, animals, foods and clothing.
Bac Ha Market
When we arrived at the market, we were stunned by the vibrant colors of the tribal outfits worn by the villagers. We saw a lady on a motorbike with a slaughtered pig strapped to the back right as we entered, and that was a pretty good indication of the culture shock we experienced over the next few hours. Pen picked us up some steaming fried rice dumplings for breakfast. We moved on to an elderly woman selling rainbow sticky rice - she took the time to dye rice different colors with plants, steamed them all together and served the picturesque concoction in a banana leaf with crushed peanuts.
While we were digesting, we headed over to the live animal area where we browsed the water buffalo, pigs, cows, dogs, chickens and rats for sale. While we were admiring the larger animals, we heard the terrible squeal of a pig being killed which reaffirmed our decision to go vegetarian the rest of the day.
After the animal section, we shopped for local crafts like painted bowls made of coconut shells, a jacket sewn in the fashion of the local Black Hmong tribe, silver earrings and a hand-woven shirt. Dave took time to learn the numbers in Vietnamese, which helped significantly with the price negotiations. After shopping, we walked through the mud to the communal dining area filled with bench seats surrounding bubbling kettles of soup. We ordered fresh purple noodles in broth. Luckily Pen was there to explain we didn't want meat, and the ladies preparing the soup looked confused as they improvised a vegetarian version filled with cabbage and lettuce. This meal on the benches, in the mud, surrounded by locals in colorful garb, ended up being one of our favorite meals of the trip.
We did another lap around the market before leaving just to observe the scene. We took time to notice the details, like 100-year old ladies peeling fresh ginger, what looked like 12-year olds in tribal attire with babies strapped to their backs, police officers smoking tobacco from oblong pipes and all kinds of dead animal parts, next to some of the most delicious looking street food snacks. We gnawed on fresh sugar cane as we exited the market and continued to a local village.
We did a short hike into the tiny village, and entered a local house where a young mother was distilling rice wine, and her toddler son was playing with a metal rod. The house had dirt floors, barn-like vaulted ceilings, a campfire kitchen and no interior bathroom. Cats and chickens came in and out of the house, and mice ran out from a pile of straw near the kitchen. Along our walk through the village, our path was blocked by baby pigs. The way of life is so different to ours it is a shock to the system.
Check out our video exploring Bac Ha Market
Border to Mainland China
On our way to the mountain town of Sapa, we stared out at the countryside, stopping along the way at the border with China and at a few epic viewpoints to take in the rice terraces scaled up the mountain sides.
We arrived at our hotel, the Victoria Sapa, near sunset. We spent the night strolling around Sapa town, which feels like a mix between Vietnam and a ski town (with bits of Kathmandu}, and became infatuated with its fresh air, gorgeous views and chill atmosphere. We picked up classic Vietnamese conical hats and returned to our hotel to rest up for the 2 day trek we'd begin the next morning.
We met up with Pen early in the morning outside our hotel with a small backpack each and hiked down a steep, narrow path into the mountain valley. By this time, Pen got to know us a little bit and customized the trek to us. We went off-trail with no one in sight and walked along the ledges of the watery rice terraces. We navigated past waterfalls, over bamboo bridges and through forests filled with spiders. We crossed open fields past grazing water buffalo. We spent about four hours that morning following Pen through this foreign and awe-inspiring landscape, all to ourselves. The entire time we hiked, Pen worked her fingers to weave thread from hemp plants into fabric. Even on the steep parts of the hike, she just prodded along the trail in her tribal outfit (she's never worn jeans) and continued with her thread-work.
Batik Fabric Making
Around midday, we made it to a local village. We learned how to say hello and thank you in the local language and bought bracelets from children who ran up to greet us. After fuelling up, we continued our hike into the valley towards our local homestay. When we reached the village, we met with a woman who taught us batik. We spent a couple of hours as the sun went down drinking local beers and delicately tracing patterns on white fabric with a scalpel-like paint brush dipped in hot wax. We sat with this sweet lady, miming to each other and speaking a few words of Vietnamese as other travelers and locals stopped to see what we were making.
While Erin was finishing up her fabric design, Dave and Pen went off to find a homestay for the evening. Typically on these types of treks, hikers will stay with a local family, often sleeping in lofted attics on cots draped with mosquito nets. Luckily, we were able to find a homestay where we had our own room and bathroom. We spent the night chatting with a few other travelers. Bundled up in our coats, we shared travel stories while helping our hosts cook dinner in a giant wok in the open kitchen with a dirt floor. As there was no heat, we slept in our coats, huddled together for warmth on the chilly night. We awoke to watch the sunrise over the mountains as the roosters crowed.
Trek Day 2
On the second day of the trek, we stopped by the batik shop to pick up our creations. Our sweet batik teacher spent the night dyeing our white fabric with Indigo plants, and when the wax washed off we had gorgeous batik fabric. After dyeing and washing, our lovely little friend woke up early and sewed our creations into cross body purses, one for Erin and one for Dave's mom.
We wistfully left the village and trekked onward to Pen's village, where we met her kids and checked out her house. It was very simple, just like the other house we visited, and Pen let us know that she was saving up for a front door - this is one of the most impactful parts of travel, gaining perspective on how others live around the world. Pen's kids were super cute, and Pen showed us her garden, filled with pumpkins and squash.
On our trek down into the mountain valley, we came across a beautiful waterfall. Several groups of trekkers gathered to take in the natural beauty. Despite the chilly temperatures and freezing water, Dave stripped down and jumped right in, to the surprise of Pen and the locals. They all gasped as he swam around and climbed on the rocks, and they gave him a great discount on a hand dyed batik shirt as a token of the experience.
Next, we continued to another village to enjoy lunch in a local house with majestic views down to the valley. We hung out with the local children, while Pen and her friend cooked multiple dishes of garden-fresh veggies and sticky white rice from the harvest a few months back. Dave climbed trees with the kids while Erin cracked the girls up with various Snapchat filters, and then we enjoyed a lunch feast before trekking down to the local road, where we hopped in a giant van back to Sapa.
The three days we spent in Sapa were three of our best travel days ever. We were very thankful for our tireless guide in Pen and the gorgeous scenery, delicious foods, local shopping and numerous animal interactions. We highly recommend this part of the trip to anyone. Of everything we did in Vietnam, this was unmissable. Next up, after a bit more city life in Hanoi, we headed to the Ninh Binh area for mountain hiking, motorbike exploring and sampan boat riding.
Check out our video Trekking Sapa
We spent the afternoon luxuriating at the hotel spa, and then boarded the Victoria Express night train back to Hanoi. When we booked, we thought the Victoria Express was a James Bond-like old world train with a dining car, but it ended up being just like our train to Lao Cai, but with very friendly train attendants. We headed out around 9pm for the overnight journey south back to Hanoi.
Check out the video of our Night Train Journey to Hanoi
Check out our Adventures in Hanoi