SA PA: Travel Diary by Justina & Maarten

Long-time there was no article about NOT US traveling. New year, better us and amazing adventure of two newlyweds (back then) and soon parent to be (now) – Justina and Maarten. Photographers, videographers, journalists, storytellers – that’s how we describe them. So be prepared for very beautiful pictures. This time let’s go see what Northern Vietnam, Sa Pa region is hiding.

L: How did you end up traveling in Vietnam?

M: Justina and I were thinking of going somewhere far for our honeymoon. When we read the stories from Lina and Tomas, we were triggered. We went with them for a drink in Downtown Forest Hostel in Vilnius. And it didn’t take long to convince us that Vietnam is an amazing travel destination. I think Lina and Tomas are secretly paid by the Vietnamese government to advertise their country. When you hear their stories, it would be hard not to go.

(I agree with that, just not the part about the Vietnamese government, and I keep on recommending Vietnam for everyone who is in doubt ;))

L: Let’s talk more about the beautiful Sa Pa in the North of Vietnam. How did you get there?

M: We arrived in Sa Pa by bus from Hanoi. This is by far the easiest way to travel there. You can book a seat from any hotel, hostel or “travel agency” in the capital of Vietnam. A micro-bus picked us up from our hostel and drove us to the bus on the edge of the city. Honestly, I expected to travel on an over-crowded vehicle between chickens and suitcases. But when we exchanged our shoes for rubber slippers at the entrance of the bus, I realized that I was wrong. This was THE fanciest bus ride of my whole life. Wifi, air conditioning and the biggest seats ever.

Driving through Vietnam is an experience on its own. You get to see the rural parts of the country, with its rivers, mountains, small towns, and factories. A lot of people were sleeping on the bus – understandable which such good seats – but I couldn’t help but gaze out of the window.

At certain times, the bus driver stops at gas stations, giving everybody the chance to go to the bathroom or grab a snack. The gas stations look more like roofed food courts. With your slippers on, you can go to the bathroom or buy something from the many food stands. I didn’t trust the meat in the “Vietnamese hotdogs” though.

Arriving to Sa Pa

Arriving in the mountains of Sa Pa is an amazing experience too. The hills are completely covered with rice fields. We are told that this time of the year (mid-September – mid-October) is the best time to visit, as the rice fields become yellow and the farmers are harvesting. The bus driver works his way through the serpentines until we finally reach Sa Pa. The mountain town is completely covered in clouds. As soon as we step of the bus, we are met by some kind of local Sherpas. They try to sell guided tours in the mountains. That’s when we understood that we are not the only tourists here.

L. Did you book a hostel or rented a room?

J: We found a place to stay via, Yen’s House. We arrived together with our good friends, Juste and Julius. They were traveling around the world and we matched our stay in Vietnam.

Yen is an amazing host, welcoming us with her puppies and a cup of Vietnamese coffee. Quickly we learn what’s worth a visit to the area and we’re happy to discover that Yen has some scooters that she can rent for a very good price. A scooter is by far the most popular way to get around in Vietnam. There are a lot of tourists who drive around the country on two wheels. But if you want to save time – and your ass -, it’s really a good idea to just rent a scooter at every location you travel to.

And that’s no different in Sa Pa. We rented two scooters and hit the road. If you think the Lithuanian roads are in bad shape, try Vietnam. But that’s part of it.

Honest tip: If you read this and you’re thinking to ride a scooter in Vietnam, please drive extra careful and always wear a helmet.

L. So how were the views on your way with a scooter?

M: In the beginning, we had to stop after every turn, because the views were simply breathtaking. I never thought that rice fields would be so impressive. We drove through random villages and waved to the locals. They probably see people like us here every day, but for all 4 of us, this definitely left an impression.

When we are having lunch we notice that in the distance people are working on the rice terraces. We decide to descent and try to meet them. My shoes didn’t like that idea, but it was totally worth it. We had the chance to meet the people working in the fields and saw how they harvest rice. They asked me to carry a bag of rice bags to their home. They laughed till tears when they saw me struggling.

When we arrived back at the homestay, Yen had prepared an amazing vegetarian dinner. We ate there every evening for the rest of our stay, it was that good.

L. What was the most spectacular thing you did in the North?

M: The whole reason why we traveled here, was to hike up the Fansipan mountain. As the highest in South-East Asia (3143m), this mountain attracts many tourists to the area.

