In all my travels I am lucky enough to visit some of the world’s most beautiful destinations. Occasionally, a place will stand out to me. Occasionally, a place will amaze me in such a way that rekindles me with my love for the natural beauty of this world. Sapa, Vietnam is one of those places.
Sapa is situated in the northern part of Vietnam. Famous for its picturesque hills, endless mountain ranges and some of the most iconic agricultural fields in the world, it is a place that is home to eight different ethnic Vietnamese communities. The Hmong and Dao ethnicities are the dominant peoples of the Lao Cai region and many women from these tribes have assimilated into the touristic town that Sapa has become. I visited Sapa in June wanting to get a vision of the lives of Vietnamese ethnic minorities and participate in a homestay that would allow me to delve completely into their unique culture and traditions. Here is my story.
The bus pulled into the main Sapa bus station early afternoon. Outside the window I could see groups of traditionally dressed Hmong women, their costumes dark navy blue with conspicuous highlights of reds, yellows and greens on the arms and legs. The women ran up to the bus as it came to a halt. Before we even had a chance to get off the bus we had women’s voices coming from every direction. “Where are you from?” “Do you have a hotel?” “Do you want to buy something?” It was overwhelming to say the least, and a little off-putting after a 6 hour bus ride but we were warned that the women in Sapa can be a little opportunistic so we were prepared.
You can’t blame them really, given that tourism has opened up a huge opportunity for these ethnic groups who still live in poorer conditions than the rest of the country. As tourism increased so did opportunities to make money. However, it seems that much of the transformation of Sapa town profited those who were already profiting and didn’t do anything to combat wealth disparity in the region. And so, the women of the hill tribes took matters into their own hands and jumped on to their own opportunities to make money, which included hounding tourists for a sale or two and opening up their homes to visitors.
Four determined Hmong women followed us down the street advertising their homestay and trekking options. In any other circumstance I might have been too overwhelmed to even consider the option, however this case was a little different. Having read up on the homestay offers in Sapa I found out that many companies exploit the locals, charging costly prices and keeping 80% of the profits. I was advised that the most ethical way to book a homestay in Sapa was to book with a local. So my inhibitions were quickly replaced with empathy and I considered one of the lady’s offers, a two-day trek with one night in a homestay at the presented price of $30 USD per person. I wasn’t going to bargain. That price was more than fair and certainly in my budget range so the next morning we met Vu in our hotel lobby at 9am sharp.
I had no idea what experiences the trek would bring. It was one of those moments where you put complete faith in someone else and hope for the best. Vu was accompanied by her sister Shosho and friend Jo. We were actually quite lucky because most of the treks we saw were people with 1 guide, and we had 3!
We walked through Sapa town and up into the hills, past the busy markets full of women selling all their fresh fruits; peaches, plums, papaya, melons, all the good stuff. Sapa is the kingdom of the fruit with its perfect climate and geographical location, and luckily for us it was stone fruit season. Out the corner of my eye I saw a woman selling peaches. I hadn’t had a peach since the summer before I left Australia so I rushed over to buy some for our journey ahead, Vu kindly accompanying me so that I wasn’t charged the ‘tourist’ price. One bite in and my taste buds were having a party, the juiciness and sweetness filling me with excitement for the next 5 minutes.
Out of the city and up the side of one of Sapa’s many hills we could already get a glimpse of what the scenery would be like, nothing short of breathtaking. As the buildings got smaller and the greenery started to take over we walked on the incline, over hills, through luscious plantations including a hemp plantation. And no, it’s not for smoking, but rather making some of the carefully embroidered materials that many of the women were wearing. Hemp clothing is very popular here in Sapa due to its high quality and sustainability.
