30 days Vietnam, Hand luggage only: 4 days in Sapa and Muong Hoa Valley
Leaving Hanoi, which was about 30 degrees centigrade, you’ll be pleased you packed your jumper in the northern mountain regions of Vietnam. 3000 meters up from sea level the temperature drops about 15 degrees. I’ve got to admit, Sapa and the Muong Hoa valley was a low point of my trip through Vietnam. It was a combination of the place, weather and a few bad experiences. It’s beautiful and, when the sun comes out, it’s a totally different place. I handled my low point by grabbing a moment’s luxury. Thankfully, after this stop I had mind blowing adventures ahead in north east Vietnam in Bai Tu Long bay.
My travel gear: secure hand luggage
On my 30 days through Vietnam I'm living out of my RiutBag X25 - secure backwards laptop backpack - in expanded mode as my main luggage with a waist strap to help carry the load. Tucked inside is my RiutBag Crush, a secure backwards super light daypack that I use for short trips. Between these two, I have all my travel needs covered for 30 days. And, I'm not paying for checked luggage - everything is carry-on safe.
Arriving in Sapa
After the greatest bus journey of my life so far on the Sapa Express, I arrived in the mountain town of Sapa, close to Vietnam’s highest mountain Fansipan. Sapa is a town so ravaged by tourism it was not an enjoyable arrival. The pressure to buy started the moment I got off the bus.
Getting from Sapa to Muong Hoa valley
There were typhoons tearing through northern Vietnam meaning the steep streets had rivers of water pouring down them with a decent current. The only way from Sapa to the valley villages near by is taxi or motorbike. There are no buses.
With local women pushing at my elbows to buy their creations and with difficulty standing up to the stream of water on the road, I tried to negotiate a taxi fare to the nearest valley. I definitely paid too much but I’m sure the driver was aware I would have done pretty much anything to get out of the rain, get my feet out of this river running out of the road and away from the hoards of people grabbing at me.
Once I was in and I’d agreed to pay the 300,000VND (the taxi should have cost 200,000VND) the journey in to the valley was pretty amazing. My taxi driver handled the treacherous journey really well down the serpentine paths into the Muong Hoa valley to my homestay.
Tourism ticket in Vietnam
The taxi driver mentioned something about an extra ticket to pay for the valley. The ticket is about 70,000VND per person. The money goes from tourists to the local people, who should benefit directly from the tourists. My taxi driver told me he would include the tourism ticket in the cost of the taxi price and handed me the ticket. That wasn't true. He pocketed the tourism ticket cost and the villagers got nothing. So I paid the 70,000VND again.
What is a homestay?
In Vietnam, when you get out of the cities, you have the option of staying with local families who can sure you the way of life lived in different regions of Vietnam. These days, homestay is also the name for any lodgings in these villages. Some are basically hostels with a few rooms. If you pay more, I’m sure you get more. On this occasion, I paid little and got what I deserved. It was $15 per night.
The bedding was a rustic hotel with basic facilities and thin wooden walls between the rooms. The rain pelted loudly on to the corrugated iron roof. Rats, wanting to get away from the water on the ground, had no qualms thudding on to the roofing panels and chasing each other loudly above me. There's nothing you can do about it, as a guest or a host, if rats want to do this. But when you're out in the valley, closeness to the local rats is a must. I know people who can’t stand rats/mice. I’m not one of them. I couldn’t handle this, I’m afraid. It fully freaked me out.
Muong Moa Valley
In the valleys of Fansipan mountain you will find the stunning rice paddies, cut into the valley as terraces. These ledges gather water and are actually really large when you get right up to them. From a far they give the impression of finely cut, beautiful ribbons weaving across the green valley. In them, you’ll find the occasional single farmer followed humbly by one or two water buffalo. They till the land, act as a great source of fat-rich milk and hang out with the white birds that settle amongst the rice.
I’m here at the end of the rainy season. It's the beginning of October. But even the locals mentioned that it was out of the ordinary to see so much rain. There was extensive flooding during the time I visited. There was nothing for it, I put on my flip flops and a rain coat and headed out every day to see what I could.
The rain was so heavy that flooding cut off the electricity supply to the village a few times whilst I was there. There were two backup generators in my village. Within an hour or two, power was always up and running again.
The good thing about arriving when it’s raining as hard as it was is that, when the sun comes out, the sense of relief is tangible. I revisited the paths I’d trekked, looked further where the clouds had cleared and saw the bright and varied colours the valley had to offer.
Keeping spirits up: a touch of luxury
I’m not the kind of person who travels to other countries just to sit in cruise ships, cafes and have massages. That’s not what I’m about. Yet, after days of rain, damp clothing and sleepless stormy nights, I gave in and walked into a pretty luxury looking place that seemed to be a spa. Relieved, I ordered a hot drink and picked a warm spot inside. When the owner asked if I wanted to check out the spa, I said no at first. I’m not one of those people! I just needed to dry out and get back to being a budget traveller. Thank you! She left me the spa menu anyway and left me to think it over.
After another crash of thunder, I glanced at the spa treatments. 120,000VND (£4) for the hot herbal baths… hm. A bath. A hot bath. A hot herbal bath. Maybe I could just have a quick look.
I was led down into a truly beautiful spa. Warm, calm and with stunning views over the valley I could already feel my spirits rising. I was given a private room with large, human size wooden beakers, filled with steaming hot herbal waters and with a sweet clove tea waiting inside. Whilst the rains stayed, I returned every day. I slept like a rock after my baths, I’d got used to the rain and rats and I’d found some peace in Muong Hoa valley. If the rains are getting you down, I recommend this to all males and females passing through Muong Valley.
Name in Vietnamese: Lá Dao Spa
Google maps: Knives Leaf Spa - Home - Restauranr, Sa Pa, Lào Cai, Vietnam
Phone number: +84 214 3768 888
Getting from Muong Valley to Sapa, Vietnam
One the last day, I woke up at 05:30 to near silence. Where was I? I’d accustomed myself to the deafening drum of the rain. The rain was gone. The clouds were clearing. The sun shone through. I could barely believe it. Muong Hoa transformed into a living painting. Too many greens to imagine, Fansipan mountain allowing itself to be glanced from time to time, the sun lighting up rice terraces as its beams stroked the valley. Water buffalo in the fields, flocks of white birds casting through, back butterflies the size of birds jetting through the valley.
Life is a dance of water, sun, light and dark. The rice fields of Vietnam could not produce without the water here. Since I am a human and not a rice plant, I was glad to have experienced Huong Moa valley with a little sun. After the floods, the taxi journey back was much calmer. The women in the streets of Sapa still wanted to sell their products. This time, I grabbed a bottle of water in a local shop and jumped back on the bus to Hanoi without getting too bothered.
Would I return? No. Would I recommend it? If you want to have a full understanding of the different terrains and peoples of Vietnam, yes. If you want calm away from the annoyances of tourism, this isn’t where you’ll find it.
After returning to Hanoi, in search of calm, I head out east to some sparsely populated islands in Bai Tu Long, that’s where I finally find what I’m looking for.