Sapa region trekking and visiting the H´mongs

This summer we are traveling around Vietnam and Laos. After three weeks of exhausting heat of Ho Chi Minh City and coastal Vietnam (of which I´ll be writing when I find the time) we took a night train to higher altitudes and a cooler climate of Sa Pa district.

Balancing on the terraced rice fields.

Sa Pa (or Sapa) district is situated at the Hoang Lien Son mountain range about 1500 meters above sea level in northwest Vietnam, about 380 km from Hanoi. This region, that spreads around a valley and mountainsides and is surrounded by towering mountains with thick fog over the peaks, is probably best known for two things:

1) ethnic minorities such as Black Hmong, Red Dao, Giay (Day) and Tao living in the valley and around it in the mountainside villages

2) an amazing mountainous landscape with picturesque terraced rice fields offering great trekking and photo opportunities.

Those were the main things that made us come here. Being so high above the sea the climate is moderate and much cooler compared to places like Hanoi, Halong bay or Saigon which after weeks of sweating 24/7 suited us as well.

Woman selling her handicrafts.

You can´t reach the region´s central hub Sapa town by train so we took a night train from Hanoi to the closest station town Lao Cai and from there we hopped on to a local bus which took us to Sapa town. As the bus wound it´s way up the roads before 7 am I saw the early morning sun rising behind the foggy mountain peaks and I knew this was going to be something I´d remember for a long time.

As soon as you step off the bus in Sapa town the reality of this tourism center of the northwest Vietnam hits you: Women and little girls dressed in traditional costumes spot a traveller with a backpack immediately and join you. "Where are you from? What´s your name? You wanna do shopping? You wanna go trekking? Homestay? Maybe later?"

Luckily we had read beforehand that a polite "maybe later" is out of the question here. You see, it seems there´s a cultural difference in this matter. For us "maybe later" means "I have no intention to buy and this is a polite way to let you know so you don´t waste your time on me" whereas here it seems to be taken as a verbal binding agreement and translates to "I will buy this in a minute so follow me around for as long as it takes, ok."

A H´mong woman in the market in Sapa town. Black marks in her forehead come from a traditional pain relief. For a headache a buffalo horn´s stub is heated and then pressed on forehead. The mark comes off in days or weeks.

But as much as all that at times rather persistent selling after a poorly slept night in a train bed that was obviously designed for an asian average height and in desperate need of a shower might irritate, you can´t really blame these people for trying to get their share of the booming tourism of the area. The minority groups of the area are very skilled in various forms of handcrafts (especially embroidery and sewing, it seemed) and selling them and fruits and vegetables – as well as being a guide for the trekkers and accommodating them in homestays – are important sources of income. So, if we were in their shoes, we´d probably all do the same. Nevertheless, we very rarely if ever buy any souvenirs on our travels and we held the line here as well. A convincing but polite "no thanks" or "no shopping" usually did the trick. 

A Red Dao woman in the market place in Sapa town.

In fact, a couple of times – after it was clear for the both of us I was not about to buy anything – I got into very nice conversations by asking her the same questions: "What´s your name? Where are you from?" Many sellers on the streets speak very good English and I learnt that some travel a long way to come to Sapa town to sell their products. 

The main reason we came to Sapa was to do trekking. You can do it all by yourself but we thought we´d get more out of it if we had a local guide telling us about the minority cultures, the daily life in the villages and the nature of the area. The options were plentiful as trekking and homestays are advertised in every other corner not to even mention the locals who offer the same services on the streets. So we sat down for a breakfast and coffee and then one of us stayed with the backpacks and other went looking for a trekking company. 

Now, the more we´ve traveled the more we´ve begun to think about the impact of our travels. The impact on the environment and the impact on the locals. Who benefits of our money and how could our choices make a positive impact? With this in mind, after some research we ended up choosing a company called Sapa O´Chau as our trekking organiser. The company is awarded for being socially responsible and although compared to some other tour companies and offers around it was a bit more expensive but we were happy to pay the extra knowing the money we spent does a lot of good in the community. (If you are interested to know how, read more from the link above.)

Below you can find some photos from the trek. Click to see them full screen.

We met this young H´mong woman with her children. We met briefly along the trek. "Maybe 20", she replied when our guide asked her about her age.

When it comes to choosing the trekking company, we couldn´t have been happier with our choice. Our guide, Su, was great! Besides being a very nice fellow, we got tons of information about the area and especially his own Black Hmong culture. We chose a two days - one night trek and in hindsight we could have chosen a longer one as the trek through the valley and the mountainsides, rice and corn fields and bamboo forests was easier than we expected. We reached our overnight homestay in one of the villages quite early in the afternoon but then again that wasn´t bad at all, as it gave us plenty of time to relax. Sitting back and enjoying the sun setting behind the mountains and watching the locals do their thing wasn´t bad at all.

After the sunset we sat down for a dinner together with our hosts and the catering was overwhelming. There were some language barriers at times but Su translated, and as the night went on, through the magic of homemade rice wine (that the man of the house kept pouring to everyone´s glasses) all barriers – linguistic or cultural – were overcome.

At the end of the dinner, stomach full of homemade local delicacies such as water buffalo and a duck (killed and prepared just for the occasion) as well as blood pudding and stew made of squash and duck´s internals, I joined the man of the house and Su, our guide, for one more cup of tea and a conversation under a starry sky and the sounds of nature surrounding us before climbing up to the loft for a good night sleep. A perfect ending for a perfect day.