Hiking to Lao Chai and Tavan Villages

On our first day in Sapa, Vietnam, we signed up to do a guided hiking/trekking to a couple of nearby villages. The trip was arranged through our hotel, the Sapa Rooms Hotel. Sapa Rooms employed local guides to lead trekking trips to visit local villages and landmarks. The guides were young ladies from the minority hill tribes nearby.

After settling in our hotel room and getting a short rest in the morning, we met our trekking group at the lobby of the hotel. The guide was a young lady in her early 20s named May. She spoke English very fluently, very outgoing and quickly established good connection with our group. Other than Kristi and me, the only other members of our trekking group that morning were a couple from Melbourne, Australia, named Dave and Anna.

We introduced ourselves as we left Sapa Rooms to start our trek. Dave said that he and Anna had been in Sapa since the day before, and they had done the hike to different villages the day before on their own. They said the weather on the previous day was not great; it was very foggy and misty and they couldn’t see much. They were hoping to have better luck with the weather on our trek, as it looked like it’s a bit better. Still cloudy, but at least not foggy.

As we walked through the Sapa town center to get to the trek outside the town, several H’mong ladies with basket filled with handicrafts came to approach our group and walked with us. One of the ladies said “Hi, how are you? Where are you from?” to Anna, and Anna said, “Oh, no. I wouldn’t fall for that again…” She smiled at the H’mong lady while shaking her head and continued walking, and explained to Kristi and me that some of the local Hmong ladies would approach a foreigner and start a conversation, with the goal to eventually convince the foreigner to purchase something from them. And apparently these ladies were quite persistent, and they would follow you and find you as you walk in the town of Sapa (it was a pretty small town after all) to keep asking about purchasing the handicraft from them. While it could get annoying and perhaps was borderline to stalking, these local ladies were really only trying to make ends meet by selling their handicrafts to the visitors, they didn’t mean any harm. So that’s why Anna was saying she just tried to ignore them after saying no, and hope they got the message and leave us alone.

The photo below was taken as we started our trek through Sapa town center. You could see our guide May talking with Dave as we walked through the busy main street of Sapa.

Trekking through Sapa

Hiking in Sapa

When you visit the mountain resort town of Sapa, Vietnam, one of the activities you can do is hiking. For the serious hikers, you can hike the trail to the peak of Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina region (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). For most people, the more popular hike is to visit the nearby villages where the local tribes live. Typically the hike is anywhere between 3 to 15 km in distance, and in most cases you can do the hike as a half to full day activity.

In planning to do the hike, you can also decide whether you want to go by yourself, or hire a guide. Going by yourself is obviously cheaper, and you can go at your own pace, but you need to make sure you have a good map or know the route, and you are adventurous and willing to perhaps interact with the locals who you encounter during the hike. Otherwise, it may end up with a long day (because you get lost) or you won’t learn or appreciate the culture as much as you only see the scenery without talking to the people who live there.

A more popular option is to join a tour group led by a local guide. These are either offered by tour company/outfitters if you come to Sapa as part of such tour, or you can inquire some of the hotels in town who may have arrangements with local guides who can take guests on half day or full day hiking tour to the villages. In some cases, the route taken was chosen to be less strenuous for the guests (e.g. they would go downhill to the valley, and then the guests would be picked up by minivan to go back on the uphill part), and it would include a lunch break at the village in the middle.

During our visit to Sapa, we spent our first day there on a guided hike arranged by our hotel, Sapa Rooms. They hired local girls who are fluent in English to guide the tour groups. In our case, it ended up to be only four people, so it was still feeling like a private tour. That tour took pretty much a whole day, since it was at a leisurely pace and included lunch break in the middle. On the second day, we ended up going to another village on our own. So we experienced both options for hiking to the villages.

The photo below was taken during our first hike. This was around an area where we went down to the valley, and then had to go up a little bit on a narrow, muddy path. You can see here the line of hikers waiting to climb up.

