Now a solo backpacker again, I spend a few days in Hanoi gathering my thoughts and, quite honestly, feeling a little sad and sorry for myself. I don’t socialize much, preferring to explore on my own. I debate whether I will go to Sapa or not.
A few days into it, one of my friends comes back from her trip up north. I am happy to see a familiar face, and I talk to her about how I am feeling. I feel sad to have said goodbye to everyone but I also feel as though the sadness is somehow an exaggeration.
I’m telling myself things like: “this is part of traveling,” “you signed up for this,” or a simple “get over it.” Charming, I know.
I tell her all of this.
“You’re allowed to feel sad,” she says. “Traveling is amazing but it’s also tough. It’s tough to meet people you care about and never get the chance to see those relationships through.”
She’s absolutely right. I decide to cut myself a little more slack.
I also decide to go to Sapa. I have heard it’s beautiful and I feel like actively traveling on my own will help get me out of my funk.
We say our goodbyes and I catch a train up north. It feels adventurous, independent and right.
I arrive at 5:30 in the morning and get a bus to the town of Sapa. It’s pissing down rain and it’s extremely misty. As I sit in the bus looking out at the weather, I suddenly feel the romance of this solo adventure.
Until I arrive, that is. It’s 8 am now. It is cold and I am wet. I need to kill some time (check in is at noon) but I soon find that there isn’t really anything to do. I also find that I am exhausted and a little bit cranky.
I stand in the rain for about 45 minutes, trying to get a taxi. I buy a pack of cigarettes out of sheer frustration – no I don’t condone it, but desperate times, desperate measures. When I finally get a taxi, the driver takes a big detour. He also grossly overcharges me.
Sapa is beginning to feel like a mistake.
I arrive at my homestay in Ta Van village and check into my private room. It’s my first private room on this trip; I’ve decided to splurge. I feel like I need the space to come back to myself.
It’s only once I am in my big, spacious, empty room that I realize that last descriptor is the one that takes over. Empty.
The room is beautiful and the homestay is cozy. But I have taken my feelings of emptiness and given them an empty space to live in. Being alone in this room makes it all feel glaringly larger.
It dawns on me that I misjudged what I needed. I don’t need space at all, what I need is distracting.
I thought it was time to leave the many people of Hanoi. Time to finally make it to Sapa. I came alone because I needed to. I came alone because I craved the solitude. Solitude is something I enjoy. It strikes me now, however, that I have brought a big old suitcase of loneliness with me. And loneliness aches. It crackles in your bones.
I spend the entire day inside; there is nothing else to do. We are all stuck, the rain has rendered trekking impossible for the day.
The next day I wake up wondering again why I came. It’s still raining but the good news is that the visibility has greatly improved. I look outside and am finally able to see the rice terraces.
This is what you came for. Go outside and enjoy it.
I begrudgingly head out for a trek. It’s going to be wet and I don’t have proper waterproof gear, but maybe being outside will be good for me.
We wear rain boots and clamber up hills. We cross streams and pass fields of buffalo. The mist clears and we are finally able to see the view. Rice terraces as far as the eyes can see.
We climb, up, down, up, down. We pass a waterfall, we pass through villages. The people I trek with are lovely, and we share friendly banter. We help each other to cross puddles and to avoid deeper mud.
It’s cold and wet, yet slowly but surely, the trekking has the desired effect.
Out here, up in these mountains, crossing these streams, the adventure has me feeling alive.
After a full day of trekking we return to the homestay and I catch a taxi back to Sapa so that I can return to Hanoi.
So what are my thoughts on Sapa? A few different things, really.
First and foremost, I think that whether you enjoy a place you visit has as much to do with you as it does the place. We travel in search of different things; we have different interests.
We also travel, however, as different versions of ourselves. I spent the first month and a half of my trip traveling in a state of absolute carefree joy. In Sapa, I am, very briefly, not that version of myself. I’m a less sunshine-y, happy-go-lucky, bouncing-off-the-walls version of myself. And that’s okay.
This is traveling, too. Traveling is meeting the most beautiful people, but it’s saying goodbye. Even if just for now, it’s saying goodbye to this part of your life together; goodbye to this momentary suspension in a free, adventurous existence.
I carried that with me to Sapa. And I felt, quite simply, sad.
This is why on this trip, Sapa wasn’t the place for me. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a wonderful place. That doesn’t take away from its beauty. That doesn’t mean I would advise you not to visit.
Sapa is stunningly beautiful, and I will be back for her. I will come back when the weather is better and I am able to enjoy it more fully. On this trip, I needed to listen to my own needs.
And so I headed back to Hanoi. Time to gather the courage for the next part of my trip. It’s a big one.