Sapa was one of those places where people unanimously told us it was a “must see” for its picturesque vistas and diversity of ethnic minority groups living in the area. But we’d also met many tourists who made the trek out to Sapa only to find themselves in heavy rains or mist so thick you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you at any time. So when we arrived on the overnight train to Lao Cai in the early morning, we were a bit worried on our drive up mountain range because we could really only see mist and fog. It was pretty funny for us when we arrived at the guesthouse in Sapa town where we’d arranged to meet our guide, and we ate breakfast at their “Blue Sky Restaurant” which was located on the top floor and promised some of “the best views of Sapa”. That morning it felt like we were eating literally in the middle of the clouds instead. Still interesting, but not quite what we were hoping.
After breakfast, we went downstairs to wait to meet Pen, who would be our trekking guide for the next 3 days. Pen is a Black H’Mong hilltribe woman who comes from one of the small villages near Sapa, and has lived in the area her whole life. She is 24 years old, married with 3 children (oldest of which is 8!) and works with an organization called Sapa Sisters which is one of the few trekking companies fully owned and operated by local, young Black H’Mong women. You cannot trek overnight through the villages near Sapa without a local guide. Interestingly, in these parts the guide industry is dominated by hilltribe women most of whom who have impressively taught themselves to speak English simply by talking with tourists. Pen was no exception, as we learned that she’d never even gone to school in her childhood but now had been leading treks for several years. We had chosen to do a 3 day, 2 night trek through the villages outside and around Sapa town with her. Like most all other guides, Pen was wearing a traditional Black H’Mong garment when we met her, whose most distinct characteristic is the dark blue indigo-dyed jacket and sash that you wear in the front of your waist (indigo flowers are native to the area). Though absolutely beautiful (in fact it’s the same outfit they would wear to all traditional ceremonies including weddings), the outfit hardly looked appropriate for trekking, especially when we noticed that she was only wearing flat sneakers on her feet! I had taken the advice of someone we met in Halong Bay who’s just come from Sapa and rented myself a pair of rain boots to help with the muddy paths (Jes of course had no chance in finding rain boots that would fit him!) But we figured Pen must know what she was doing, so after our initial introductions we headed out to start the trek.
From the guesthouse we started walking downhill along the street to our starting point. It didn’t take more than a few steps before two other H’Mong women started to tail behind us. They were chatting with Pen in their local language so we figured they must just be friends. The ladies were carrying large baskets on their backs and were busy weaving and rolling hemp strands in their hands (just like Pen) which they would later use to sew/make some pieces of clothing. The first leg of our trek consisted of walking down endless steps of muddy, slippery rice terraces. It was probably only about 3 minutes in before I managed to lose my footing, slip down and cover my ass in mud. After that, Pen reminded me to “be careful”, as she continued to soft step down the muddy terraces without getting even the smallest splatter of mud on her shoes all while carrying a umbrella in one hand to protect her from the sun. Luckily for us, those two other ladies decided to help us poor tourists out and held our hands (they actually had iron grips) and carefully show us where to step while we were going down particularly tricky parts. Imagine Jesse being helped down by these little ladies who were nearly half his weight and not barely 5 feet tall. I honestly don’t know what we would have done without them! They also spoke some pretty decent English and asked us many questions about our lives back home. They took breaks when we did, and basically just became a part of our group for the morning.
Despite the mudslides, we were happy because the skies did eventually clear up and we could actually start to see just how vast and far the terraces extended. You know, we’d thought we’d seen our fair share of rice paddies already in our Asian travels, but we’d never seen anything like this. The incredible height and sloped surfaces that these terraces covered was hard to believe. Even more so when Pen explained that people carved these out manually over time and then harvest each rice stem individually by hand every year. She also told us that there is only one rice harvest a year in Sapa due to the cooler weather (other places in Vietnam can have two or three a year) and that the rice harvested is usually only enough for the owning family’s annual rice intake – meaning, they do not harvest to sell or export. Talk about a local diet! Think about how inexpensive rice is for us to buy, compared to the amount of energy, time and care expended by these people! We were pretty amazed.
