Bob Sohigian

The simple life of Sapa

Exploring Northwest Vietnam

You're tired. You're knees are wobbly and you can feel your hands slightly tremble as the energy you exert causes your blood sugar to crash. Pods of sweat freefall from your nose, careening into the abyss below. With each step, the clunking of your boots kicks up clay from the raw earth and settles onto the surface of your swishy nylon pants.

Radiating heat from the scorching sun overhead still manages to sizzle the peaks of your shoulders and neck, creating an everlasting presence of perspiration. With each kilometer in your rearview, your neck strains as it takes on extra weight it never knew existed. You are weary, yet willful, as the surrounding beauty of the area swaps fatigue and frustration for sheer awe and ecstasy.

Gradually, the heaviness of your head becomes irrelevant as reality regains command. The blue sky; the abundance of wild farm animals; the free-flowing rivers; the cool, pristine air; and the contagion of smiles passed on by the other members of your group act as the primary catalysts for your recent liberation. Nothing stands in your way. You are unstoppable. This experience will undoubtedly remain with you for a lifetime.

Southeast Asia is hot - particularly for those who come from an area where seasons are noticeably distinct. In a majority of places in the Western World, you have four seasons, where you will find yourself either wearing or seeing something different depending on the time of year. That is why Southeast Asia can be quite the jaw-dropper for travelers. Not only will the drastic cultural differences create a brief short-circuit in your brain, but you may find yourself genuinely concerned at the amount of liquid exiting your pores - the most menial tasks send parades of sweat marching down every crack, crevice, and square-inch of your body.

Now, don't let something measly like a little heat dissuade you from exploring the incessantly scenic lands of Southeast Asia. If you feel that high temperatures will put a damper on your trip, why not try a place that has - better yet, is known for - its four seasons. If you feel elated by that last comment, then Sapa is the place for you.

Located in Lao Cai Province in the northwestern region of Vietnam, Sapa offers an aesthetically stunning outlet to the wild hustle and bustle of Hanoi. In general, Vietnam will warp any Westerner's mind, but particularly, the Sapa landscape mimics that of a Thomas Kinkade painting - emitting tranquility, comfort, and a feeling of unremitting bliss.

From the moment you catch your first glimpse, your eyes become prisoners to the panorama. With its close proximity to China and the well renowned Himalayas, the main area in Sapa Town allows for the hilly, Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range to reveal itself. A majority of the hotels and guesthouses will provide utterly unreal views of the range, which make for a nice, relaxing evening activity - that is if you don't fancy going for a hike.

Much of the tourism in the area consists of hiking and trekking. Mt. Fansipan - which at 3,143 meters makes it the tallest peak in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, dubbing it "The Roof of Indochina" - flaunts its towering frame at passers by, some of whom decide to take on the challenge with a one, two, or three day ascent. Your time frame and hiking ability determine how long your trip to the summit will take. Although easily accessible, it is quite challenging and falls toward the more difficult end of the hiking spectrum. Luckily, for those who deem themselves unfit for Fansipan, the surrounding hill tribes provide for an equally enriching alternative.

Hill Tribes. Hill Tribes. Hill Tribes. Yes, Sapa is in a country called Vietnam, but a majority of the land is maintained and dwelled upon by ethnic minority tribes. Surprisingly, these tribes do not identify as "Vietnamese," instead, they choose to proudly boast their hill tribe heritage. There are a handful who live in the area, but the main two that you will see selling swag in the Sapa streets are the Hmong and Dao people.

Without a doubt, you will encounter them in Sapa Town, but it isn't until you venture out into the surrounding hills that you will become aware of the raw beauty of the land and the people. With their simplicity and naturalistic states of mind, a majority of these tribes live off the land where they lie. Taking a trip out into the vast, hill-ridden region, you will see wondrous displays of terraced farming, schools, free-range animals, and jaw-dropping natural landscapes - all of which contribute to the tribes' abilities to remain self-sufficient and live solely off the land. Many tourists even decide to become temporary roommates with the locals and experience this lifestyle firsthand.

While spending time in Sapa, the question isn't whether or not to experience a trek and a homestay; the question is how to experience it. Companies will be pulling you in every direction asking you to book with their organization, leaving you in the pickliest of pickles. Going with a local Hmong woman off the street may sound like a good idea at first, but after 5-kilometers of walking, you may have regretted that decision as the phrase, "You want shopping from me?" goes way out of style.

It may also feel wrong to give your money to a company that appears to be barging in on the lives of local people - remember that although it is a tourist attraction and a holiday for you, these tribes are still ordinary humans living their everyday lives. Depending on what you intend to get out of the experience, a company like Sapa O' Chau may be a beneficial option for you and the surrounding community.

Commenced a few years ago by Shu Tan - a woman from the local Black H'mong Tribe - Sapa O' Chau acts as a trekking organization that truly gives back. Shortly after the company was founded a school was built to address the abundance of illiteracy in the hill tribe population. Local people were offered night classes and learned to speak English and Vietnamese, allowing them to take on roles such as tour guides and customer service representatives within the company.

Now, volunteers from all over the world come to teach at the school that was built to help the less fortunate. The proceeds from Sapa O' Chau's treks goes directly into educating local people. Sapa O' Chau has worked hard to provide an amazing tourism and cultural experience for travelers, along with a life-changing experience for locals. That's a win-win.

Travelers and backpackers alike set out to explore the vast terrain that is Earth with the hope that they will return home bettered by their experience. Planet Earth is an anomaly in that it is home to a virtually uncountable amount of species - one of which constantly craves newness. From when you are young, exploration is somewhat of a natural occurrence.Once those little legs begin to scamper along the floor, they take you to the vast openness of your backyard.

Lengthening legs create a more versatile vehicle, leading to more diverse terrain - maybe the woods near your house, then a study abroad session at your university, then, before you know it, you're ready to take on the world with an open mind and an over-sized backpack. If you make it to a faraway land one day, don't forget about the beauty of simplicity. Witnessing the virtually uncorrupted lives of a culture living naturally is something that will enlighten your view on the ways of the world and undoubtedly remain with you for a lifetime.



Great article! Just about to head to the Hanoi area for 2 weeks & I've been looking for suggestions !

By Byron, BKK (30th November 2013)

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