Rice Paddies of Sapa

Getting to Sapa is kind of crazy. We took a taxi from Nha Trang to the airport (40 mins), flew from Nha Trang to Hanoi (1 hr), took a taxi to the train station (45 minutes), took the night train to Lao Cai (8 hrs), and then an intense minibus ride up the mountainside to Sapa Town (45 mins) to arrive in town before 7am. This was the scene in the town square of Sapa Town when we arrived, except there were a hundred soldiers all in neat rows and some kind of assembly happening.

We ate barbecued meat on sticks in the cloudy morning mist, and it was delicious. Sapa Town is a hectic gathering place of trekkers, Hmong tribeswomen selling wares (some handmade and some definitely not), and Chinese tourists eating in restaurants. Nestled in the side streets are the Vietnamese residents, gathering on the sidewalks to sell fruits, vegetables, and meat. The streets are steep, narrow, and winding. Walkers compete with motorbikes, tour buses, and cars for room on the road, and making a u-turn is impossible. It is what I had always imagined Nepal would be like. I hope to find out if I’m right!

We left mid-morning for our three day, two night trek with Chinh from the tour group Sapa Sisters. Chinh, a member of the Black Hmong tribe, was a sweet, funny, and patient tour guide. We set off down the road, took a dirt path at the end of the street, and suddenly we were trekking! After a steep decent for several miles we stopped for lunch where local children with dirty faces tried to get me to buy their bracelets. When I said, “Sorry, no money!” They said, “Yes, money!” They knew the routine.

Walking along the rim of the rice paddies.

This time of year the paddies are not in use by humans, but are used by buffalo, ducks, horses, and pigs as bathing troughs and toilets. All good fertilizer for growing season! Our first day of trekking we traveled 8.4 miles. That night we slept at our guide’s parents’ modest home. They cooked us a big meal of rice, ginger pork, pineapple chicken, “green vegetable” (there is no word in English, apparently!), and other side dishes. Our beds were a layer of hay topped with a grass mat, and the thickest blanket I’ve ever seen. None of us really slept that well, and were awoken by a cacophony of noises: roosters, dogs fighting, kids playing, people talking, motorbikes riding by, etc.

The trek itself was pretty strenuous. There was a lot of going up and down very steep, rocky paths, jumping from rock to rock and rice paddy to rice paddy, and shimmying along a very narrow path along the side of a mountain. Not for those with a fear of heights! The views made it all worth it, though. Here are a few of the many, many photos I took along the way:

It is fascinating to me how people can live and survive in the most extreme places. The different tribes living in these mountains having been living off of their rice paddies for a very long time. Chinh told us that some paddies are over 300 years old! The tribes have made so many terraces that apparently the younger generations don’t have anywhere else to make new ones. The mountains are literally filled with them. 


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