A Tale of Two Treks

Posted by - October 29, 2011 | Category: Asia, Escapes, Thailand, Vietnam

“Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” – Alexander Pope

You’ve Lost that Frontier Feeling

Perhaps the legions of shops offering fake North Face jackets should have been a sign. A harbinger of what was to come. Several of the stores appeared to cater to folks on luxury family ski packages instead of remote hill tribe treks. They even had ski pants. Just no ski hills. You see, this is Sapa, in Northern Vietnam.


Fake-North-Face-Sapa-Vietnam_thumb.jpgSapa town proper is the former French military outpost in the rugged Hoan Lien mountains. The surrounding countryside is achingly beautiful. Contoured rice paddy fields hug the hills, local tribes toil from dawn to dusk, and mystical clouds envelope them all.

It’s a living, breathing postcard.

Rice paddy fields outside of Sapa Vetnam

It’s perfect.

A little too perfect. In some respects, Sapa is a victim of its own beauty.

Rice paddy hills of Sapa Vietnam

A few months back, I went on a hill tribe trek in northern Thailand.

hill tribe trek in northern Thailand
There were no crowds, no vendors, and only the hint of a trail. Thing is, as wonderful as the experience was, there also wasn’t that much to see. Bamboo forests and mud. Gallons of it. And this was the only gift shop, sans gifts of course. Unless your idea of a souvenir involves dried noodles or tubes of toothpaste. In which case, you’d be like a kid in a Colgate store.

Shop on Hill tribe trek, Northern Thailand

It wasn’t breathtaking, but it was raw.

Even if hordes had traipsed through there before (and I’m sure they have), the lack of travellers, trails and roadside trinkets gave it that frontier feel. It was perfect wilderness. Basic mattress on the floor. Soup made from bamboo our guide had cut that day. Hole-in-the-ground toilet. And leeches. Just as advertised.

The hill tribe trek in Sapa was on a different scale entirely. If Northern Thailand was a raft, then Sapa was the Queen Mary.

Rice paddy fields in Sapa

You see, the problem with having so much to see, is that so many people want to see it.


And in the rush to accommodate western dollars since the tourism floodgate opened in 1990, the Vietnamese have done a bang-up job in adopting to the needs of the ‘everytraveller’. That accommodating includes easy-to-hike trails, convenience stores, and handicrafts that are all too handy.

There is no gift shop along the trail here – the trail is the gift shop.

Vietnamese hill tribe women outside handicraft store, Sapa, Vietnam

Traditional crafts for sale, Sapa Vietnam

Sapa Handicraft Club sign, Vietnam

Wooden statues of Vietnamese women

Tavan, Vietnam shop sign

Sapa Homestay sign

Maybe my expectations were set high after the rustic experience of the hill trek in Thailand. Maybe I should have searched for a more remote area.  Who knows?

During the Sapa trek our group of 5 stopped for lunch at one of the traditional homestays. Nature, as it so often does, soon called. I was prepared for the traditional squat setup, but was greeted instead with a spic and span American Standard — nicer than the toilet at my hotel. And what’s worse — they had T.P.

I’ve never been so disappointed in seeing toilet paper.

Maybe Alexander Pope had the right idea after all. Expect less, and you’ll always be fulfilled.

Have you had travel experiences that failed to meet your expectations?

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39 comments - add one
  1. LOL I don’t think I would ever consider toilet paper disappointing, although I do prefer offbeat tracks. Very touristy places probably are more breathtaking, therefore more touristy, but lesser known trails do retain more authenticity. At least for those travelers who know how to appreciate it.

    1. I think we’re all looking for that “authentic” off the beaten track experience, but it’s increasingly harder to pinpoint with such easy access to so many of the world’s sites.

  2. Lesson learned: next time you book a tour, just specify that you can’t go within 10 feet of a freeze drink.

    The disgusting availability of TP aside, Sapa seems like a beauty of a place!

  3. Interesting post with a lot to think about. I often wonder if the next generation will have much nature at all. I can’t think about it! Both trips sound fun though… You are living the dream, but deeply. Bravo!

  4. Wow, the hills of Sapa are beautiful! Interesting contrast of places. The less authentic, more-geared-to-Westerners aspects of Sapa are certainly understandable after all the Vietnamese have been through. And I actually would have appreciated the nice bathrooms :)

  5. Funny. When we were traveling in China, every morning Nancy would stuff a bunch of toilet paper inside her bra. Most of the time there was none in the washrooms, so it just became a habit like brushing our teeth to take it along.

    Better to be safe then sorry.

    Nancy & Shawn

  6. I actually don’t mind a trek with some conveniences thrown in, especially if you have to pay any kind of “fee” to access it: maintained trail, compost toilets, etc. But some more known trails do suffer from their own fame, e.g.: Coca cola trail up Kili, Inca Trail, etc.

  7. “…the trail is the gift shop.”

    Oh dear. ;( Given that I’m (finally!) sitting here in Hanoi poised to tackle Sapa myself in a few days (but first 2nts. Ha Long of course)…

    Needless to say your mots here today are both timely and dismaying.

    I too have done a Thailand trek (many moons ago, and yes, it was utterly pristine), but I’m not setting my expectations too very high for Sapa. Nonetheless, I intend to make the very best of what it is now. Stay tuned…

    1. Don’t get me wrong, Sapa is utterly beautiful — just a little more developed than I had expected. You will love the sights though.

      Enjoy Halong Bay and the looooong train ride to Sapa. :)

  8. A year ago on my first South-East Asian adventure I chose to skip Sapa for reasons similar to your points made here. Instead I chose to go trekking in Muang Sing, Laos – similar to your Thai trekking experience. Stood on the border of Laos, Myanmar and China, and experienced REAL hilltribes (no commercial sugar-coating.) Great insight!

  9. A dilemma the world over – you can’t blame people for exploiting an opportunity but if it isn’t done sustainably you end up with the Costa del Sol

  10. Great post! I was a bit underwhelmed by Prague and preferred Krakow. Of course, I’m not a fan of huge cities anyway, so it almost makes sense.

    Anyway, both of the trips you describe in your post sound good to me for different reasons. Except the part re: leeches. As for the spic/span toilet scenario, I think I sort of understand your disappointment. Too developed can be less appealing.

  11. I understand wanting the experience to be authentic, but seriously you have to be the only person wishing for no toilet paper. Give me a mix of authentic with a dash of western.

  12. It\’s great experience local culture and visit places unspoilt and beautiful like Sapa, but when nature calls I do appreciate American Standard and toilet paper.