I did not get the best first impression of Vietnam. Perhaps I was disappointed because of how much fellow travelers I met in Laos and Thailand hyped it up, setting my expectations too high after I heard stories of the drool-worthy food and breathtaking scenery throughout the country. Regardless, I didn’t have the best start to my Vietnam trip.
Getting into Vietnam itself was a bit of a hassle. I waited for an hour and a half before the first checkpoint opened and at the border and then was told to walk across the border while the locals got to ride the bus. I missed a stamp and had to run back to a checkpoint and sprint back to the bus to avoid it leaving without me. I had no idea if the men driving the bus could even understand English but I had all the faith that they would just leave without me.
In Hanoi I was scammed in a taxi twice. On the same day. One driver yelled at me in Vietnamese asking for what I knew was way too much so when I paid a third of what he asked (still more than I should have paid) he threw my bag into the middle of the street. The second taxi driver who asked for too much I threw what he should have been owed and ran out of the car to my hostel.
But my finest story from Vietnam, the story I like to tell everyone I get the chance to happened while I was trekking in Sapa.
After just a day and a half in Hanoi myself, my friend whom I was traveling with and our new found friend from our hostel booked ourselves on a two-day trek to tour Sapa. Sapa, as I was told by just about every person who I’d met that has been to Vietnam, is the most beautiful place in Vietnam.
“You need to go,” and “You won’t regret it,” were phrases I heard only too often when people gave me their best itineraries for Vietnam.
So I went.
There was a typhoon hitting Vietnam at the time. Hanoi’s skinny alleyways were becoming filled with water within hours. So much so that we walked to dinner ankle-deep the night we left for Sapa. But the weather was worse in Halong Bay and the boats were getting docked, forcing tourists in Hanoi with tours planned to Halong Bay to sit and wait out the weather.
But instead of sitting in Hanoi for days they booked themselves on tours to Sapa, and so myself and my friends jumped on a night bus packed with other backpackers hoping to wait out the storm.
Only that was not the case at all.
When we got to Sapa it was cloudy but still beautiful driving through the streets that reminded me a ski town in Europe. It was peaceful and quite, despite the amount of tourists that come in and out of the area.
Tour buses soon filled the hotel where we had our breakfast at 6AM, where we waited until we were called for our Sapa trekking to start. The still atmosphere soon changed to excitement as it started to drizzle outside. People began pacing, running to get ponchos and lining up for the bathroom because who knew where the next toilet would be.
Locals filled the stairs in the hotel lobby, dressed in their colourful traditional attire with big hoop earrings and silver hair accessories. On their backs they carried small barrels that were sealed with a garbage bag over them. Their feet were dressed in tall rain boots, an interesting choice I thought considering we were going trekking.
We were put in our groups and led outside where we stood in the now pouring rain. Within minutes my not-so-practical mesh Nike’s were soaked through as the street we were standing on had turned into a shallow river running downhill.
As we started to walk the locals paired up with each of us foreigners, holding umbrellas over our heads and attempting to talk to us in the minimal English that they could speak. They were sweet, gentle and soon to be an extreme help to us.
After about 10 minutes on the road we dipped into the tall grass to walk on a tiny muddy trail in single file. Each local wedged themselves between us to make sure no one was on their own. Only about 100 metres into the grassy area and there was a sudden scream. I looked up instantly to watch a girl two people in front of me slip, land on her butt and then slide down the small drop.
We all paused, waiting for her reaction. She was fine, covered in mud, but okay to keep going. I passed the same spot where she fell cautiously, my trusty helper holding my hand just in case but I made it across successfully. Only to slip and land on my ass a few steps later.
My Nike’s were a poor choice but they were the only shoes I had to trek in. They were virtually gripless and so I began slipping and falling for the next hour of the trek continuously. My helper led me across the grass knowing it wasn’t as slippery as the mud, holding my hand the entire time as I nervously took each step. She even went so far as to dig her boot in the mud so that when I made a step I would slide and just hit her foot.
It didn’t help that the entire trek was downhill. Trekking Sapa was hard.
The rain never let up. It continued to pour making the trail worse with each passing minute. I watched people around me fall right, left and centre as I too fell numerous times.
At this point I was far behind my group with only one other member, the girl who had the first fall, just in front of me. We had both had enough. I was ready to turn back, it all seemed too dangerous for my liking. I could peer over the edge that was only too close to me to see the significant fall down to the next rice terrace.
Trekking, I realized, was not my thing.
An hour into the trek I had my most magnificent fall yet. Going down a particularly tricky section of the path that was closer to the edge than usual I felt my feet slip out from underneath me and I landed hard, pulling down my helper with me as we were still holding hands.
Did I mention that she was 50 years old? Yet she managed to recover from the fall quicker than I did.
I sat on my butt, feeling the tears start to build and a throbbing pain in my ankle. My helper held her hand out and tried to pull me up but I pushed her away asking her to give me a minute.
The other girl in my group who was close by saw me and offered to go back with me but her helper urged her on.
