As we were about to start our hike down the valley to the villages outside Sapa, Vietnam, our guide May told us to be careful and take our time during the hike down. She said, ‘The ladies here and I grew up here, so we are used to taking this path. We’re like mountain goats — we can jump around and go down the path pretty easily. A lot of the foreign visitors are not used to that, so be careful and take your time, we don’t want any accident to happen.’ After she said that, I looked down the path we’re about to take. It started with a muddy, narrow path, but quickly becoming more challenging as it started sloping down.
I looked at my fellow travelers. I don’t think any of us were expecting this, but we thought we’ve gone this far, and if these local ladies could take this path (even with basket full of handicrafts on their back), we surely should be able to follow them. We all wore hiking boots, compared to May who wore a pair of canvas shoes that looked like Converse shoes and some other local ladies wearing rubber boots. But quickly I realized that it’s not about the equipment that would help you go through this terrain, it’s more the experience of going through it, knowing where to step that’s safe. May gave Kristi a long stick that she said could be helpful as we hiked down. Dave helped his wife Anna as they followed May’s footsteps. I spent the next few minutes doing the same thing, keeping my eyes looking down and following exactly where May, Dave, and Anna went.
Looking back, I thought it was interesting to compare this path to the hiking trails that occasionally I went through at the Shenandoah National Park near where I live in the United States. At Shenandoah, even the so called ‘strenuous’ hiking trails are typically well maintained, with signage, and even in many places well-placed stepping stones or rails to help the hikers to go through the terrain. In Sapa, the path seemed to be one that probably started as an animal path, or one that someone discovered as a good route to go between places. No one really spent time to maintain the path. In the US, the trail was mostly for recreational use (well-off country like the United States would have funding to preserve lands as National Parks). In Sapa, this was a path that’s used by the locals on daily basis as they go from their village to the town. We as tourists were doing this trek for fun. The locals take this trek as part of their day-to-day life.
On the photo below you see the beginning of our hiking path. Notice the muddy path, the local girl in front of us with the basket on her back, and what looked like a steep drop in front of her.