We did some research beforehand, which told us that it’s a 2-day guided climb with an overnight stay in a cottage in the mountain. But since this is not the first mountain our friends have climbed on their world trip, they convinced us to hike without a guide and do it in one day. After reading some blogs, we decided to start very early.

L. How early?

M: By scooter, we drive from Sa Pa for about 15km in the dark. The road is very misty and dark, but it’s an amazing experience to drive a scooter at 5 am. We arrive at Thác Tình Yêu (Love Waterfall) and leave our scooters. The guards of the nature reserve are not yet at the post, so we sneak beyond the entrance. We are quickly surrounded by jungle noises and start our way up with the light of phones and a torchlight. When the sun rises, we grab the breakfast that Yen prepared for us. The sticky rice and peanuts form the perfect breakfast to start the day.

The trail starts fairly easily and is very beautiful. Indeed it seems that this is doable for an inexperienced mountain climber like me or my wife. We go at a steady pace, but take plenty of time for taking pictures. Before we know, we reach the camps where the tourists stay for the night when they take the guided tour. The facilities don’t look so great. And when a group returns from the summit, they tell us that rats had been stealing the food from their backpacks. We’re very happy that we are doing this by ourselves and we don’t need to stay on the mountain.

But after some time, altitude sickness starts kicking in for Justina and me. Who doesn’t know what altitude sickness does to a human, it basically makes you very light-headed, gives you a bouncing headache and makes you feel terrible. And I don’t know if it was Yen’s rice-nut balls for breakfast, but it made me go to the toilet too. And unfortunately, there are no toilets on the trail. My apologies for who climbed the trail after me.

Even though we know that the only way to make altitude sickness go away is to go down, we decide to keep going. It was a tough decision, choosing between spending the night with rats or keep going. But I’m very happy we decided to go on. Probably this was mentally and physically the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. But reaching that summit was an out-of-this-world experience that made all of this worth it.

Arriving at the summit of Fansipan makes you realize you’re in a communistic country. The top is covered with an enormous complex of temples and giant Buddha’s. A catchy tune sounds out of the plastic speakers hidden in the bushes praising the greatness of the mountain.

We notice that a cable car arrives here all the way from Sa Pa. It’s one of the longest cable car rides in the world. That’s why the mountaintop is a popular destination amongst the upper class in the country. A single ride on the cable car costs 700,000 Vietnamese Dong (30 US dollars), which is a lot of money here. Nevertheless, we are extremely happy and proud that we did this climb in one day. If you’re lucky and the clouds disappear, the views really are amazing.

Because we still don’t feel great, my wife and I decide to take the cable car down. Best. Decision. Ever. Our heads clear up as we go down, and we are treated with the most spectacular sights. It’s as if we fly down over the jungle and rice fields. The cable car was definitely worth every Dong.

L: Would you recommend just taking the cable car instead of the climb?

J: No. The climb was definitely an amazing experience as well. If you’re fit and ready for an adventure, this is definitely the best way to experience the mountain. Maybe I would advise to climb slower or even do it in 2 days, as that will give time to acclimatize and won’t give you altitude sickness. If I would have known that the cable car is the best way to go down, I would have taken it easier and maybe wouldn’t have gotten sick.

I would definitely recommend taking the cable car down, as it really offered some of the best views. Even if you’re not up for the climb, or you simply don’t have the time to do it, taking the cable-car up and down is also a really great option to do a must-visit in the region.

L: Any tips on how to prepare for this hike if someone would like to do it?

M: It definitely helps to climb in a small group. And it definitely helps if some group members have experience. As most part of the trail is safe, sometimes you really need to help each other to climb on ladders or motivate each other to keep going. Pack light and wear sturdy shoes. But most of all, enjoy the beauty of nature in the amazing part of the world. And don’t forget to pack your rice-nut balls 😉

L: I bet you gave yourself a well-deserved rest after this hike! Where did you go after Sa Pa?

In Sa Pa, we said goodbye to our friends and continued our honeymoon to Cat Ba. People call this the less touristic alternative to Halong Bay, the popular Vietnamese tourist destination. We learned from Lina and Tomas that we shouldn’t miss this. And they were right. From there we continued our trip further South.

Thank you, Justina and Maarten! Beautiful story, beautiful pictures. I’m telling you – Vietnam is a beautiful place!

All the pictures are made by Justina and Maarten. 

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Some of our Vietnamese stories if you need more information: transport in Vietnam / Hoi An / Cat Ba / Ho Chi Minh

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