After our steady incline we stopped at one of the villages for lunch. Originally we were going to stop at a restaurant overlooking the hills but on that particular day it was closed so, instead, Vu invited us into her elder sisters home and we enjoyed a home cooked meal with some of Vu’s extended family. The house was a traditional Hmong home, a basic wooden construction on a concrete slab with low ceilings and only two rooms, one for sleeping and one for cooking and bathing. The toilet was located outside, near to the chicken coop, pigpen and vegetable garden. The stove was a simple coal pit used for cooking meals on the fire and a large wok used for boiling water. It was a simple set up yet enough to cook a delicious feast of pork with fried rice and vegetables for a group of six.
The Hmong people, as well as many other ethic Vietnamese groups live self sustainably. Growing their own foods, raising their own animals and fetching their own water. It is a life that resembles centuries ago for us who live modern western civilisation. It’s a life of simplicity.
After lunch we continued our trek through more of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, past images that took you back to a time before modernisation. Buffalo’s toddled along the sides of the roads, traditionally dressed women carried vegetable in hand woven baskets on their backs, farmers worked in the farms with their distinctive Vietnamese hats and hand made tools. We had to stop every few hundred metres just to take in all the scenery and capture it on film. I was certainly not regretting my decision to put my faith in Vu and her friends.
After a long day of walking we arrived at Vu’s home in the early evening. It was similar structure to her sisters, with simple character and a warm, homely feel. We met her husband and children and spent time helping to prepare meals. We sat around the fire pit learning to make spring rolls, carefully placing the ingredients in and wrapping them in rice paper. We would have made over two dozen spring rolls using simple ingredients like cabbage, cucumber and carrot. Vu and her sister prepared the meat and vegetables for our stir-fry. Using only the simplest of ingredients they were able to create such hearty meals for all of us and, that night, we sat around the small wooden table sharing stories and learning about each other’s cultures. Vu’s husband even brought out a little rice wine for the occasion and taught us the equivalent of cheers in Vietnamese. “Mot, Hai, Baa, Zoorr!” (1, 2, 3, cheers!)
Lights were out early that night after a long day of trekking and the traditional sleeping patterns of the Hmong people. They are early risers that tend to wake up at dawn and sleep at a reasonable hour. It didn’t matter to us though; we slept 11 hours that night in our comfortable bed on the first floor of a traditional Hmong home. We couldn’t have asked for a more authentic experience, and knowing our money was going straight to Vu and her family was an added bonus for us.
The next morning we woke to the smell of pancakes. Could it be that here in a remote village of Sapa I would be presented with banana pancakes? Apparently so! It was our energy for the trek ahead, which thankfully was more of a decline than the day before. We said goodbye to Vu’s family and walked further south, past more villages including one of the Dao people, another ethnic Vietnamese tribe. Unlike the navy colours that embody the dress of the Hmong people, the Dao people wear a distinctive red turban and the women shave their eyebrows to represent marriage. While the two tribes live in the same region, they are rather different and even speak different languages.
The Dao village would be the last stop of our 2-day adventure. We had lunch at a local restaurant and waited as Vu’s husband and brother in-law kindly offered to drive us the 20km back to Sapa city where we would say our goodbyes. I thanked Vu for her hospitality and she rewarded me with some small Hmong gifts including a silver bracelet and hand woven bag. It was more generosity than I could have asked for. She had already opened up her home to me and given me an experience that I will never forget, but that’s the kind of hospitable people that the Hmong are. Inviting people to share their traditions is one way for them to keep their traditions alive.
While a homestay in Sapa is on many people’s bucket lists I think it is always important to ensure that the money spent is going directly to the ethnic people of the region. So many tour companies offer homestays where the local people get as little as $6 per night. Booking a homestay with an overly enthusiastic woman on the street might not seem like the most professional way to plan your holiday but I can assure you in this case it is the right way. If you are heading to Vietnam you should definitely put Sapa on your list.
If you would like to book a tour through Vu you can contact her on 0966736153. Alternatively you can book through any of the women here in Sapa.
Have you done a homestay in Sapa? I would love to hear about it. Leave your comments in the section below.