As our first morning wore on, we eventually made it to our first village, Lao Chai, where we’d stop for lunch. Here we found out that the two other super helpful H’Mong ladies following us the whole time were not actually friends of Pen but in fact just women from that village who had made the 3+ hour trek into Sapa town to sell handmade goods to tourists. I guess a typical tactic they employ is following tourists the whole trek in and then ask them to buy from them at the end. We had our suspicions but since they were so nice and helpful we actually wanted to buy from them as way of thanks. All the other hilltribe women swarmed around to watch us as they showed us their goods. Sadly, their offerings weren’t really anything we felt we could use. I was hoping for earrings, but they had none. And no matter how many sizes of hand dyed indigo purses she showed him, Jesse just wasn’t interested so instead we decided to just give them a nice tip and thank them for their help. They seemed disappointed at the lack of sale, but still appreciative. It’s tough for us because I think we both instinctively say no to anyone trying to sell us things unsolicited, but at the same time we can forget to appreciate that this is actually their livelihood and their main source of income. And in this case, knowing that most of the items were handmade was more compelling. Though we had to stay firm on not buying anything we didn’t really want (we actually hadn’t bought any souvenirs on the trip yet) we were happy to see that many of the other tourists on the trail were opening up their wallets in support of the many other hilltribe women selling their goods.
Anyway, after a slightly underwhelming (read: super salty) lunch at a restaurant filled with other tourists, we continued on our path. This time we were prepared for the entourage of ladies waiting for us at the doors and asked Pen what we should do. She explained that if it was the Red Dzao hilltribe women who came to us (and it was) then we should just tell them very firmly that we’re not interested in their goods early on and they should leave us alone. She also explained that she couldn’t tell them for us since they had different dialects and did not understand each other. So we followed her advice and thankfully did not get followed for the afternoon. Pen offered us different options for difficulty and length of time for the afternoon trek, which we appreciated. We’d seen quite a few large tourist groups at the lunch stop, so we were happy to have our own personal guide who could customize the trek to our abilities and interests. Based on our tricky morning experience, we opted for the “medium difficulty” route.
While Pen seemed a bit quiet to us at first, she opened up much more to us in the afternoon. We asked her about her life and family, whether being a guide was a good job (she thought so) and what village life was like. She told us about interesting mating rituals that the Black H’Mong follow (e.g. wife kidnapping!) and how traditions had changed even in the few years since she had gotten married (e.g. her marriage was arranged but now young couples can date and choose their own partners). She told us that she lived with her in-laws now, who helped to take care of her children when she was away guiding. Her husband tended to the water buffalo and rice fields. They had just bought a new motorbike recently (which we thought was a good sign that they were doing well for themselves) but neither knew how to drive it yet. She’d only just had her third lesson but still didn’t feel very confident. We didn’t blame her since we encountered a few brave motorcyclists dangerously riding down the muddy, steep slopes around us and we honestly didn’t understand how they managed to keep themselves level.
The afternoon trek to our next village, Ta Van, was even better than the morning as we got further in to the area. But the sun was getting pretty hot at that point and I was seriously regretting my decision to wear jeans on the trek (note: I’ve had these jeans for almost 10 years and they ripped while we were in Halong Bay so I figured I’d wear them out through the trek in Sapa before throwing them away). Jesse continued to be amazed by his magical Icebreaker shirts which somehow remain smelling fresh despite being soaked in sweat each day. Thankfully, we arrived at our homestay in Ta Van in good time where we were able to shower and freshen up. There we met our homestay family (actually the husband was away on a guide himself so it was just the wife and her adorable 4 month old son) and some other tourists trekking with other guides, including one French lady who currently lives in Geneva named Soizick. We ended up getting along super well with Soizick which was awesome because her guide Chin was also from Sapa Sisters (she was the daughter of Pen’s cousin) so we ended up hanging out with Soizick again most of the following days. At the homestay we were treated to a delicious homemade meal starting with a surprisingly addictive plate of garlic-salt french fries (clearly this is a dish they make just for tourists) followed by a massive spread of local dishes, including perfectly fried spring rolls, tofu & tomato, pork & veggies, chicken & veggies, stir fried greens and then a few rounds of rice wine. There was actually another Quebecois girl staying at the homestay as well, but she was there for a month as she was doing her Master’s at UQAM in Communications and was studying the impact of tourist photography on different ethnic minorities. She was a riot, and though she clearly came from a fiercely separatist family (which can always be a bit touchy), we enjoyed being able to talk about some more interesting Canadian topics with her as well. We had a really great evening and the homestay (which is more like a homestay hotel since it could fit up to 16 people) had surprisingly comfortable mattresses and effective mosquito nets so we all slept like babies.
