Sapa O’Chau trekking and a hot tub time machine…

hottubYes, that’s right. A hot tub time machine. It’s definitely a time machine because when I was immersed in a frothy mixture of bubbles and hot steamed herbs in a tub in the corner of a smoky wooden house, I was also in a tiny village called Ta Phin in the hills of Sapa, Vietnam. The Red Dao people who live here are well known for their expertise in herbal medicine, and use plants from the land to treat different illnesses. In our case we were just a bit knackered but others say the baths have cured the common cold. Outside, chickens pecked in the dust, old women carried their hoes home after a day working in the rice paddies and no one… absolutely NO ONE was on Facebook.

See? Time machine.

When my friend Linda heard I was heading to Vietnam she was wonderful enough to write me a huuuuge list of things to do, but trekking in Sapa with the organization Sapa O’Chau was right at the top. It definitely made the overnight Sapaly train ride (and dealing with the French snorer) worthwhile. I mean, hot tubs aside, it’s not very often you get to trek through landscapes like this:


We met Peter – the Sheffield lad who helped this organization become what it is today – at the Sapa O’Chau Café in town, where we were to start our three-day, two-night trek. Here he is along with me, modeling the sign outside our second homestay in Ta Phin. I’m coming to that.


Peter’s staff are a chatty group of local guys and girls who’ve all studied at the Sapa O’Chau school to both learn English and prepare themselves for work in tourism. They made us coffee as we took quick showers and prepared a bag between us. Within the hour we were off into the hills with our guide Sho. Here she is washing her shoe after telling us to watch out for buffalo shit and then falling into a stream herself. Bless.

sho and the shoe

We also had a trainee guide with us – Asho. We all had a bit of a sing-song and story swap as we found ourselves surrounded with what has to be some of the most visually inspiring scenery I’ve ever seen. I took a little twirl with Sho’s sun umbrella and had a quick sit on this abandoned motorcycle – just to emphasize the backdrop for you here you understand… not to be a poser at all….


Asho sang every H’mong song he knew while we climbed over fences, dodged buffaloes and oncoming goat herds and bought indigo-dyed scarves from H’mong women. Most of them were the kind of enchanting, melodious numbers that put English-language ditties like ‘Who Let The Dogs Out’ to shame. I thought a lot about the differences in our worlds as we hiked past impressive ruins dating back to the French occupation in the early 1900s and I watched scenes of otherworldly awesomeness unfold before my eyes, like these sidewalk butcher-ettes here, for example:


You’d buy a lot more meat if your local sellers looked like this, right? And it would definitely make a weekend shop a bit more fun than popping to Tescos, although I’m sure the Food Standards Agency would have something to say about it.

Our first overnight stop was in the family home of a lady called Mai. To reach her house we had to walk through terraces over 100 years old, down to a village of the H’mong minority called Y Linh Ho and then on to Lao Chai. Most people in this village work on the land for a living. At Mai’s house we helped to cook spring rolls, got more than a bit tipsy on rice wine, listened to Asho sing some more and then went to bed in what can only be described as the den of my childhood dreams – a comfy mattress on the floor scattered in cushions and a big fluffy blanket all covered by a mosquito net embroidered with flowers. Here we are in her kitchen the next morning:


For brekky we had a traditional Vietnamese feast of pho ba (beef noodles) with steamed morning glory, bitter melon and rice, and then it was off for more trekking and even more insane views.

If you’re travelling to Vietnam and you only do one thing pleeeeeeease make sure it’s trekking with Sapa O’Chau. We were a bit sad and sniffy when it came to saying bye to Sho and Asho and Peter, but they’re doing amazing work here in Sapa and welcome volunteers to work in the school, too. All volunteers and trekkers get a turn in the time machine by the way – as if you weren’t enticed enough already.

You can see the rest of my photos from our time with Sapa O’Chau here.

O’Chau! (That means goodbye!) xx

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