This is one of the most memorable experiences so far, in our 2 months of fulltime traveling.
I have to start at the very beginning – getting to SaPa was an experience in itself. We booked the bus tickets to get there from Tam Cok near Ninh Binh. We were informed it was a 9 hours ride, but with the new road opened north of Hanoi, it was actually only 7 hours. We were easily convinced that this was the right way of transportation, when we saw the pictures of the inside of the bus. Though we have been showed pictures of before and then gotten something completely different, the pictures spoke the truth this time.
Sleeper Bus Experience
We got on board a modern bus with a cabin/seat for each person where you could lie down, and even Martin could stretch his legs completely into the “hole” at the end of the seat – it was pretty comfortable. We are in Vietnam and luxury depends on the eyes that see it – but this was a luxurious way of traveling for the four of us. Yes, it was bumpy and the aggressive breaks from time to time did wake us up (not the kids), but it was way better than sitting up in a bus seat or even a car for 7 hours and it was a fun experience. We were quite surprised when loud music and lights came on at 4 am, as we expected at 6 am arrival. It was dark, cold and raining when we got out of the bus and needless to say we were all tired. We were staying in a homestay in Cat Cat just 10 minutes down the mountain from Sapa. We called them… at 4 am (poor man), but people in Vietnam do actually get up very early… and he told us to come right away.
Cold, Dark and Rainy Arrival
The taxi driver wasn’t sure he was in the right place, as we were at a school, but our host came out in the dark and helped us through water and mud down an even darker path. We eventually got to a couple of houses, and we were shown our room. Two beds with traditional colorful blankets, two pillows and a thick fluffy blanket – that was it. We were now even more tired, and despite the fact that all the roosters around us were waking up, didn’t stop us from going to sleep straight away. However, drums and singing right outside at 6.30 did wake us up (that’s how it felt, as roof and “wall” didn’t meet at the top which meant plenty of fresh air inside). As noticed at our arrival we were staying right next to a school, where the high school students were living Monday-Friday and apparently being woken at 6.30 by fellow students singing to them accompanied by drums and gong-gongs.
When we finally got up a few hours later, the most spectacular landscape awaited us. We had come to a small piece of paradise in northern Vietnam. It’s impossible to completely describe, but I can tell you it was stunning. There were banana palm trees, lots of super green vegetation, mountain tops everywhere you looked, and rice fields. All that we had read about was right there in front of us. It was breathtaking. As the cherry on the top, our wonderful and ever so helpful host served us the best crepes ever with tiny fresh bananas. This was close to being the best breakfast we EVER had!
Unexpected Cat Cat experience
Cat Cat is a small village on the side of the mountain, but they have some amazing waterfalls, great rice field views, a couple of streets with local souvenirs and street food, but what is most impressive is the 2-3 km. round tour, where you walk past everything there is to see – and it is definitely worth seeing. Most places we have traveled in Vietnam, they are making sure to accommodate all the Instagram’ers. That’s huge here, and in particular all the Chinese tourists seem to be traveling with pretty pictures and social media as their top priority. It’s rather entertaining in itself to watch. This means that on this cultural tour of Cat Cat there are built up lots of places that make them “instagramable”, like swings with a view, a latter to sit on in the rice field, special bridges to walk on, tree top platforms, a human size nest to sit in, invisible steps in the river, romantic teepees (!?!) … you name it and it’s there AND it’s being used. The roundtrip was all worth it though, and we enjoyed the street food, the views, the local dance performance, the waterfalls, river and not to forget, watching the tourists taking their photo shooting to another level.
