The Breathtaking Beauty of Sa Pa

Since I had decided to cut Da Lat out of the first half of my trip through Vietnam, I thought it was only fitting that I fill the free days this decision created with a whirlwind trip to Sa Pa. For any of you planning on visiting Vietnam – GO TO SA PA! I can’t stress enough what an absolutely beautiful place this is. While I’m a little sad I did miss Da Lat, going to Sa Pa more than made up for it. I had booked back to back Sa Pa and Halong Bay tours (More on the latter in my next post) for a ridiculously good deal, so I wasn’t sure what to expect by the time I made it to the train station with a girl I had met at the hostel. Her name was Kelsie, and she would end up being a part of my tour group full of pretty awesome people. We were there 2 hours early so we found a place to eat and grabbed a bite while we waited. It would be a long over night ride, and by the time I woke up the next morning, I was sick.

We were driven to a hotel in the town of Sa Pa, where we could change and eat breakfast before our trek began. It was here in the hotel that Kelsie and I would meet the rest of our group consisting of Tessa, Yannick, Melanie, and Oliver. All of us were roughly the same age, and from the beginning it was evident that the 6 of us and our tour guide Mai were going to get along.

As we walked along a busy road, almost immediately, a group of women from one of the local tribes attached themselves to us. We had all be told about this happening, so we weren’t surprised when one or more of the women began talking to us, and claiming us for the remainder of the hike that day. Soon we turned off the main road and found ourselves walking on dirt and gravel paths on our way down to the bottom of the valley. The scenery almost instantly became breathtakingly beautiful. All around us there was green in the form of grass, rice fields, corn fields, trees, and many other fields of vegetables. We walked along small paths for most of the morning, and at one point were given the option of walking down a steep rocky hill to save time, or to follow a winding path and make it to our lunch stop a little later. We chose the steep path.

On the way down, I’m fairly certain I pulled something in my knee, which only proved that I was in way worse shape than I thought. Despite walking multiple miles every day, I hadn’t been working out, so I wasn’t surprised to find myself injured on my first real hike in a while, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t suck any less. It took me much longer than everyone else to make it to the bottom, but I did it… much to my surprise and excitement.

By this point we had reached out lunch stop, and were swarmed by the group of ladies who had been accompanying us the entire morning. We all had to buy something to get them to leave us alone, and somehow two women had chosen me, which resulted in me having to buy two bracelets, one from each. Once the sale was over, one of the women came over to give me a free cloth bracelet to remember them by. It was a sweet gesture, and the next 10 minutes or so was the longest stretch of time we had without a group of local women hovering around us hoping to sell some good or another. As sweet as they were, this is one of the worst things about travel.

Soon lunch was over, and we were off conquering the last part of our trek to the home-stay. This section was a lot easier, but still didn’t stop my knee from hurting. I was happy when we had arrived, because it meant I got to rest a little while before having to walk on my knee again. After a little relaxation, we all decided to go for a swim in the river nearby.

It seemed like getting there was going to be an easy task, but somehow we managed to make it a difficult experience. Along the way me and one of the other girls both fell into a rice field, where I lost my shoe and had to dig it out, but in the end the water was cool and the journey was well worth the hilarious and sometimes difficult trip we took. We laughed together, created inside jokes, and became the envy of all the other groups trekking the same trail as us. Not only were we one of the smallest groups we encountered, but we were also one of the only groups who seemed to have become a group of friends instead of individuals.

When we got back to the home-stay, we all took turns showering before dinner and met the other group of people also staying at the home-stay for the night. There was a family of 4 and 2 other women who seemed to be out-of-place in their group. As dish after dish was brought out onto the table, we viciously attacked everything on our side of the table and joked around with Mai and the other groups guide, a challenge was placed on the table that we wouldn’t be able to drink 1.5 liters of rice wine. We accepted, and a little after dinner began we started our challenge. At first the other group was at the table with us, but after a few shots it was down to the 6 of us and Mai, who we kept convincing to drink with us.

Shot after shot was poured, and to be completely honest I’m not sure how I held my own (though a few times I did refuse to drink) but eventually we did it. 1.5 liters and a good 20+ shots later and the task was complete. The ladies even brought out more rice wine after we had finished, and I’m pretty sure we drank a little of that too. It didn’t matter to us, we were already drunk, and having a great time doing so. There was an impromptu yoga class, the catching of a lightning bug by myself to show the Europeans in the group, and a lot more laughter and inside jokes. I really couldn’t have asked for a better group to be a part of.

After a loud and hilarious night, that continued on even after we attempted to go to bed, we somehow woke up the next morning without hangovers. Rice wine is a beautiful thing. After some breakfast, we were off again. This day would end up being a lot shorter, but no less challenging. The scenery was still beautiful, but the landscape had become steeper and was still soaked from the rainfall early that morning. Needless to say, it was muddy, and there’s nothing worse than trekking a small path in the mud. Somehow we all made it through alive and were blessed with a beautiful with incredible views as a resting place.

We were about halfway through our afternoon, and between the trekking and the humidity, I’m pretty sure I sweated any of the rice wine that was left out of my system. It was nice to be able to dip my feet in one of the small pools around the waterfall, but it was equally nice to be back on the trail again and a few steps closer to the end of our trip. Part of me wished the end wouldn’t come because despite my cold and  injured knee, I was having a great time, but the thing about great times is they can’t last forever, so I was ready for it to end so nothing bad could ruin the experience.

After one final hill, which killed my knee, we had finally made it to the end of our trek and were taken back to the hotel to freshen up. Since we had a little time to spare, we decided to head out and do a little shopping and sigh seeing in the town of  Sa Pa. We were in search of one of the traditional tribal coats for Kelsie, and once it was known she was looking for one, it seemed like the entire community knew who she was and what she wanted. We couldn’t walk into a shop or past someone who didn’t immediately offer her one or know the woman she had promised to purchase one from. When she found a coat at a cheaper price the main joke became that she wouldn’t make it out of the city with her finger attached (this was what the lady told her), so we found ourselves wandering through a market in search of a back exit. I wish we would have had more time to explore Sa Pa, but ultimately this was a nice way to end the trip.

We all said a sad goodbye to one another at the train station a few hours later, and the entire group would never be back together again. While I really was sad to end such an amazing few days, I will be forever grateful to have gotten to spend time with the 5 of them. Not only did I walk away with 5 new friends, I also walked away with the breathtaking beauty of Sa Pa forever engrained in my memory.

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