I have to admit, when we were first researching Vietnam, Sapa wasn’t even on our radar; we just kind of completely missed it whilst looking at other things. It wasn’t until we were in Thailand and met a number of people who had done it and recommended it that we started to actually look into it, and I’m so glad that we did.
Sapa is located in the northwestern mountain region of Vietnam, and it is stunning and well worth a visit. We took a 6 hour bus from Hanoi to get there, but there are over night train options available if that’s your thing. Although located in Vietnam, Sapa was never settled by the Vietnamese, and instead is the area where the minority tribes live. It wasn’t until the French arrived in the late 1800’s to colonize the area that it started to appear on maps and become a recognized area. Despite the French invasion and their horrendous treatment of the tribes who originally lived there, the people survived and still live in the same villages today as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago.
From the town of Sapa you can trek into the mountains to visit these villages and meet some of the local tribes. There are numerous options – from day trips to 3 night trips – to suit all needs, and everyone seems to be selling some sort of tour, both in Hanoi and Sapa. The choice can be a bit overwhelming and it’s hard hard to decide who to book a trek through, but my advice would be to take your time and do a bit of research.
Unfortunately, like other indigenous communities around the world, Sapa (and some of the surrounding area) have become very touristy and almost zoo like, as people want to experience the local culture. The people in Sapa no doubt rely on tourism; however, most of the minority tribes there see little to no money actually getting to them from these tours. This is because many tour companies are based out of Hanoi, with a Vietnamese guide who often doesn’t speak any of the local languages, where you stay in a Vietnamese owned guesthouse and buy food and souvenirs from them. Despite interacting with the minority tribes and trekking into their villages, all your money goes into the pocket of the Vietnamese owned tour company and not to the local people.
Of course, there are tour company’s who are changing they way that they work, and ones that are already well established who provide ethically based tours. We found a number online (not the ones you can book on the streets), but after being recommended by some friends, we ended up choosing Ethos. We liked the look of the tours on their website, as well as their mission statement and what they are trying to achieve within the community. They’ve got a number of different trekking options; however, none of them quite fit what we were looking for, but Ethos were more then happy to tweek it until it suited us. We decided to do a two night / three day trek, as we could do it between Christmas and New Years, and we would get to go farther then just a one night trek (we all know how Rich loves a walk!). When we arrived the morning of our trek, we were greeted by the owner of the company Phil and his wife Hoa, whom we’d been corresponding with to organize everything. There were a few other people there as well, and although we all sat together for our introduction, everyone has different guides and were going to different places for different amounts of time.
Phil gave us a bit of a history of the area and as well as the minority tribes, and how they came to be here in Sapa. Although the biggest tribe is the Hmong Tribe, there are numerous other tribes and they all live peacefully together in the region. He also explained how Ethos works and what their impact on the wider community is, which just cemented our decision to trek with them. Ethos only uses local, minority tribe guides for all their treks, with the majority of the money coming in going back into the guides villages and communities. They explained that for every guide that they hire and use, they are helping out their own family, as well as roughly 8 other families within the area. This is because everyone who treks with Ethos stays in a local home stay, providing income for that family; all meals are eaten with either the guide and their family, or a local family during your trek which provides them with healthy, more robust food then they would normally have for a meal; and anything you buy on your trek (drinks, extra food, souvenirs) comes from the minority tribes and the money goes straight back to them. It also gives the the chance to interact within the tribes to learn more about their language and culture, and to spread knowledge once you leave.
Once we’d had a bit of an introduction and overview of the next couple days, each group was introduced to their guide before setting off. Our guides name was Du (pronounced Zoo), and she was from the Black Hmong tribe of the area. She’s 30 years old, married, and has 4 children – Jing (boy, age 11), Sa (girl, age 8), Jew (girl, age 6), and Bing (boy, age 3). Du was friendly and open, and her English was very good even though she told us she’s only learnt it from tourists in the past 2 years. If you know me (or have ever done a tour with me), you’ll know that I ask a lot of questions, and it Du was so good at answering them and was completely fine with anything I asked.
Once we got our gear together, we walked from the office to Sapa Market, where we picked up all the food we would need for lunch. As most of the families from the Minority Tribes have very little income (and, by consequence, food), Ethos provides the food for day one, and then after that gives remuneration to each family you eat with for the duration of your trek. Du gave us a tour of the market, included us in the food selection, and explained to us what some of the unknown foods were that we didn’t recognize. There were many new vegetables that we saw, as well as dog meat, cow stomach, and every kind of fish you can imagine. After making our selections, we got a taxi out of town into the hills, where we started our trek.
Our first morning was sunny and clear, and we got some good views of the rice fields and surrounding areas. We walked around 3 hours before stopping at a local home to have lunch with the family. The matriarch of the family did not speak any English; however, her daughter in law (who came for lunch) did, and she was more then happy to engage with us via translator. We helped cook lunch, and then sat down for a meal with the family and Du (who is friends with the family).
Traditionally, the people of the area drink Rice Wine after most meals (kind of like a palette cleanser), and once we were done eating a bottle of it was brought out. We’d had Rice Wine in Laos which was a darker colour and quite sweet, and that’s what we were expecting this time, but it was not the same! Rice Wine in Vietnam is basically a clear spirit made from Rice, roughly 30% alcohol and does not taste very nice. Everyone gets a small cup (it looks like a like a Chinese teacup) which is filled before saying ‘How’ which means ‘Drink’ in Hmong. The Hmong language is a verbal language only, they do not read or write it, so I have no idea what the spellings are; however, it is pronounced as I’ve spelt it – how. We were not the only ones to think that the rice wine tasted horrible, as after every drink of it, someone would proclaim ‘Day Nah’, which means ‘Eat more’ and it’s what they do to get rid of the taste. It’s a great way to make sure all the food gets eaten (there are no refrigerators in the homes), as everyone picks at the leftover food after every drink of Rice Wine.
