It is an absolutely beautiful place, with views of mountains, waterfalls, steep terraced rice paddies dropping into valleys, and rivers cutting through the landscape. So it's beautiful, when you can see all that.
In January and February, the cloud level is so low that the whole town is inundated with freezing mist, often for days on end. I knew the weather wasn't going to be good, but I had heard such good things, and don't intend to ever visit Vietnam again, so I decided to just go for it.
And it was bloody freezing. 3C and cloud so thick that for the first day I was there the furthest I could see in front of me was 10 metres. It was the worst visibility I've ever experienced, and the cold was a bit of a shock to the system. I wondered why I was doing this to myself, when I'm going home to the UK's winter in a week.
But despite the weather, I did enjoy my time in Sapa. I took the night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, which took 8.5 hours and cost US$29 for the bottom bunk of a six-person compartment (hard-sleeper). I'd done a hard-sleeper in China and it was perfectly comfortable, but being on the middle bunk then I knew I wanted to be on the bottom. The Vietnamese train wasn't as comfortable as the Chinese, but despite the centimetre thick mattress I slept very well.
I'd arranged to be picked up by my hostel ($3) so a minivan met me at Lao Cai station and we drive the 45 minutes up to Sapa. It's a very winding road, but the views are incredible. Just as we approached Sapa itself, that's when the clouds closed in and the view was lost.
I had three full days in Sapa, so on the first day I just wandered around the town and marvelled and how wet my clothes were getting just from walking around. I was really glad I still had my scarf and gloves from New Zealand, because otherwise I'd have been buying a new wardrobe for the three days.
I met a British girl by an ATM, as you do, and we explored the town together. It's interesting crossing roads when you can only see a few metres in any direction. But thankfully Sapa is relatively quiet, bar the constant squawking of the old minority women who sell their wares and offer you homestays with their families. We ended up in Le Gecko, and I treated myself to some mulled wine, one of my winter favourites back home. The weather called for it.
Once she left to get her bus I met up with an American guy I met in Hoi An and we went for dinner and a drink (I may have had another mulled wine) before I went back to rest up for my day trek the following day.
The trek was really cool, but extremely muddy. A couple of our group slipped over, and spent the rest of the day a beautiful shade of clay brown. For the first half of the trek, as we made our way down the mountain, we were helped along by a group of Black Hmong women (one of the local tribes), who held our hands when it was slippy and told us where to walk. I was suspicious of this, because nobody does anything for free in Vietnam, and sure enough when we reached their village for lunch they pulled out their handicrafts and bracelets, and pestered us to buy. I point blank refused because I didn't want anything they were selling and because I felt like I was being emotionally blackmailed into buying something. It was hideously awkward, but the women had made it awkward. We didn't ask for their help. After a good 25 minutes of hassling me they finally gave up. It's often easier just to buy something to make them go away, but I was so fed up of Vietnam and its people by this point I stuck to my guns. I felt like a douche, I'm not going to lie, but I stuck to my principles.
The good thing about the trek is that we went down below the clouds so we could actually see our surroundings. Although it was still misty, the rice fields cut into the mountainsides were a stunning sight. I do recommend a trip up to Sapa for that, even if the weather is awful.
After the trek I met two Dutch women I'd met on my Halong Bay cruise, and afterwards went out for dinner (and mulled wine, obviously) with some of the guys from my hostel in Hoi An, plus someone I'd met in Sapa. That afternoon the clouds lifted for about ten minutes and I was actually able to see how nice Sapa is as a town, and some of the mountains in the distance. It must be stunning to be there in summer.
I spent my last day there chilling in cafés, reading and staring out at the swirling mist. Then it was time to get the minibus to Lao Cai, have dinner, and watch Chicken Run on my iPod on the sleeper train back to Hanoi. All told, Sapa ain't half bad, even in winter.