I suppose many travellers who are on a longer term trip hope that at some point in their travels they will have at least some form of an authentic experience/s. An experience that connects you with the local people and their culture and takes you away from the standard tourist trail, or maybe an experience that nobody else has had before. That is quite hard to achieve these days.
Although Sapa is by no means removed from the standard tourist trail, my time there trekking with the local people and staying in one of their homes did at least still feel like one of those authentic experiences or at least the first one I have had so far, even if it is a route taken by so many before.
From my hostel in Hanoi, I was picked up in a small, overcrowded, rickety old van which had no air conditioning and extremely uncomfortable seats. The journey to Sapa was supposed to be nearly 5 hours so my heart immediately sank and a dark wave of pure misery came over me. After leaving the outskirts of Hanoi this rickety old metal sauna on wheels pulled into a car park and we were all transferred to a bus which I can only describe as pure luxury – sleeper seats that fully reclined, WiFi, on-board toilets, drink holders and fully working air conditioning. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and my mood lifted.
In Sapa, I was met by my trekking guide who turned out to be the daughter of the family, and whose name she said was Ya Ya. She was 16 and lived in Sapa all week where she went to school and then every Saturday morning she would do one of the 4 hour treks back to her homestay with the tourists. In the week, her mother would take the treks.
After eating some food and meeting her father who took my bags, we began the 4 hour trek which took us through a total of 4 villages. Ya Ya was quite good at English and told me some interesting things along the way. She and her family, and many of the other families up here, were from ethnic minority groups and did not identify themselves as Vietnamese, they also spoke a different language. She was from an ethnic group known as the Hmong people which I think she said originated in China.
Although it was cloudy and foggy that day, I really enjoyed the walk and here are some of the photos from that trek.
We arrived at the homestay around dusk and I was introduced to the rest of the family which was the Mama (Mama Shu Shu), 3 other younger children and a slightly older son around 20 and the father who I had met earlier that day. Also staying at that homestay that night was a guy from Demark and a guy from Israel, they were on their second day of trekking and had both originally met each other in a hostel in Hanoi.
Mama Shu Shu and the father went off somewhere for a while so I drank some tea and sat on their balcony for a couple of hours chatting with Denmark and Israel (sorry I am terrible with remembering names so will need to call them that). The children and older son were inside, cooking dinner as it turned out.
Later on we had a home cooked meal inside the house. One thing I noticed is that they don’t seem to need or value comfort the Vietnamese (or at least this family) and although they were clearly not overly poor – they had iPhones, air conditioning, many motorbikes and a van and even a home surveillance system with cameras around the property – there were no creature comforts whatsoever in the home. Instead of couches, they had hard wooden stools and there was no carpet, only a cold stone floor. The beds themselves had no mattresses, just a thin roll up mat.
It goes without saying that the food was stunning. I haven’t had a bad meal yet in Vietnam. Vietnam is quickly becoming one of my favourite destinations in terms of the food.
Mama Shu Shu returned and out came the Rice Wine. Turns out that Mama Shu Shu likes a drink! She poured out shot after shot of the rice wine (which she called Happy Water) and we sat there with her husband and the two other travellers. She was very funny and had a lot of banter, especially with the Israeli guy. She told us an interesting story about how people meet and marry in her culture – I am not sure if I caught it all correctly but as I understood it every month or two months the whole village would organise a large party and 100 – 200 of the villagers would go with their bottles of rice wine and the younger boys who were now becoming adults i.e 16 – 17 would look around and spot a girl they liked and would go over and share some drinks with them. And that was that, if a man approached a girl and asked her to drink they would become boyfriend and girlfriend and engaged that night. The village would arrange to have their wedding a month or so later. I wasn’t certain about this next part and could have misunderstood but it seems like the girl didn’t really get much say in it – if a man chose her to drink with at the party then that was that. I told her it was a little bit more complicated then that in our culture!
She told a slightly sadder tale that if you got a bit older – like 23 – and no man had selected you at one of the parties to have a drink with, you were then likely to be past it and would spend life without a partner. When I told her I was 37, I inevitably got the questions that every singleton hates – “why are you still single? Why you don’t have wife?” She found it almost impossible to believe I didn’t have a wife and kept asking why – in their culture it seems, it is highly unusual for men to be single. I deflected the questions by making a joke about having a wife before but leaving her because she snored and couldn’t cook.
Denmark, Israel and myself were getting pretty drunk so we headed to bed just after midnight. About 2AM I woke up and went to the outside toilet. To my surprise, Mama Shu Shu was inside the lounge area, sitting on the cold floor with her head in her hands, I walked past but she appeared to be sleeping. Outside where the toilet was, I bumped into the family dogs. Although they had been good as gold during the day they began jumping up at me and I became quite alarmed when they started taking soft, small bites at my leg and arms. At first, I wasn’t sure if they were actually attacking me or not but it soon became apparent that they were just playing. I slept really poorly that night as from 4AM this rooster started making a an absolute racket.
Next day, after breakfast………:
…………..I left the other two and went on a separate trek back to Sapa with a new guide and two other travellers, a guy from France and another lady from Germany. The trek this day was much more challenging as we went right through the rice paddies, instead of on the tracks and along a river bed. It had been raining all night so the walk was treacherous and I was thinking this is a good example of why travel insurance is a good idea and was glad I had it! The German girl fell over once and I hurt my ankle a little but nothing serious. After that walk, we all said good bye and headed back on the bus to Hanoi.
I am glad I did Sapa and would recommend it to others. I am sure there are less tourist trodden experiences in North Vietnam but as this is my first trip to Vietnam it was great as a first taster of the area. Others may wish to explore the area on their own of course but I preferred meeting the local people and the guide and homestay were inexpensive. Sapa has probably been one of the highlights of my travels so far, albeit I have only been gone a couple of weeks!
Also, I think I will now definitely try and stay in some other homestays during my travels. I may even try couch surfing too at some point!
Next stop: Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park