Throughout my trip every seasoned traveler of SE Asia I spoke with insisted Northern Vietnam was one of their favorite spots. They said the scenery was incredible, the people were fantastic, and the hiking was superb. I had seen some breathtaking views in Thailand, Cambodia, and Ha Long Bay so I was excited to see if the hype was real over N Vietnam. One location that came highly recommended was a small town that looks over the Muong Hoa Valley in the Northwest called Sapa. Situated close to the Chinese border in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains, this village is a popular starting point for trekking.
Colleen and I decided we wanted to experience an authentic trek with a local guide. The Mountains surrounding Sapa are home to many of Vietnam’s minority groups including the Hmong, Dao, and Tay tribes. Friends in Hanoi recommended doing a trek and home-stay with a certain woman from the Black Hmong tribe. Her name was Mama Mu and she spoke English but could not read or write the language. To set up the trip we had to call her the day before we wanted to visit and she agreed to meet us in the morning at the bus station. From there we would do the trek up to her village in the mountains and spend the night at her home.
I was a big night bus fan during my stay in Vietnam, but the first overnight bus I took was a nightmare. My sleeping pod did not fully decline, I had no Valium, and the space was just too small for me. It was a long trip to Sapa and I arrived exhausted. We met Mama Mu in the town square and she took us for a local breakfast where we met our trekking friends from Holland. I felt a little more sprightly after breakfast but that would all turn when the weather moved in. A dense mist quickly overtook the mountains just before we started our trek around 7:30am. With ponchos on and very little visibility we began our 6hr ascent into the mountains. Our group did about 9miles uphill in the cold mist. There were no stunning views. Moral was low.
We arrived at Mama Mu’s village around 3pm. The home was exactly what I had expected. It was a true tribal village. The bamboo house sat above the rice terraces on a large plot of farm land. As we approached we were greeted by goats, chickens, pigs, a water buffalo, cats, and about 8 puppies. The interior was extremely simple. The floors were dirt and the cooking fire dominated the center of the main room. There was no furniture aside from the small plastic chairs that circled a small wooden table. The beds were surprisingly comfortable and we were able to get a much needed nap.
After resting we hung out with Mu’s three young children and her husband. A massive feast was prepared for dinner and we ate around 7pm. The food was insanely good and there was way too much. We washed down the meal with countless shots of homemade rice wine. We learned that Mu and her husband married very young as is customary in the small village, and at 28 she already had 3 children. She learned english by offering trekking tours and homestays (the rest of the family did not speak english). It was inspiring to learn more about this family and their way of life. While it was a very simple way of life, one that many at home would look down upon, the family seemed genuinely happy. They also had plenty of questions about our lives back home. After a few more rice wine shots we went right to sleep and its a good thing we did…
The next morning we were treated to an enormous stack of pancakes and were joined by a pair of Czech hikers. Its a good thing we ate up because there was a LONG day of trekking ahead. Luckily the clouds broke as we began our journey and we finally got a glimpse of the stunning views everyone had raved about. It was a magnificent decent into the valley below. We stopped off at the local school that Mu’s kids attended and grabbed raw sugar cane to munch on. When we made it to the valley floor, we rested at a massive waterfall before continuing to a few of the larger villages. Then we began the long trek up the other side of the valley walls to Sapa. Not that I’m a huge outdoors-man, but this was easily the most grueling hike I had ever been on. In total we did 12 miles that day, and more than half of those miles were up the steep mountain pass. Our reward was gorgeous views of the terraced valley below.
We arrived back in Sapa in the early evening, exhausted and filthy. We said our goodbyes to Mu and she left us with a few parting gifts. After a hot shower and a quick rest in a hotel we went out to explore Sapa. The town had the vibe of a ski village. Obviously the region was in the midst of a tourism boom with construction all over, but it still had a very quaint vibe down town. It was filled with cafes, small shops, and little restaurants.
Sapa was one of my favorite experiences in all of SE Asia and certainly had the biggest impact on me. Being able to live and explore with a member of a local villager was a blessing. Our guide was such a strong willed and inspiring woman. Though Momma Mu and her family lived a simple life, they seemed to be comfortable and happy. People in the states may look down at a situation like theirs and think it is no way to live. They would be wrong. This family opened their home to strangers from the other side of the world, welcomed them with food and drink, and spoke to them like friends. Think about that in context to whats happening in our own country.