We had a really good time eating lunch and speaking with the family, and they wouldn’t let us leave until we’d finished the 1.5 litre bottle of rice wine between us (not that we were complaining!). It was about a 90 minute walk from there to get to Du’s home, which probably did us all some good after that!
The homes in the area are very small and very basic, and most of them have no bathroom or shower. The Minority Tribes used to be nomadic people, and therefore built removable homes that they could put up and take down easily as and when they needed to move on. Despite having settled in the same place for the last century or so, the homes themselves are still built in the same way with removable walls and ceilings, which makes them very susceptible to the elements. As we were walking to Du’s house after lunch, the fog came in and the temperature dropped, which made it a fairly chilly evening in her house that was not sealed or weather proofed. There is no central heating (despite having electricity, it powers, one central light bulb and that’s all), and in one corner of the house they have an open fire pit that they use to cook and keep warm, but you only feel the heat of it if you are sitting directly next to it.
The house itself is bare, with one table and some chairs in the middle, one corner that is curtained off with a bed that the entire family sleeps in, and one corner that is curtained off with a bed for trekkers that Du brings home. The kitchen consists of a small bench that has a propane cook top on, and all water is brought in with buckets from an outside tap. Nature is your toilet, but there is a church across the road with squat toilets for when you need to do a poo. Du does not have a shower in her home, but she has a friend in the village who does, and she takes the children there once to twice a week for a shower. 3 km away the family has a plot of land where they grow rice, and they get enough from this to feed them for about 10 months out of the year. Du does trekking with Ethos to supplement their income, and they are halfway through construction for their own bathroom. Eventually, Du would like to save up enough money to build a toilet, shower, and an upper floor so that they have more room for everyone to sleep in their own space.
It is obvious that they have very little but Du, her husband, and their 4 children were so welcoming and happy regardless. The children played with each other and made up games, and never once did they complain about being bored. Du’s husband (also called Sa), speaks zero English, but through Du he told us of his desire to learn as he loves to interact with the trekkers that Du brings home. He joked that he had a wonderful wife to teach him English just like she teaches the children, but that he is very old and slow and does not learn as fast as they do, so it’s taking more time (he’s 31). He had a great sense of humour and was very humble, and you could see the obvious love and pride he had for his wife, children, and home.
The four children spoke a little bit of English (more just words, rather then sentences) as Du teaches them when she can. They all go to school which is in Vietnamese, so as well as speaking Hmong at home, they can speak, read, and write in Vietnamese. Bing, the youngest at 3, can’t read or write yet, but he is able to speak Hmong, Vietnamese, and some English words. We had great fun with all 4 children, despite the language barrier, and we spent time counting with them, singing songs, and playing clapping games. Rich quickly became Bing’s favourite once he realised that Rich would pick him up and throw him in the air, which is a game Bing would have played for the entire time we were there is Du had not told him to stop!
After helping Du cook dinner and eating with the family, the rice wine was brought out again. Du and I were very good and only had a few glasses each, but Sa and Rich were getting a long great and kept going until the entire bottle was finished. By the end of the night, Sa was speaking to Rich in Hmong, Rich was speaking to Sa in English, and they were having a great conversation without any translations from Du. I don’t think either of them understood what the other was saying, but at the time it was making perfect sense to them both. Both were feeling very rough the next morning and commiserated with each other by miming about drinking lots and having sore heads and stomachs. No words were needed by either of them to understand that one!
After a slow start on day two due to some poorly men, Rich and I set off with Du for a full day of trekking. Du’s home is high up on the mountain, and the fog stayed with us for most of the day. We trekked down into the valley where we had some rain, and had lunch in a different village with another local family. As we’d trekked down in the morning, we had to trek up to get back to Du’s house for dinner and with the rain, fog, and steep hill it was slow going. The temperature on our second evening got even lower (probably about 3 degrees) and it continued to rain all night. We were able to dry out a little bit by the fire that evening, but it was hard to get warm as we stayed damp all night in the house. The rice wine was again brought out, but everyone was sensible and only had a couple of glasses each. Because of the long day and the cold, both ourselves and the family were happy to head to bed early (after a dance show from the children).
Our final morning was the coldest of the lot, and we had a hurried breakfast so we could get going. We had to trek down the mountain in the morning to get to a point where the taxi could pick us up and take us back into Sapa town, as the taxi won’t go that far up the mountain. It was still cold, and raining even harder and within 30 minutes we were both pretty wet and pretty ready to be done. We trekked about 2 hours down the mountain and had lunch with Du’s sister and her family, who put some coals from the fire into a bucket and put it under me for warmth as we were eating because she could see how cold and wet I was. After lunch, the taxi came and picked us up with Du and we headed back into Sapa so Rich and I could catch our bus back into Hanoi.
We both really enjoyed our 3 days, although it would have been even better with slightly warmer weather. We loved Du and her family, and had a great time spending the evenings with them. Du was a fantastic guide, and you can see the impact that Ethos is having on the community as a whole, which was really nice. Every family that we met asked when we were going to have babies, and told us to come back once we had some as they would love to help take care of them for a day. We found the Hmong people to be warm and open, and they obviously love interacting and communicating with the people who come to trek in the area.
Sapa was one of our favourite parts about Vietnam, and I would highly recommended Ethos as the company to use if you want to do some trekking. On the bus back to Hanoi, we got an email from Ethos thanking us for using them and to say that Du wanted us to know that she had really enjoyed her time with us. It was a great way to end this expected adventure in our trip, although we were glad to be headed back to the city and the warmth!