We spent one final night in Hanoi before catching an overnight bus to Sapa. We were looking forward to returning to our local eats, but on arrival found the city eerily quiet as the Vietnamese New Year (‘Tet holiday’) approached. We’d been told that during this celebration families return to their hometowns, often rural villages, leaving cities like Hanoi briefly uninhabited. Many of the shops and restaurants were closed or had limited menus so it wasn’t the homecoming we’d anticipated. However it did provide an opportunity to try some new places, resulting in the best Bun Cha (grilled pork and noodles) we’d had since coming to Vietnam.
Tet is the most significant celebration in the Vietnam calendar. We’re still unsure the exact dates of this holiday as bigger cities return back to normal working life after a few days, whereas the smaller villages prolong the festivities for up to a month. We were slightly concerned about the impact Tet would have on our upcoming trip to Sapa, however it actually made the experience more memorable.
Sapa is situated in the mountains of northwest Vietnam, overlooking the rice terraces of the Muong Hoa Valley. The Hoang Lien Son mountain range dominates the landscape, with Fansipan Mountain reigning as the highest point in Vietnam. As Sapa is the highest region in Vietnam, it is subsequently the coldest. Sapa is also home to a range of ethnic minority groups. There are five main ethnic groups residing in the area, with the Hmong people dominating at just over 50% of the population. Most of the villagers work the land, farming rice and corn, their labour creating the iconic rice terraces that define the region and attract crowds of tourists.
We arrived at 6am, and were immediately hit by the bitter chill in the air as we searched for a taxi to drive us to our homestay. We’d had a tiring few days of travelling since leaving Myanmar and had no grand plans for our first day in Sapa. We spent most of the day relaxing and taking in the scenery on a short walk around Ta Van, a riverside village just 10km from Sapa town. It sits in a valley, surrounded by staggering mountain peaks and rice fields, so we didn’t have to wander far to appreciate the spectacular views.
After a day of rest, we were eager to begin our two-day Hmong Homestay trek with Sapa O’Chau, a social enterprise. Founded by Shu Tan, a member of the Black Hmong tribe, the organisation aims to increase skills ad earning potential for local residents in Sapa. Money generated by Sapa O’Chau is reinvested into numerous projects in the communities of local ethnic minority groups. Beginning with small projects such as providing winter clothes to children, the success of Sapa O’Chau has enabled them to open up a boarding school, providing education, accommodation and food for children across the region. Many of the young people supported by Sapa O’Chau have since gone on to become tour guides, or work within Sapa’s booming tourism industry.
Our two day route was a leisurely 28km and felt considerably less gruelling than the Kalaw – Inle Lake hike just days before (our blisters had barely healed). The trek began at the Sapa O’Chau Café where we met the rest of our group and guides.
Oilvera (Oli) was a 30 something from Sweden and Patricia was a Dutch student in her mid twenties. We were really lucky with our little group as the four of us clicked immediately. Our trek was led by Pe, a 20 year old from the Giay tribe, and He (conveniently pronounced ‘She’), his 7-year-old niece. Pe had only been a tour guide for 3 months, and amazed us by his revelation that he’d taught himself English within the last year with minimal access to the Internet.
Expecting chilly temperatures, we wrapped up in hats and scarves for the trek. However, as we made our way down the steep valley sides, we stripped off the layers as the sun burnt through the early morning mist. With the assistance of four local women in traditional dress (and flip flops), we successfully navigated the initial descent from Sapa town to Y Linh Ho, a Hmong village situated on the river that runs through the Muong Hoa valley. We were grateful for how helpful these ‘tag-alongs’ were, however at our first rest stop we realised why they were so keen to assist. As we relaxed on the riverbank and gazed back up at the rice paddies and forests that we’d just walked through, the four local women transformed from accomplished trekkers into professional hawkers. From their baskets, they removed an endless supply of clothes, bags, jewellery, and musical instruments, which they started flogging. Fortunately for the rest of the group, Oli was unable to resist the hand-woven items, and bought enough for the four of us.
After our brief stop/Oli’s shopping trip, we started ascending the other side of the valley towards our homestay. We were told by Pe that each person consumes 10 (massive) sacks of rice per year. Each family is bound by a never-ending cycle of rice production, harvesting their year’s supply during the month of September. The impressive landscape has been reshaped as each generation carves the mountainsides, adding more layers of paddy fields.
We walked at a very leisurely pace, taking photos every 5 minutes to capture the ever-changing view. Oli’s camera battery was dead after a day of snapping Sapa.
It was clear that Pe and He loved trekking. Pe told us that He had insisted on coming on the trek, and often accompanies him. He put all of us to shame, marching ahead with her little legs without even breaking a sweat. Pe and He had a beautiful relationship; their admiration for each other was obvious to see. When she grows up, He wants to become a tour guide and is trying to improve her English to achieve this.
We arrived at the homestay around 5pm, and were welcomed by Shu Tan’s (the founder of Sapa O’Chau) sister and the rest of her family (and farm animals). We were served a traditional Vietnamese spread for dinner whilst our host shared some of the backstory behind her sister’s decision to create Sapa O’ Chau. Much of the tourism industry in Sapa is financially backed by rich city dwellers from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, who buy up the land and build hotels. Very little of this money is fed back into the local community, leaving local people stuck in a state of poverty as they don’t have the resources to improve their situation. We were all quite oblivious to this, however after hearing of the difficulties (and often oppression) that ethnic minorities face in Vietnam, we were glad to have chosen to trek with a grassroots organisation like Sapa O’Chau,
We woke on the second day, refreshed and ready to go. However, before departing, we found a bit of time to try on the traditional hand stitched clothing that adorned the walls of the homestay.
We said our goodbyes, and trekked through the bamboo forest to Giang Ta Chai. Along the way, we encountered many children dressed in traditional clothing for the Tet celebrations. Our worries that Tet would have a negative impact on our trip to Sapa couldn’t be further from the truth. Pe told us that there would normally be hundreds of other tourists walking the same paths, however we only saw a handful over the 2 days. The only negative impact of Tet was the odd lunatic on his motorbike, inebriated on the home brewed rice wine (more like vodka) that was in endless supply over the New Year period.
We spent our final evening after the trek having dinner with Oli and Patricia before they made their way to Hanoi, and us to Ha Giang. We slept in Lao Cai, a town on the Chinese border (we could even watch the Chinese New Year firework display on the bridge over the Red River), in order to catch the early bus the following morning. If only it was that easy…
More photos of Sapa and the rest of our trip can be found by following the link