An 8-hour ride on a sleeper train from Hanoi brings you to Sapa, a small mountain town in northwest Vietnam. It's a nice place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a few days, but most people come here to trek into the countryside and visit the surrounding villages.
Women from the nearby villages set up little stalls all over town to sell their wares, mostly ornate embroidery and produce from local farms. At night you can still see them embroidering with head torches on. They are friendly, but fierce – if you're not interested in buying anything, it's best to be firm about this straight away.
To get a real glimpse of life in the local communities, you need to trek to the villages. We did two short treks while in Sapa, the first was to Lao Chai, where we walked through the rice terraces and visited the village school.
On our second day in Sapa, we went on a trek with a local Hmong woman, Ker, who took us to her home for lunch. We started the day at the market buying food for lunch (and finding out how much it all cost made us fully appreciate how much we had been overcharged at Dalat market), before walking to her village.
Visibility wasn't ideal, actually at the beginning we could hardly see the road in front of us, but chatting with Ker made up for it. Her self-taught English is excellent and we were able to chat with her about life in Sapa.
At Ker's house, she prepared a delicious lunch over an open fire. More family members arrived and we settled down to what would turn out to be a two-hour feast.
Thank you Ker and family, this was our favourite experience in Vietnam!
Where to stay: we loved the Hmong Sapa Hotel with its spacious rooms, mountain views and great restaurant. If you would like to go on a trek with Ker, email her a couple of weeks before you get to Sapa.