The Sapa Slide

Adventure Travel, Backpacking & Trekking, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Vietnam — By on April 6, 2007 at 11:44 am

After spending several days pounding the pavement for essential cold weather attire, haggling hard core for souvenirs, playing endless rounds of “Frogger” with gangs of cyclo drivers and wading through the maze of overcrowded side streets in Hanoi’s bustling Old Quarter, Holly, Amanda and I decided it was high time to plan a little weekend getaway to the North. After all, one of the things that drew us to this region of Vietnam in the first place was the promise of spectacular treks through the misty mountains of Sapa, a quaint little town near the border of China.

After doing a bit of research on various excursions and prices, we decided that our best option was the 3 night, 4 day trip offered through Kangaroo Café, one of Hanoi’s most reputable tour operators, and incidentally, one of the few places in the city that serves huge mugs of coffee (as a non-recovering caffeine-oholic, I tend to get a bit twitchy at the sight of the thimble sized tea cups that are the local standard). Not only did this popular package provide us with the chance to get in some hard core hiking (the stir fry, spring rolls and noodle bowls we’d been consuming in mass quantities were bound to catch up with us if we didn’t act quickly!), it also offered the unique opportunity to stay with a local family in one of the villages along the trail. Happy to trade the city smog for country fog, we packed small weekend bags and boarded the overnight train to Sapa.

DAY 1:
Compared to many of our previous trips on the tracks, this one to Sapa was a breeze. Our cozy little sleeper car came equipped with real pillows, fluffy blankets, lamps with actual shades on them, bottles of complimentary water, and most importantly, no cockroaches! Whoo hoo! (please refer to our previous “On the Rails” blog if you don’t know what I’m talking about). Although we arrived at the station at the ungodly hour of 5am, the girls and I were surprisingly well rested and ready to get our hiking party started. Well, that was until we actually stepped foot outside of the train and realized that the “slightly colder weather” we were told to expect in Sapa was actually closer to that of say, Oh, I don’t know, a post-apocalyptic Antarctica, perhaps?

Now I know I’m being slightly melodramatic, but anyone who has known me for more than five seconds can attest to the fact that when the temperature drops below freezing (OK, who am I kidding, below 40-50 degrees really), I transform from perky Jen to pure evil Jen faster than Carrie on prom night. But despite the shockingly chilly conditions, the girls and I we were determined to maintain our enthusiasm. I mean, after spending the past 8 months in countries where eggs could legitimately fry on the sidewalks, who could blame us for being a bit wimpy. Our thin skin would toughen up again after a few days of getting used to the cold, right? Plus, the hotel where we were staying that evening was sure to have a roaring fire in the lobby and cozy heated rooms, right? Sadly, it turned out we were wrong on both accounts…

After a nail biting ride through a series of windy dirt roads that looked like they just might drop off suddenly and send our van sailing straight over the cliff, we arrived in Sapa at day break. At least we thought it was Sapa; and that the day was probably breaking. Dense layers of fluffy fog cloaked the city like a blanket, making it impossible for us to see more than a few feet in any direction. Following the sound of our guide’s voice, we began the steep ascent up crumbling stone steps towards the lodge entrance. Our visions of sipping hot toddies next to a crackling fire were quickly dashed as we stepped into an open air lobby that seemed to double as a wind tunnel for the Nor’easter (or whatever Vietnam’s equivalent is). To add insult to injury, the only source of (supposed) heat in our room was a tiny wood burning fireplace hidden in the corner and covered in cobwebs thick enough to trap a small cat. Wait, is that meowing I hear?

When faced with adversity or too-tough conditions, there’s one thing us Lost Girls can always turn to make ourselves feel better – – chocolate! So rather than spend the day holed up in our hotel under pounds of blankets, we hightailed it into town to find comfort in cocoa. We decided that the best cure for our wintertime blues would be to skip dinner all together and hop from restaurant to restaurant (all of the ones that advertised heat) sampling everything on the menu that contained sugar. After a few dessert disasters (here in Sapa apparently banana cake = fried banana fritters and chocolate pie = unidentified and tasteless fudge-like substance), we found a cozy little wine bar that served the most sinful “chocolate mousse” ever. Actually, it was more like raw brownie batter topped with peanut butter crunchies, but in this instance we didn’t mind the mix up in translation.

A few glasses of pinot noir and six desserts later (Lost Girls Rule of Splitting: calories don’t count when you share dishes – even when you order 2x or even 3x more than society deems appropriate), we finally felt satisfied and warm enough to return to our overnight iceboxes. After donning every piece of clothing we had in our backpacks, pushing all the beds together in the center of the room and piling four comforters on top of one another, we actually managed to fall asleep. Hopefully the below freezing temperature would preserve our bodies in perfect form, so our first day of hiking would be a piece of cake (chocolate, of course!).