I sat and watched as other groups passed, trying to hold back tears so I didn’t look such a mess.
Once everyone had passed I attempted to put weight on my ankle. Ouch. It wasn’t broken but it was definitely sprained. There was no way I was trekking any further. My helper didn’t understand how hurt I was but our group leader did (who spoke better English) and offered for me to take the easy route to the lunch spot. Yes please!
My helper then took off her boots and offered them to me since they had more grip. I must have thanked for over 20 times.
She led me out a shorter way than we came in (why didn’t we take this way coming in?) pulling me forward as I continued to wince in pain when my ankle moved the wrong way. But I got out, we switched our shoes back and I happily hobbled along the paved road.
I walked 10km with my helper walking faster in front of me. It turned out to be great because I got the best views of the group from the top of the valley.
The paved road soon turned into gravel and having stepped on a large rock, it rolled and I twisted my ankle again. This time I sat where I fell, in a small stream and cried both from the pain and from suddenly wanting to have my mom around.
I hated Vietnam, I was over this Sapa hiking shit, and I just wanted a warm drink and a bed. I was done with hiking in Sapa.
But my helper got me up and walked beside me, comforting me like any mom would. She even collected pieces from plants and made a little present for me which made me smile.
I made it to the lunch spot, finally. But once there I was lost. No one could tell me where the rest of my group was. I had no idea if they had eaten already and left or if they were behind me. I had walked the long way and thought I would have taken much longer with my limping. All I was told was to wait.
So as I waited my helper whipped out her bin and began pulling out purses, bracelets and more. Silly me I thought, of course the bins weren’t holding food but things that they could sell us. It hurt a bit knowing that she only helped me so I would buy something. I was hoping that they would have received a fee from the $45USD I paid for the tour.
The pieces she held out in front of me were beautiful, decorated in the same colours and patterns as their traditional clothing. But when she started quoting me prices I was taken aback. Not expensive compared to things back home but definitely expensive for southeast Aisa standards.
I kept telling her no and that I would buy something later. I really just wanted to relax and be left alone for a minute after my long and painful journey. She scoffed off, unimpressed that I didn’t buy something instantly. But that didn’t stop her from coming back every few minutes.
Eventually I bought a bracelet from her after having got down the price a little bit and now I wear it every day, reminding me of Sapa’s events.
My group finally arrived with my new found friend limping in last as she too ended up spraining her ankle.
At the homestay that night we enjoyed our dinner with rice wine and slept soundly after the eventful day only to wake up and be told that the next day of trekking was canceled.
Something I didn’t know about Sapa was that when it rains landslides always happen. So knowing full well with the amount of rain we were getting from the typhoon (we were now in the middle of the typhoon) that there would be landslides they still led us all (about 50+ people) on our treks.
We needed to be evacuated from the area as landslides started happening in the night. We were told the first step was to walk about 15 minutes to where taxis would be waiting for us. Only we found out that the taxis couldn’t get into the Sapa valley because landslides were blocking the road.
This continued on for ages, us being told that we only needed to walk so much futher and then the distance changing. Myself and my friend were slow, very slow with our sprained ankles so our leader phoned in some motorbike taxis.
Then commenced the most terrifying motorbike ride of my life. Though I was so scared you wouldn’t be able to tell because I laughed the entire way while holding onto the Vietnamese man driving me for dear life. I’m one of those people that laughs at inappropriate times to deal with stress or nerves.
We weaved in and around fallen debris from the land above us. And I could feel the water from where landslides had fallen hit the tires and push the motorbike closer to the edge.
We passed by everyone in our group and got dropped off a small hut on the side of the road and were told to wait.
One local with two foreigners walked passed, stopping only to ask us, “Are you not afraid of the land collapsing under you?” We weren’t until that moment as we looked towards the edge. But there was nowhere safe to sit.
A few minutes later another local walked by. Not saying a word she walked to the edge, peered over and then continued walking. My friend and I laughed nervously not having any idea what to do.
Eventually, a white van sped past us only for it to stop and then reverse right in front of us. Our tour guide jumped out of the van and quickly waved us in where the rest of our group was packed in. They told us they were yelling at the driver to stop when one of them spotted us.
It was good to know that we almost didn’t get picked up.
Back at the hotel we waited for our car to take us to our bus where we would spend the night back to Hanoi.
Three and a half days in Vietnam and I couldn’t understand what people were raving about. Sure, not everyone gets stuck in a typhoon but the whole experience left a bad taste about Vietnam in my mouth. My safety had been risked, though not uncommon in Asia, it was the closest I’ve even been to being harmed.
When we left Sapa we learned that two weeks before five tourists went missing and five died when they were caught in a landslide, evacuating the valley just as we had done earlier that day. The day that we got out a local had died from being swept up in a landslide.
It’s the most unsafe I’ve ever felt while traveling, but something I’m still glad I got to experience. I know I’ll be back in Sapa again one day, but next time without the rain.
As for Vietnam…the country eventually grew on me and I now encourage everyone I meet to experience Vietnam travel.