13 Weeks of Wandering – Sa Pa: The Middle of No Where

Bangkok | Cambodia | Vietnam | Laos
New York >> Miami | Portland >> Vancouver

Where To? Vietnam
How long? 3 Weeks
Thoughts: This was the first of my accidental mountain climbs wearing inappropriate clothing and footwear. Little did I know that this was to become a theme.

The Middle of No Where

My eyes were groggy, the 8 and a half hour sleeper train from Hanoi had been very comfortable and, despite sharing the four bed carriage with a family of four, I was not prevented from a placid sleep. Except, like you would if you had an early flight in the morning, I regularly woke up to check the time and found myself sitting up in tired confusion every time the train slowed down or stopped.

So when I was sheltered by a man with a large umbrella after stepping out into the unrelenting tropical showers of Lao Cai, I followed him without hesitation. He offered a bus transfer into the centre of Sa Pa where they would drop me off outside my hotel, and the price was reasonable, so I agreed.

The journey to Sa Pa Town Centre from the Lao Cai station was around 1 hour and it didn’t take long for me to realise I was the only non-Vietnamese in the bus. Having invested in a Vietnamese sim card, I had data to follow my journey on google maps and so I knew straight away when they said I had “arrived” at my destination, we were no where near! I showed them the map and after making a few calls to the hotel, they insisted that this was the correct location and pointed down the road that I should follow.

Sa Pa is a real mountainous region with steep staircases and high roads to climb to. You can imagine that I was not overly keen navigating this area with a backpack in front and behind whilst the heavy showers eased into a steady drizzle and a mist drifted on and off the path ahead of me.
I fought back tears as the google maps navigation lead me to another dead end. This was supposed to be a more relaxing leg of the journey; that’s why I booked a hotel rather than a homestay, that’s why I took the train rather than the bus and that’s why I paid for a door to door transfer!

But Sa Pa would be far from relaxing for me, whether for better or for worse.


How I Met Mama May

My neck and shoulders burned with a familiar ache and I knew if I didn’t sit down and give my muscles a rest, my entire day could be tarnished with a stubborn headache. This is when I met Mama May. She hadn’t been the only one in her colourful robes, adorned hair and bright wellingtons that had approached me whilst on mission to find this hotel. But I was beat down and tired, too tired to say no, too tired to walk away and too tired to care about anything at this stage.


“Come and stay with me at my home” she invited, “I will take you for a trek and show you the mountains…” I wasn’t really listening as she explained her “tour” but before I knew it, a notebook was in my hands with handwritten reviews from previous guests highly praising her and her homestay. I remembered a similar experience my German friend, Lars, had told me of in Hoi An and what an amazing experience it was for him. Perhaps it was a combination of this and the fact that I started crying as she was trying to sell this experience to me, that I agreed to stay with her.

She sympathised, realising I must have had a long journey. “Don’t cry,” she said kindly, lowering the price in an attempt to make me feel better. “Maybe you can get breakfast first and then I will take you to my village?” Yes, she knew how to deal with grumpy me; give me food. “I’m Mary,” I offered a hand. “Mama May,” she prodded herself and beamed down at me before returning the handshake.


Mama May arranged for her husband to come and collect my heavy bag whilst I feasted on Pho for breakfast and for some reason, I trusted him not to run off with it. But even then, I wasn’t sure what on earth I had signed myself up for.


Are We There Yet?!

I should have had an inclination of the length of the journey by the fact her husband took a long while to arrive on his motorbike, but my idea of a “trek” had been my short two hour jungle hike in Cambodia which was challenging, more because of the unforgiving heat than the steep inclines.

Before getting to the base of the mountain, we walked through the unusual town centre with each building holding it’s own quirky and colourful appeal. Mama May pointed out the Mau Son temple standing proud against the mountain, and the Ho Sa Pa lake marking the centre point of the town. She took me through the Sa Pa Market, especially keen to show me the colourful clothing of her village’s tribe as well as some of the other tribe’s.

Hearing of my plans to return to Hanoi to then travel on to Laos, Mama May shook her head telling me I could get a bus straight from Sa Pa. She took me straight to the Anh Nhi hotel to book my bus with them for the following evening.

When we reached the base of the mountain, I could not see how far up it went since it was clothed in a thick fog that danced around it, nor did I know how far away her village would be. And Mama May had already started up the rocky bed of a dried up stream, so I followed after her, quickly realising my soft fabric plimsolls would not suffice.

River Bed

This was the first of my accidental mountain climbs wearing inappropriate clothing and footwear. Little did I know that this was to become a theme.

Beware: The Intimidating Children

Sweat ran a steady stream down my back, my chest tight and my breathing heavy. It had been over three hours, and even with regular stops (mostly to capture mesmerising pictures) I was struggling with the climb. I latched onto Mama May’s arm again as she guided me up the uneven, slippery part-mud/part-rock route that narrowly led further up the mountain.

Figure in the Mist

With the mist still swirling strongly around the mountain and getting thicker with elevation, covering and uncovering the trail ahead in swift intervals, I was not prepared for the chanting I begun to hear as two figures moved towards me.
Each with outstretched hands, the figures started to become clearer whilst their chant was repeated harmoniously in a quiet, eerie sing-song. I just started to make out the words as two small girls approached me, their expressions blank and unresponsive to my uneasy smile, “You buy from me. You buy from me.”

“You buy from me” the eerie chant that these young girls repeated in an attempt to sell bracelets
Some girls as young as 5 years old try desperately to sell their bracelets to tourists

Their outstretched arms held an array of hand-made colourful bracelets. A similar bracelet had already been secured around my wrist by Mama May hours earlier. I looked back at their faces, they wouldn’t have been more than eight years old, what were they doing so far out in the mountains all by themselves?
The chanting did not stop, even after attempting to show them my own bracelet. Conversing with the girls seemed to only bring a slightly different rendition of the “You buy from me” symphony, so I edged past cautiously and tried to ignore the chorus following me.


As I neared some of the Villages, more children appeared and each seemed to be employed regardless of age. A boy no more than ten rode past on a water buffalo herding the rest of the buffalo family whilst an eight year old sat on a rock whittling away at some wood with a big knife. Little girls as  young as five chased me trying to sell these bracelets- all with the same eerie song. Another small boy herded goats whilst a little girl helped her mother in the rice fields. All of these children also attended school and therefore knew basic English such as “how many brothers and sisters do you have?” – this also happened to be the magic question that could stop the chant just long enough for them to practise their English before remembering that I am a tourist and I must buy.

I would like to take this moment to hand the “employee of the month” prize over to this little boy, who literally beat me into buying from him. He may not have closed the sale on this occasion, but his drive and determination won’t go unnoticed. He brought a whole new meaning to “hard sales”.

Sapa Boy Selling Bracelets
Beating customers into buying; a new innovative approach to sales.

Thus was my journey through the lush mountains of Sa Pa so far, but I had another 3 hours to go before arriving at Mama May’s and the adventure was just beginning. Will I make it there in one piece? Will the chanting ever stop? Have you ever showered with a pig?

All of this and more will be answered in the next Sa Pa posts!



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