Local Dinner Invitation
Back at our H’mong host family, they were preparing for a get-together with some friends, and they invited us to join them. It was such an honor getting to take part in their private life, and we sat on the concrete floor with them, sharing a traditional meal of hot pot. They sat in two groups, women and men apart and each group had their own big pot, where food was being boiled all night long. All different kinds of meat and fish, green leaves, noodles, mushrooms and veggies being boiled all night long. We did have to pass on the hardboiled duck egg, though – with a hardboiled little duckling inside… we just happened to be really really full when it was time for eggs to go around. Along with the hotpot we had grandma’s homemade rice wine, and it was strong! Which also meant that a friend of theirs was put to bed around 8 pm… having had 1 or 5 cups of rice wine too many.
Mountainous Rice Field Hike
Next day, after another wonderful crepe/banana breakfast, our host took us our out hiking for the day, completely off the beaten track. We walked in and between the rice fields, through rivers, up a mountain and down again, met school kids walking home from lunch. A group of little kids probably from 5-10 years old, walking on their own up a serious steep and long mountain side, a long walk that they would have to do twice a day, as school kids go home for lunch everyday – regardless how far away you live from school. The views were beautiful and the reward view at the top of the mountain was just breathtaking.
Local H’mong People
We walked through little villages and saw how the local H’mong people live, a minority group in Vietnam living mainly in the Sapa area. These people might be very poor, as average income is 3 US dollars a month, but based on the beauty that surrounds them, their constant laughs and smiles, they enrich your life just by their presence. Every house we walked by, we saw meters and meters of blue and black dyed fabric hanging to dry on their fences, roofs and wires. The H’mong women are famous for making cloth from hemp and then dying it this deep indigo blue, and you really see it at every single house or shed that you walk by – sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
After the 12 km. hike up and down the not so easy terrain we relaxed on the gorgeous high-terrace that our host had built for his guests. Not once did we see him or his family or kids up there. By offering people to stay at his home, he is now able to take care of his parents, sister, brother and their families, who all lived in the house he had built for them, right next door, and who used to live off only selling the rice they from their rice field, that they didn’t eat themselves and mushrooms they could find in the forest.
We have stayed in some wonderful places while traveling in Vietnam, but this homestay in Cat Cat was by far our absolute most memorable experience. Even our boys had such a great time here in very primitive conditions – playing around with the host kids and learning about the life in the mountains as H’mong people live it. We left with our hearts and minds filled with such love, bliss, and a wish to return someday and hopefully see our host having built his next project, a new house for his guests.
From One Extreme to the Other
From this incredible homestay experience we went up to Sapa to stay for a couple of nights. We found another place for enjoying the view of the mountain tops. Martin is a complete expert in finding amazing place like this, and on the 10th floor of the beautiful 5 star Hotel de la Coupole, there was an beautiful indoor and outdoor roof terrace with a view that changed by the minute… as the views do here. This is due to the fact that the constant clouds move so fast that one minute you are looking out over the mountains and the next moment you are covered in the cloud yourself. Then imagine the sun trying to shine through the clouds, sometime succeeding and sometimes not yet you still sense the sun. It. Is. So. Beautiful.
If you have made to this far in the blogpost, I thank you. I’m just not good at making a long story short, I am, however, very good at making a short story very long! And our Cat Cat/Sapa adventure deserves the full (and long) story, but we are almost there.
Sleeper Train Fun
To get back to Hanoi, we decided to try the sleeper train, that we had heard so much about. It turns out that on every set of train, there are different companies with each their wagons on the same train. We went with “SAPALY express train”, and having read and heard quite a few stories about bedding being rolled up after use and back out for the next passenger, I honestly wasn’t expecting much. But to my big surprise, we had a beautiful cabin, with fresh clean sheets, water and cookies waiting for us. After some card games, we went to bed. The kids were rocked a sleep in a very short time. Somehow, it didn’t exactly work for us adults. We did sleep most of the time, waking up quite a few times as well, but at least we were laying down flat and could try to go back to sleep every time we woke up.
Arriving in Hanoi at 4.30 in the morning, we were picked up and taken to the airport for our Vietnam adventure to continue in Hué and Hoi An. Our Hanoi experience you can read much more about right here… and I promise it won’t be a marathon read like this one.