Sa Pa (Mar 11-14): A Family Homestay, Rice Fields, and Lots of Haze

I finally arrived in Sa Pa at 2:30pm on Monday afternoon. It was waaaaay more touristy than I thought it would be, and a lot colder – I had to find my rain jacket deep down in the bottom of my suitcase! It definitely reminded me of another mountain city like Banff. I went to the tourist information centre to ask what I could do, and they tried to sell me a 2-day/1 night trekking tour for $40 USD. I’ve learned that no matter where I go, people will try to sell me stuff. And usually for a way more expensive price than I could get on my own. It actually shocks me how many people give into paying without researching how to do it on their own first.

Anyway, the tourist centre makes it sound like you can’t walk around without a guide, but I did for two full days and it was completely fine. My next step was to find out where I could get a SIM card. The tourist centre pointed out a street, where I found a VinaPhone shop and got a 5GB/30-day plan for 150000 dong ($8.85AUD). Even though I was staying in a homestay outside of Sa Pa, I decided to find a coffee shop and relax for a bit since I still hadn’t had a coffee and was feeling a bit groggy after my 8-hour bus ride. The Vietnamese coffee that I got was one of the best coffees that I’ve had in awhile, but cost a bit more at 40000 dong ($2.36). I then requested a Grab to take me to my homestay. I read that they’ll normally charge 200000 dong ($11.80) and it would take at least a half hour because the roads were so bad, so when my driver messaged me saying 200k, I replied okay. The reviews weren’t lying when they said that the roads were horrible – there were potholes everywhere, and I felt bad that the driver was putting his nice, shiny car through such a tragic experience. I was staying in a village called Ta Van in the Muong Hua valley, at Chopai Homestay. And I got it for a steal, at $4.66 per night, in what was supposed to be a 10-bed dorm but it turned out that I was the only person there, so they put me in my own twin room. The homestay was run by two brothers, both married and with their first kids (each less than a year old), and they had a huge fluffy dog named Sam. I was kind of sad that I was the only person there because it made it more difficult to interact with people, plus it felt more like I was imposing on their home, especially when they were having family dinners. However, everyone was very friendly and welcoming, and it was definitely a different experience. Within five minutes of me being there, I was sitting and waiting to check in, and I turned and there was a lady standing there. “Hello.. shopping?” she asked and pointed to the numerous purses she was carrying. I quickly learned that every lady who’s wearing the same traditional outfit will start every conversation with either, “Hello… shopping?” Or “Hello… where you from?” And then “What’s your name?” And when I continue to refuse to buy things, they’d persist, “Something little?” “Maybe later?” I definitely started losing my patience towards the end of my time there because it happened non-stop. I decided to walk around for a bit before the sun set and by that point, it was a bit hazy. Little did I know that this moment would be one of the clearest moments during my entire time there. It was absolutely gorgeous, and I kept finding myself saying, “Wow!” out loud.

After the sun set, it got extremely cold! I went to the restaurant across the street (Dzay Restaurant) and ordered Bún chả (a vermicelli noodle bowl) with a cinnamon tea just to try to warm up.

It dropped down to 9 degrees that night, but it felt way colder! I was staying in a wooden/straw-built house, two of my walls were blankets hanging from the ceiling, and I’m pretty sure there wasn’t any heating. The last time I felt that cold was when I was camping in Africa at the Ngorongoro Crater (read about that here), and had to roll up into a ball and cover my head with my sleeping bag. I did the exact same thing that night – I was messaging my friend and my hands were so cold, I couldn’t type! Luckily, they provided huge blankets so I wasn’t up the entire night.

On Tuesday morning, I got up and made myself have a shower. It was the exact same feeling in Africa, where I was dreading having a shower because the water would be cold and have no pressure. I wasn’t even sure if all of the shampoo and conditioner came out of my hair but I didn’t want to stand under the cold shower to wait for it to happen. I decided that this would be my only shower during my stay. The homestay provided free breakfast (but not free coffee) so I opted for banana pancakes, which were bananas wrapped in crepes with a side of honey. They were so good! I also got my first Vietnamese drip coffee, which is given with condensed milk but not so much that it’s overpowering – however the caffeine was definitely overpowering (in a good way!).

