I just returned from a pretty fantastic 3-day stay in a small village outside of Sa Pa, in far-flung way-northern Vietnam. The city comes highly recommended by guidebooks, but the city itself is not worth a stay. Instead, the best experiences that I’ve had on this trip so far came outside by about 40 minutes in teeny-tiny Tả Van.
I took a bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa, where you’re immediately swarmed by dozens of Hmong women shouting, “Shopping? Shopping?” in an attempt to get you to buy their purses or bracelets. They’ll follow you around persistently alternating between, “Where are you from?” and “Shopping? Shopping?” until you flee into a business. I was looking for a motorbike right away to get out to Tả Van, and eventually had to settle on the crappiest off-brand something-or-other with the least-trustworthy brakes from the sketchiest guy on the corner, because he was the only one that didn’t ask to hold my passport as collateral (just my driver’s license. My driver’s license, in exchange for the thing that I’m going to drive. Instantly hoping to not repeat my experience with the Thai cops).
I set out to find the homestay which was only about 10 km out of town, but for some reason listed as almost 40 minutes away driving. After a whole bunch of wrong turns to get out of town I quickly realized why it would take so long: the road was made up of occasional chunks of concrete separated by potholes big enough to fit me, my backpack, and the motorbike. This was sketchy driving. After only wiping out twice (!), I made it to the My Tra homestay, run by the fantastic Andrew and his wife and little girl.
What I liked about this place most, aside from the surrounding stunning countryside, was the lengths to which Andrew made his guests feel at home and create bonds between the people staying there. He described all of the nearby trekking trails with maps, and paired people up who had similar plans so no one was traveling alone. He also served dinner communally, so that everyone staying (there were only about 10 beds in the place) had a chance to meet each other (so here’s the shout-out to the fantastic Gemma, Lisa, Natalie, Jon, Simon, Tim, Chloe, and Coco with the more complicated French name: thank you all for celebrating my birthday and also accepting me as the only USA-an in the building).
My first full day I set out on a trek with a few from the hostel to the nearby waterfalls and across the river in the valley. I hiked through a bamboo forest where huge butterflies landed on my arm; I stuck my feet in the pools of a waterfall that hammered down a sheer-rock wall; I looked in serious wonder at the stepped rice paddies. I dunno, I honestly can’t explain how beautiful this place is; I’ll let pictures do the talking, but they hardly do Sa Pa’s valley any justice. All along the way, women and girls from the local tribes tag along as guides, until we shooed them away because Andrew prepared us well.
The next day (In Which I Turn 28, Old, and Decrepit), I took the motorbike out to go up into the mountains and then down into the valley, also on Andrew’s recommendation. The janky bike didn’t do well in those pothole’d local streets, but once a bit out of the villages the road became smooth and curvy — in some places more so than the road to Pai. I biked around for almost 3 hours without running into anyone except for local farmer boys who would wave and shout “hello!” from atop a water buffalo.
Later that day I took a bus back to Hanoi, where I treated myself to my whole own room for the inordinate price of $18. Tomorrow, on to Halong Bay to spend a night on the water on a tour where the evening entertainment options are “stargazing on the upper deck” or “squid fishing.” Guess which one I picked?
Also, today I ate this fantastic bánh mì.