Trekking in Sapa: Lao Chai & Ta Van
I had spent four days sitting in the clouds and drinking coffee after coffee and beer after beer in downtown Sapa. Finally on my last day I told myself that no matter what the weather did, I was trekking in Sapa down to Lao Chai and Ta Van, two local villages that were apparently surrounded by spectacular scenery. Of course the weather was exactly like the previous days – cloudy, dreary, and cold. I didn’t really know where I was heading, but I set off down Cau May in what I assumed was the right general direction based on vague, broken-English instructions I got from my hotel.
Just as I left the edge of town, a H’mong woman started following me, trying to strike up conversation in fairly decent English. Being that I’m not an idiot, I knew she wanted money. I quickened my pace, smiled, and said, “No money. No Buy. No Shopping. Cám ơn (Thank you).” When she kept up my quickened pace, I then kept stopping every few minutes to “take a picture,” hoping she would take a hint. Nope. She mimicked my every move, staying within earshot the whole time. I just did my best to keep ignoring her, feeling rude repeating “No money. No Buy. No Shopping. Cám ơn” and knowing it was only a matter of time until she asked me for money.
About 2km after leaving downtown Sapa, I paid my 40,000 vdn ($1.89) to get my ticket (yep, charged money again to walk down a road) and continued down through homes and wooden shacks doubling as roadside shops. At what I could tell would have been a beautiful overlook had it not been for the clouds, the H’Mong women pointed down a dirt road winding down the mountainside and said, “Lao Chai.” Marked only with a blank tombstone looking sign, but seeing some large tourist groups in the distance through the fog, I shrugged and followed her gesture down the road.
“No money. No Buy. No Shopping. Cám ơn.”
We continued our little charade as I spent the next hour or so winding my way along switchbacks down a pretty steep hillside. Like the trek to Cat Cat Village a few days earlier, the road had decreased in elevation revealing some absolutely beautiful and humbling views across the dull-brown rice patties. These mountains were awesome and I could only imagine the scene if it had been clear out.
Eventually reaching the valley floor and the actual village of Lao Chai. The woman gently poked my elbow and pointed to a small wooden house and said, “My home.”
Sure lady, I bet it is.
I smiled and nodded and just kept walking, but she side-stepped almost in front of me and finally said, “You buy from me?”
Laughing, I simply said, “No. Absolutely not.” and started moving towards a big group of Western “trekkers,” dressed like they were out on a safari. I figured this lady could get real pushy so I might as well be around some potential English speakers and their guide.
In what I assume is her most pathetic-sounding voice, she says, “I talk to you long time. You buy from me.”
Knowing she won’t understand anything I was about to say, but saying it loud enough for the other foreigners to hear, “No, you talked at me while you followed me from town. I told you ‘No money, no buy, no shopping.’ No.”
“I talk to you long time! You buy from me!” she said, yelling loud enough for everyone to start paying attention, even turning some heads on nearby restaurant patio.
I kept casually walking further into the village shaking my head and repeating, “No!” She followed for another two minutes down the road, loudly repeating the same phrase before at long last, jabbering off something (most likely derogatory) in Vietnamese and giving up.
And once again, it was peaceful.
I followed the path further into town and quickly began to notice I was suddenly the only tourist around and the souvenir and craft shops lining each side of the road gave way to simple farms and schools. The GPS in my head was telling me I was still heading the right way, but my feet were really, really tired and I began to debate about turning back to try and hitch a ride on one of the tour’s minibuses. But it was really beautiful. Not the weather, but just the scene.
Eventually, I took a left at a fork that lead towards a bridge over the river and found a motor bike to drive me back the 14km to town.
I really wish I had done that walk three days earlier…
Directions for this “trek” (It’s a long stroll on a road)
I have an extremely good sense of direction and despite being advised not to hike without a guide, I did it anyway. And it was really easy:
- Head South from downtown Sapa along Cai May (past Hmong Sisters – the only bar I remember on that stretch). Go downhill.
- About 2km (ish) into the walk, I had to pay a 40,000vdn entrance fee to a booth on the right and there was a gate they could lower to block the road.
- Keep walking until you see a dirt/mud road on the right with a blank sign in the ground that looks like a tombstone (blank as of late October 2013).
- The road wraps around the side of the mountain through the terraces offering some amazing overlooks to the river below and a large bridge.
- Just past a sharp switchback, there’s a restaurant where a lot of the guided treks were stopping. This is overlooking a large bridge.
- The road continues to the right, to another switchback at a pool at the base of the waterfall you could see up top.
- This brings you to the large bridge you could see from above. (Everyone on guided treks that I saw had skipped this switchback and slipped their way down the side of the muddy hill directly from the restaurant to the bridge. The road goes to the same place.)
- After crossing the bridge, the road winds along the river before passing a hydroplant and entering the outskirts of Lai Chai. There were lots of options to stop and get food and drinks as well as possible motor bike rides/taxis back to Sapa.
- Head across a bridge to the right and the path will continue to wind through the village (slight uphill) – there were tons of small shops (plenty of souvenir options).
- The road just continues through the village.
- About 2km from the small bridge (I have no idea if that distance is accurate), there’s a fork in the road right at a school – to go right went uphill, left went downhill. I’m told this was Ta Van.
- Take a left and a few hundred meters later, there were a bunch of guys waiting with motorbikes right before another bridge. On the other side of the bridge were a bunch of minibuses waiting on actual guided treks. My hotel said to try to hop on with a tour, but since none were in sight, I took the motorbike option to Sapa. It was a 50000vdn ride back to town, but I was definitely ripped off – the guy’s buddies all laughed when I said OK to ’50’), but I was too tired to care.