I hung out for a bit and waited for the fog to clear and luckily, it did. I decided to walk through the bamboo forest towards the waterfall, but within five minutes, a lady came from the opposite direction, asked where I was from and what my name was. Then she turned around and just kept following me. It was kind of uncomfortable because every time I stopped to take a picture, she’d stop too. And then when I started again, she’d continue following me. I’m the type of person who really likes doing hikes by myself (if you haven’t noticed by now) – there’s something about being able to experience everything around me and hear every sound while doing everything at my own pace. So this was likely making me feel more uncomfortable than it would the average person. After about 15 minutes, I turned and said, “It’s okay, I’ll go by myself.” “No, it’s okay. I follow you to waterfall.” “No, I’ll just go alone, it’s okay.” “I go that way too, I follow you to waterfall.” Finally, I just said, “Okay, but I don’t have any money to give you.” “When we get to waterfall, you give me something little. Buy something.” “Sorry, I don’t have anything to give you.” That seemed to get the point across because the lady turned around and went back. However, I still had to do that a few more times during my walk because ladies kept trying to join me. I got to the waterfall, which wasn’t much of a waterfall compared to the beautiful Kuang Si in Laos, and then crossed a bridge and walked back towards the homestay.

The rice field views are absolutely beautiful! Plus on my walk, I got to see nearly every type of farm animal wandering around: dogs, cats, cows, pigs, chickens, and horses. By that point, the fog already started to set in, so I had lunch at Dzay Restaurant (pumpkin soup and spring rolls for 110000 dong/$6.49) and relaxed for the afternoon.

I had walked nearly 7km after all! That evening, I joined a British couple for dinner at the homestay. They were staying in the other location, which has private rooms (the owners said that eventually they’ll permanently close the place that I was staying because there aren’t as many solo travellers as there used to be). I had phở and a hot chocolate just so that I could stay warm since the weather had completely cooled down.

On Wednesday morning, I got up, had breakfast, and waited for the fog to lift. This time, it didn’t. However, I still decided to walk in the other direction this time: towards Sa Pa. I walked along some paths, but then eventually I just ended up following a road the rest of the way. Luckily, all of the tour groups were walking FROM Sa Pa, so no one bothered me on my walk this time. It was considerably cooler that day, but I was still one of the only people wearing a tank top. But when I got back that evening, the back of my neck was completely burnt, which I wasn’t expecting at all! I ended up walking the entire way to Sa Pa, which took nearly four hours.

Before I got into Sa Pa, all I wanted was to find a restaurant, but every place I passed seemed to be closed. I had to actually go INTO Sa Pa, but I didn’t realise that once I passed the ticket booth, I’d have to pay 75000 dong to get back into the villages. I finally found an open restaurant at 2pm and by that point, I was starving. The restaurant (Good Morning View) had a set menu advertised at the front, so I decided to get that for 130000 ($7.67). My first course was pumpkin soup, which was much better than the one that I had the day before. My next course was the biggest plate of food – with a curry portion, a morning glory portion, and a rice portion. I didn’t even end up eating it all because I still had to eat dessert! The dessert was a banana pancake with honey, which seems to be a staple here.

I didn’t want to walk back the way I came – I wanted to cross the river and walk back on the other side of the river. I walked further into Sa Pa and started heading down a huge hill to go towards the river. However, the path that I was supposed to take had a huge crowd in front of it and they were charging 75000 dong to go through because it led to Cat Cat village. Sometimes my stubbornness gets the best of me… I continued walking further down because I refused to pay. I eventually got to another street and turned down it. All of a sudden, I heard, “Miss! Miss!!” I turned around and a man was there, and asked for my ticket. He said if I was going to Cat Cat village, I needed to pay. I tried to explain that I was going to Ta Van, and he replied that I’d have to go back up the steep hill for about one kilometre, and turn right (which was the way I came). By that point, it was about 4pm and I realised that I likely wouldn’t get back to the homestay before dark if I walked back, so I decided to order a Grab to drive me back. However, when I requested one, it said that none of the drivers were available. Guess I had no choice but to walk back up… I had only been walking for less than two minutes when a taxi driver coming down the hill opened his window and asked, “Taxi?” I asked for Ta Van, he said 200k, and I got in. I had done 12km and climbed 112 floors that day, so I didn’t have to feel guilty about getting a ride back. However, when we got to the ticket booth leaving Sa Pa, the guard came up and asked for my ticket. There was no way I was going to pay 75000 dong on top of the 200k! I explained that I was going to my homestay and luckily, he let me through. It’s weird because I didn’t experience that at all when I first came to my homestay so I wasn’t expecting it to happen. I relaxed for the rest of the day, and then had one more dinner at the restaurant across the street. I honestly don’t know why I kept going to this restaurant because the food was sub-par (however the service was so friendly, so maybe that’s why). I ordered pho and a hot chocolate, but this pho was half onions, which is very difficult to distinguish from noodles.

I ate as much as I could before giving up and going back to the homestay. I had an early morning to wake up for, so I got ready and went to bed. Sa Pa is an absolutely gorgeous area, and I’d love to see it in the summer months when the rice fields are greener and there is less fog. However, it was still a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the cities! Love always

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