Hiking in Sapa

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng

Phnom Bakheng is a temple in the Angkor Archaeological Park near Siem Reap, Cambodia. The temple is located on top of a hill, thus from the temple one can get a nice panoramic view of the surroundings, including Angkor Wat not far away from there. This temple is one of the oldest in the area, being built in late 9th to early 10th century. Today it is becoming a popular place to go especially around sunset time. Given its age and the high volume of visitors, it is among the most threatened monuments in Angkor.

We went to visit Phnom Bakheng right after finishing our tour in Angkor Wat. It was a pretty short distance to go from Angkor Wat to the base of the hill where Phnom Bakheng was located. From there, we joined hundreds of other visitors hiking up the hill (about a mile or so) towards the temple. When we get to the base of the temple, our tour guide Vanna told us that he would wait there while Kristi and I climb up to the temple. He’s been there many times, and there were so many people going up there that he said it’s better for him to just wait there while we go up and enjoy the panoramic view.

The steps to climb up to the temple were quite steep; we had to go up very very carefully. Once we got up there, we saw so many people already waiting for the sun to go down. We followed suit and just waited, and took photos around the sunset time just like everyone else. I lost my directional bearing while up there and couldn’t really locate where Angkor Wat was, as I was hoping to be able to see Angkor Wat complex from higher elevation. Only later on after I got back to my hotel and looked at the area map that I realized most people were so focusing on the sunset in the west, that not many people were really looking at Angkor Wat that was located southeast of Phnom Bakheng.

After the sunset was done, we continued with a careful stepping down to the base of the temple. Again, it was quite steep, and with many people trying to go down around the same time (before it gets too dark), it was quite an interesting experience. I understood then why Vanna didn’t want to go up there…

The photo below was taken around sunset time when everyone was enjoying the view of a beautiful sky and the sun setting in the distance. I decided to take the photo to include the people around me taking photos. It was impossible to get just the photo of the temple and the sunset without the crowd; having them as part of the photo actually gave it a ‘sense of place’ that helps tell the story about the experience up there with other folks at sunset time.

Sunset at Phnom Bakheng

South River Falls Trail

Today I went hiking at the Shenandoah National Park with some friends. We went on the South River Falls Trail, a trail close to the southern end of the Central District of the park. The trail went downhill for about 2.3 mi towards the South River Falls, the third tallest waterfall in the park at 83 feet. The fall foliage was still pretty nice on the trail, though on higher grounds, the leaves had almost completely fallen. Coming back we decided to follow the fire road all the way to the Skyline Drive. It’s roughly similar distance compared to going back on the original trail, but it was a little easier uphill hike. The photo below was taken at the stream close to the base of the waterfall.

South River Falls Trail

Rose River Trail

Another nice hike to do during the fall time at the Shenandoah National Park is the Rose River Trail. I went there last year also in October, a week after my hike to the Hawksbill Summit. Since the elevation for this trail is lower than Hawksbill Summit, the fall foliage was still closer to the peak along this trail. The beginning part of the trail was a walk through the woods, then followed with a walk along a river for quite some time, There were many small waterfalls to see along the way. The photo below was taken around the beginning of the hike. This was my first attempt at HDR photography — couldn’t resist given the wonderful colors of the foliage and the nice morning lighting.

Rose River Trail

Hawksbill Summit

One of my favorite places to visit in the area this time of the year is the Shenandoah National Park. It’s only about an hour drive away from where I live, so it’s a perfect destination for a last minute weekend activity. I often go there for a day hike or even just for a relaxing drive to enjoy the scenery. On a Saturday morning in October 2010, I went for a hike to the Hawksbill Summit. The trail was not really long (around 3 miles round trip from the parking lot), but one part of it was quite a steep uphill climb, so it was a good workout. The view from the summit was quite nice — it is the highest point within the park. Part of the trail overlaps with the Appalachian Trail, so you get to experience a little bit what it’s like to hike the famous trail (and perhaps come across hikers who are in the middle of doing the long journey). The photo below was taken at a lookout near the summit, using my then newly-acquired Tokina 11-16 mm f/2.8 ultra-wide angle lens. The lens helped took in more of the scenery and provided the dramatic view of the clouds above.

Hawksbill Summit Trail