The second day turned out to be even better than the first. After a nice breakfast of rice flour crepes, bananas, honey, and deep fried sweet potato fritters (yum!) we set off to continue our trek. The views and paths that we took were much more remote and untouched and we went most of the day never seeing any other tourists. I don’t think I can think of many more superlatives to use to describe the scenery, and sadly the photos can’t quite capture the full effect of what we were experiencing. But take our word for it, we were in constant awe. We suspect that coming to Sapa in the midst of the rice harvest would be that much more incredible as the mountains would be lit up in the brightest of greens. But despite the terraces being mostly dried up and covered in weeds during our trek, we still thought it was beautiful (note the weeds here still look like lavender flowers to us). And we didn’t mind that without rain, the terrain was much less muddy than the day before (not saying we still didn’t slip a few times that day!) In addition to that, we’d started to really grow fond of Pen and her mischievous smiles and laughs. She was really a wonderful guide, still so young but also incredibly mature. We were happy to be able to get to know her over our trek, and gain a better appreciation for how different her life was from ours.
As the day wore on, we started to make our way towards the village we’d be staying at overnight, called Ban Ho. Here we began to encounter more hilltribe families going about their days, farming in the fields or just walking to their next destination. One memory that holds strong for me was an older woman who was singing a beautiful folksong as she walked down the fields behind us. I don’t know what it was about, but she sang it with so much emotion that felt like a perfect soundtrack for our day. We also eventually ran into Soizick and Chin again, as well as some other tourists and their guides heading towards the same homestay. We stopped off at a local school to watch the kids playing in the yard, and then headed down towards the town. Pen and Chin started walking hand in hand down the hill together, sharing the same umbrella to protect them from the sun which was a really tender sight. You know, even though Pen was only 24, we actually met several other guides during the trek who were much younger – generally around 16 or 17. It’s crazy for us to imagine that at such a young age, these women (girls, really) are independently leading tourists on these multi-day overnight treks as a full time job. And although they are clearly and impressively mature enough to be doing these jobs (and quite well at that), it was so fascinating for us to see the way the guides interact with each other. For example, when we would stop for lunch or overnight at the homestays and the guides would have some time to themselves, we could see them giggling and gossiping and chilling out together like girls at a slumber party. Pen actually acted more as a mother figure to the (comparatively) younger ones. She would usually be helping the homestay owners cook our dinner, or helping everyone get set up for the night. She would tell us sometimes how silly and crazy the younger guides were because two of them had made up their own private language so they could talk to each other without anyone else understanding. We realized that this was a really unique experience for us, because we rarely interact with people so young anymore…and in this case, looking to them as our guides, leaders and teachers.
Though our homestay food and mattresses the second night were not quite as good and comfortable as the first, with the company of Soizick and the other new groups of people we met along the way, we still had a lovely evening of laughing and getting to know one another.
Our third morning again was all clear skies and sun. Sadly, we only had time to trek a short distance on this day before needing to catch a minibus ride back along the cliffside to bring us back to Sapa town. The drive not only showed us just how far we’d trekked in our few days, but also ended up being a mini-highlight in itself for the views we got. We said our goodbyes to Pen and Chin when we got back, and spent a few hours exploring Sapa town before we caught the overnight train back to Hanoi. As our last stop in Vietnam, Sapa was just the icing on the cake for a country we’d already fallen completely in love with.