6 am. It’s cold and foggy when the mini-bus drops us off in Sapa. I’ve hardly slept on the overnight train and the chaos in Lao Cai left me kinda grumpy. There’s nobody at the reception of the Sapa Hotel Travel. Hello, anybody there? A man finally stumbles into the lobby and sleepwalks us to our room. It’s December and the place feels like the Ice Hotel. The room is very spacious and comes with a nice balcony. Not that it matters, the view looks like Transylvania. Hello Vlad. Is there any heating in his igloo? ‘Yes’ says the man ‘Electric blankets.’ I always thought these things were for old people. Don’t tell me I look 80.
Cat Cat in the mist
A few hours of electric blanket later, we descend to Cat Cat village, Sapa’s number 1 tourist spot. Visibility is hardly 10 meters. Seeing the wold famous rice paddies? Ain’t gonna happen. Maybe coming here in winter wasn’t such a good idea. Although the thick mist gives the place a mysterious Sleepy Hollow vibe. Contrary to all the scary reports on the Net, there’s a ticket booth (40k) at the village entrance. No, they won’t send you back.
Welcome to Tribal Disneyland
A paved road leads through the village. Every building is turned into a shop. Animal stalls transformed into souvenir stalls, welcoming herds of tourists. Farming tools are just for display. Only the wild roaming pigs add a little authenticity. And they don’t ask for money if you take their picture. At the beautiful waterfalls, we escape a kitschy dance performance with umbrellas (included in the ticket). It’s a lovely setting though. Even in winter, the remaining trail along the river looks amazing. As long we don’t need umbrellas ourselves, I’m happy.
Sin Chai, so close yet so far
Cat Cat too touristic? At the end of the trail, we turn left (right takes you back to Sapa Town) and walk 50 minutes to Sin Chai village. We follow the long winding road through rice paddies filled with quaking ducks. Now and then, a buffalo walks out of the fog, like a mythical creature from hell. Totally surreal. Sin Chai is the total opposite of Cat Cat. A man is chopping fresh pork meat in front of his shack. Children are running around the school yard. At the village shop-slash-cafe we drink Nescafe between exotic birds in cages. Did we bargain? Of course.
Here comes the sun
Day 2. I can’t believe it. We have sun! Warm beams stream into our room. We can take a shower without the risk of pneumonia. From our balcony we can finally admire the spectacular view. I’m in heaven. Today we reach out for adventure. To infinity … and beyond! The main road should lead us South, right into the postcard perfect rice fields.
As soon as we walk down Cau May street, we notice 3 colourful tribe’s women in our slipstream. When we stop, they stop. When we walk, they walk. It’s funny and annoying at the same time. I prefer to face our demons. ’Why are you following us?’ I ask - Silence - ‘Are you guides?’ - ‘No. Not guides’ they answer - ‘Then why are you following us?’ - ‘We walk to our village.’ - ‘Ok, great, can you take us there?’ - ‘No, we are not guides’ they smile. This is becoming Kafka in Vietnam. Time to let the money do the talking. After buying a 1 dollar bag, our tribal doppelgängers turn around. Money talks, stalker walks.
Always be friendly, but firm. Forget kiss-off’s like ‘Maybe tomorrow’ or ‘Maybe later.’ That only results into endless discussions. ‘Why later? Buy now!’ Just say: ‘No, thanks’ from the very beginning. It isn’t always easy. Life is hard here and most women sell really nice patchwork for very little money. But hey, Woodstock is over.
Hello Lao Chai, hello bucket list
1.5 kilometre later, we have to dig out the cash again. The villages aren’t free, 50k per person please. After the ticket booth, we decide to leave the noisy main road. We turn right into a muddy path. All roads lead to Rome, but does this one go to Ta Van? Let's follow our common sense ... and the groups in front of us. I wish we had brought our walking sticks. The tiny trails on the edge of the terraces are extremely slippery. It’s like rope walking on mud. Hiking shoes and rubber boots are no luxury.
We are lucky. The winter sun is finally peeping through the fog. Finally, we get to see the mighty rice terraces sculpted into the mountains. Like giant stairways to heaven. Behind every curve lures another wow-moment. Bucket list: check! We come to a small asphalt road, the start of a never ending, steep descend into the lush Sapa valley. Click! Click! Click! My camera goes into overdrive as we approach Loa Chai. A cascade of rice fields surrounds the village, like waves rolling towards the river. A metal suspension bridge completes the picture.
Sleep in Ta Van
The 2 kilometre stretch between Lao Chai and Ta Van must be Vietnam’s most scenic walk. Ducklings swim in paddies, piglets play along wooden hedges, men build a bamboo farmhouse … this is textbook village life. I wish we had planned to spend the night here. We pass so many nice options to sleep. Beware, the ‘homestays’ look more like beautifully designed, boutique guesthouses, not like real homestays with hill tribes. We check out the wooden Tavan Homestay & Elevenses. The sitting area and kitchen are on the ground floor, beds on the first floor. Some have tiny wooden panels around them for a little privacy. Prices: 12$/person for half board, 15$ full board. A bit further, we also see the Anh Duc and Ta Van Homestay. Check what’s included. These hipster ‘homestays’ might end up more expensive than our comfy hotel room in Sapa Town (16$). And do they have electric blankets?
Highway to Hell
From Ta Van, it’s a gruelling 12 km back up to Sapa Town. Our legs are pretty shaky by now. How to get back? We ask around. A taxi should be 200k - fetching a ride from local scooter dudes only 50k/person. The negotiations are confusing. '100.000, 2 people, ok?' is understood as 2 persons paying 100.000 each. Not OK. We walk away but they quickly call us back. I confirm the numbers with my smartphone. 2 times 50 equals 100. OK! We are given helmets and drive off in James Bond fashion. We zip through the village. The rice paddies flash by. Until finally, in a sharp curve, I see my whole life flashing before my eyes. 'Slow down!' I yell at the driver. Heaven can wait. I still need to do a real homestay!