After a quintessential a.m. carb-loading session (we couldn’t be expected to trek all day with only chocolate in our tummies?), we were introduced to Tsu (pronounced “Sue”), a member of the local Hmong tribe and our friendly tour guide for the next two days. Although a few sheets of Sapa’s signature mist had burned off during the night, an ominous rumble was spreading across the charcoal sky and freshly squeezed raindrops were beginning to pool on the trail. Noticing our lack of water-proof clothing, Tsu suggested we make a quick pit stop at her friend’s store to pick up some cheap rain gear. Our backpacks stuffed beneath yellow plastic ponchos with only our heads peeking out from the hoods, we looked like a strange breed of mutant turtles as we splashed through puddles and slowly navigated the first of many steep climbs.

It didn’t take us long to discover that continuing our tortoise-like pace would be a necessary survival method if we didn’t want to pitch right over the edge of the path. After hours of rain, the hillsides were frosted in thick, gooey layers of mud and the trail had been instantly transformed into an obstacle course worthy of a Real World/Road Rules Challenge Gauntlet round. No matter; the Lost Girls laughed in the face of danger. Haa! We weren’t going to a little slop stop us from burning off the remains of last night’s calorie fest. We decided that the only way to arrive at our destination in one piece and in good spirits was to make game out of getting to the top of the muck covered mountain. After all, we were members of a generation that perfected the delicate art form of throwing our bodies down Slip ‘n Slides every summer. This was pretty much the same thing – – sans the long rubber runway, of course.

A few wild arm flails, awkward hip shakes and face first nose dives later, Amanda, Holly and I had single-handedly invented a brand new dance. We call it…The Sapa Slide. Unlike its cheesy predecessors, like The Electric Slide, The Macarena or Mambo #5 (God, what the hell were people thinking?), The Sapa Slide doesn’t require any lame music scores, choreography skills or even hand/eye coordination for that matter. Success is measured purely on one’s ability to a) make a complete fool out of themselves b) avoid sudden death or dismemberment and c) keep inevitable turret’s syndrome attacks under control. But remember kids: The Lost Girls are trained professionals, so please don’t try to recreate our moves at home without adult supervision!

Despite our best efforts to spread The Sapa Slide to the masses, it didn’t seem to be catching on with the locals. Both Tsu and the group of resident school children who’d been following us were working the trail like supermodels at fashion week, strutting gracefully to the end of the path, turning to only to offer words of encouragement to their awestruck audience. Some of the older girls even weaved small toys and intricate head crowns out of freshly picked grass and thistles – without so much as breaking a sweat – as they strolled past us, politely attempting to stifle their giggles. But despite obvious discrepancies in skill level, together, we formed the perfect team. They helped us successfully navigate the slippery slopes and we were their entertainment for the day – – it was an ideal match.

After a few hours of hiking, Holly, Amanda and I had not only found our groove and were jammin’ right alongside our new Hmong friends, but we finally had a chance to stop and soak in the stunning views. With the rain finally tapering off and the gray clouds moving on to bluer skies, the girls and I were able to enjoy the beauty of Sapa’s unique and mythical landscape to its fullest. In this case, I consider it unnecessary for me delve into my arsenal of cliché descriptions and overused adjectives, when the classic story book beginning, “Once upon a time in a land far, far away…” is the best way to describe the sweeping scenery before us.

Scenes befitting of a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale stretched endlessly across the rolling hillside, sparking a powerful nostalgia within me and reopening a world in my childhood imagination where my banana seat bicycle could fly me anywhere, couch cushions were the building blocks for castles and giants roamed freely in the backyard. Even at my present day age of 28 (or 25 for the 4th year as I prefer to think about it), I half expected to see strange woodland creatures emerging from the mist or one of the many pigs indulging in an afternoon mud bath to sit up and start talking to us. Of course, nothing like that actually happened, but we continued to bask in our fantasy-inducing surroundings for the next several hours until we finally reached a little wooden farmhouse that would be our digs for the evening.

After being introduced to our host family and the other hikers who were scheduled to bunk with us that night (a cute couple from Australia who were on their honeymoon), we all settled down by the fire to enjoy a hot meal of fried potatoes, sliced beef with ginger and a medley of fresh vegetables picked straight from the garden. For “dessert”, Tsu pulled out a bottle of homemade rice wine, poured us all shots and instructed us to gulp them down in one swift swallow. One part lighter fluid, two parts rubbing alcohol (so it seemed to our throats stomachs anyway), this popular local liquor burned away any residual chill left in our bones and probably put hair in places we didn’t want it. “Come on. You have to drink more,” Tsu prompted, topping up our glasses. Good God, I was going to die right here in this barn, wasn’t I? Luckily, after a few more polite acceptances of this seemingly lethal libation, we were still alive – – and on the plus side, warm enough to brave the drafty loft nestled in the rafters above that served as our bedroom. Despite the lack of chocolate, we eventually drifted off to sleep, attempting to rest of our aching bodies and mentally prepare to do everything all over again the next day.

