We are in northwest Vietnam to experience the mountains and the tiered rice fields of Sapa. September is the tail end rainy season which we hope translates to “green”. There is fine line between the end of the rainy season (green) and the harvest (brown). As we drive up to Sapa, it appears we have timed it perfectly.
The beautiful rice fields and colorful local clothing draw the tourists while the mountains draw the “trekkers”. Dozens of “trekking” shops line the narrow streets with gear to outfit any trekker. Shoes, backpacks and raincoat are the most popular window display items. As to whether “The North Face” or the “Under Armour” brands are original, given the proximity to China and the low price, I am skeptical. But if someone wants to make a statement with a popular brand, here’s the place to do it cheaply.
Our guide has scheduled a 15 kilometer “hike” today. What better way to experience Sapa then to “trek” through the valley of rice fields?
Secretly, I am thinking we haven’t walked, much less hiked this distance in a couple of years. Not wanting to reveal this weakness, I remain silent. Perhaps, everyone here thinks nothing of hiking 10 miles?
Sapa is a growing tourist town with at least a dozen hotels under construction. Visualize lots of mud, trucks, and piles of construction materials combined with single-lane one-way streets through town, numerous tour buses, local motorbikes (going both ways) and retail shops spilling across the sidewalks, then you may be able to sense the chaos on the street. There is too much traffic backed up for our ride to reach us at the hotel, so we set off on foot through town, adding 3 kilometers to our trek. (We’re now up to an 18 kilometer hike, I am sore just thinking about it.)
The trail system starts at the original village of Cat Cat. Tourists congregate in the village as locals push their trinkets. A few original houses and families make for interesting photo ops.
As we walk away from Cat Cat, the busyness and tourists are left behind. The quiet rice fields open up before us.
Although the trail is not steep, there is a light rain making the trail muddy with slippery rocks and occasional streams to ford. I have to concentrate on each step, making the trek difficult as we walk through the fields and small villages.
I am hot and sweaty and my trekking shoes are a mess with mud. At the next stream, I debate whether to walk through it and let the water wash off the mud and cool water spill into my shoes. I take a step in but not too deep. Ale’ says “no”! I step out as our trekking guide Ashua, points out “you got your shoe wet”. (he’s wearing open plastic trekking sandals). I guess it’s okay to get trekkers muddy, but not wet.
As the day wears on the sun comes out. It is unclear how far we’ve come or what lays ahead. The trail has no markers. Villages begin and end. We’ve been trekking for over 7 hours and I am sunburned, muddy and tired. We call it a day.
Back at the hotel, the “cleaning” slip has a line item for “trekking shoes,” at 50,000 dong per pair. It sounds incredibly expensive, but translates to just over $2 USD. A bargain given the layers of mud on the shoes. The next morning the shoes come back like new. I am thinking there is a hidden market in bringing old shoes to Sapa, having them cleaned, then selling them for a profit.
For Sapa, we don’t worry about the shoes, just enjoy the light.