After a thoroughly satisfying home cooked breakfast (was it my imagination or do pancakes taste better at altitude?), we got an early start for what Tsu warned us would be a rigorous five hour hike. No problem! The weather was clear and we had The Sapa Slide down to a science anyway. But even we couldn’t have predicted just how much we’d have to rely on our newly acquired expertise to get us through the day. Even without the rain, the trails were a complete disaster with broken tree branches, slippery stones and thicker layers of muck stretching for miles. Even the locals were taking baby steps to get down some of the more treacherous inclines, many of them adopting The Sapa Slide as they tried to balance baskets of sticks on their backs. Oh, no! We were all in serious trouble!

After replacing our original dance moves with the less refined “Fall on your Butt Every Five Seconds” routine, we eventually made it to higher and drier ground. But just when we thought the worst was behind us (or rather, caked on our behinds); we came to a bit of an impasse. Well, actually it was more like some random farm. Acting as if it was perfectly normal to just stroll across a stranger’s rice paddy, Tsu stepped onto the thin grass strip that linked one end of the property to the other and began to lead us across. Perched precariously on the leafy ledge, Holly, Amanda and I had only 6 inches of space to play with before we would become ‘one’ with the watery crop below. Performing a delicate balancing act worthy of a Barnum and Bailey’s main tent, we glided slowly across the makeshift bridge until we reached the safety of the path that continued on the other side. Whew!

From that point on, we finally got the workout we’d been craving as the trail wound it’s way up steep but (thankfully) dry hills, through thick, tropical forests and over jagged rock formations (who needs a gym when you’ve got an all natural stone Stairmaster?). Despite our slippery start, we managed to finish the hike almost an hour ahead of schedule. We arrived around 1pm to one of the many makeshift restaurants set up for hikers on the trial where we dined on a gourmet lunch of Ramen noodles and hot tea. After a quick trip to the ladies bush, we bid our farewells to the forest and hopped in the van that Tsu had arranged to take us back to town – and unfortunately to the same arctic accommodations we had our first night in Sapa.

Unable to bare the thought of a sub-freezing room, we made a collective Lost Girls’ decision to forfeit the few dong we’d spent on our current room and move to one of the other cheap hotels on the block that, thank the freakin’ Lord, provided space heaters to their guests. Hey, we’d already proved we could tough it out on the trail. There was no need to get carried away by unnecessarily braving torturously cold conditions. Plus, Holly and Amanda felt it was in their best interest to do whatever they could to stifle the release of pure evil Jen – – very wise decision if I do say so myself!


I seriously think there were angels singing and violins playing as the girls and I awoke in a warm and toasty room for the first time in days. We practically skipped down the sun drenched streets on our way to breakfast, excited to have a few hours of free time to explore the town before we had to catch the night train back to Hanoi. After completing a 2 hour DIY hike that led us through a lush valley to a nearby waterfall, we spent the rest of the day browsing craft stalls at the weekend market, snapping cool scenic shots of the area and scouting new dessert locations. For those of you out there who are planning a visit to the Sapa, I strongly advise you to snag one of the stylish white leather sofas at Baguette & Chocolat, a snug French eatery right near the town centre. Not only do they serve the best hot cocoa we’ve ever had in our lives (and that’s a serious statement coming from us), all proceeds from the restaurant go to help local children’s charities – – something that’s very important to us LGs.

We interrupt this blog for an important message:
Please check out Holly’s latest “It Takes a Village” post to find out how you can donate to Village Volunteers, a charitable organization that’s near and dear to our hearts.
We now return to our regularly scheduled blogcast:

After spending four full days breathing in the fresh mountain air, releasing toxins through tough hikes, showing of our mad ‘dance’ skills on the slippery slopes and indulging in endorphin boosting desserts, the stress the girls and I had been feeling in Hanoi, was thankfully starting to melt away. And while our little mini break to Sapa didn’t completely erase the few unpleasant incidences we’d had to content with recently or cure the exhaustion that had begun to build in our bones (8 months of travel + a dash of bad luck = 3 weary Lost Girls) it did accomplish something far greater – it revived the inner travel optimist in each of us.

With our backpacker juices free-flowing once again, Holly, Amanda and I boarded the sleeper car back to Hanoi with a newfound energy and confidence. No matter what the rest of the trip may bring, we knew we were strong enough to handle anything and were hopeful that good things were just around the corner – – or sitting right beside us on the train as we’d soon discover…


– – – Jen

Tags: , , ,