Sapa, in Northern Vietnam near the border with China, has been the trekking capital of the country for decades. The hill town is the ideal base for trekkers to access remote hill-tribe villages and experience life as the indigenous peoples do. Sapa's town centre suffers from over commercialization and haphazard development, but there are quieter sections and many hotels and restaurants to satisfy traveller needs. Outfitting shops are plentiful and provisioning, last minute, is easy.
Our jumping off point to Sapa was crowded Hanoi. We spent two days acclimatizing to the time change and selecting a trekking tour operator. The challenge being to find a company that can deliver what is promised. Intent on exploring beyond the beaten path we chose a small company that customized a five-day trek for two. The final itinerary: return coach from Hanoi to Sapa (380 kilometres), find an English-speaking Vietnamese guide and porter, hotel night in Sapa, four days of trekking through hill-tribe villages with three nights at local home-stays. Most travellers choose only two days in Sapa, which is not enough to get away from the crowds.
The new highway northwest from Hanoi has made Sapa very accessible. Local drivers treat coaches like rally cars though and terrifying international guests is driver sport — choose the overnight train if you go. Our local guide Chin met us at the main square in Sapa. His English skills were rusty but we learned that Chu, brother-in-law of Chin, was really the essential part of the pair. Chu's skills as navigator, porter and cook made his value obvious after night one. The two were ethnic Black Hmong rice farmers, descended from Chinese heritage, who supplemented their income with guiding.
We began our trek at a trailhead in the market town of Ta Van. Walking took us quickly uphill away from the river through fields of corn and other market crops. As the morning heat intensified, we reached the first ridge top, one of many we traversed over seventy kilometres through the foothills of the Hoan Kien Range, the most eastern part of the Himalaya. We passed Black Hmong women in traditional dress, a black fez-style hat and an embroidered tunic over black pants. Some were on their way to Sapa to sell handicrafts to tourists; others gathered large bundles of sticks to take home for their cooking fires.
Rice paddies blanketed the region. Sculpted and carved out of the mountainsides the terraced benches cascaded down the slopes like layers on a decorative cake. Families worked side-by-side preparing the terraces for the next planting. Young, bare-footed men spent all day squelching through the knee-deep mud encouraging water buffalo with wooden plows to work the earth. We often traversed a pathless route by balancing atop the narrow boot-wide ridges that separated one level of the terraces from another being careful not to slip into the muck.
The village houses were built of wood with peaked Asian pagoda roofs affixed to quaint European alpine chalets. This fusion of design confirmed that there have been long periods of European presence in Indochina. Accommodation for guests was offered in large lofts above the family's living spaces. The kitchen in most homes was attached to the back or side of the main house. Made from concrete, it was more like a bunker than the heart of the home and affirmed how rudimentary some aspects of village living can be. Cooking was done over an open wood fire. A metal pipe jutting out of the concrete served as the water supply. A bare light bulb provided dim illumination. Outhouses had squat toilets and it wasn't until our third night that we saw a fridge, TV, shower and raised western toilet. Village homes had minimal furnishings. Short-legged tables and chairs, like the kind found at pre-schools, dominated most living spaces.
After long days of walking, we arrived late each afternoon to a host home. Warm beers were fetched from the local shop or tea was served and we were told to relax before dinner. The views of the peaks and steep valleys we'd crossed that day visible as we observed the household chores going on around us. At one home, the wife hacked bamboo into fence length sections, her teenage daughter-in-law swept the concrete surrounding the house with a newborn strapped to her back. A neighbour, also with an infant on her back, shredded a large stack of root vegetables for use as pig food. Chickens and piglets darted about while two toddlers jousted with wooden sticks.
Dining in Vietnam is the social affair. The man of the house joined us at each home for dinner — an array of dishes too plentiful for the remote setting. Meals included beef with greens, chopped pork with peppers, garlic and morning glory (like spinach), tomatoes and tofu, fresh steamed bamboo shoots and lots of home-grown white rice, all carried there and prepared by Chu.
On night one, in the village of Seomi Ti, we stayed with an ethnic Black Hmong family. Instead of farming rice, the husband worked as a nurse in a hospital nearby. Chin translated the host's apology over dinner. "We want guests, but not many come here. You are our first. I hope you are comfortable in our simple home." His comments explained the lack of sleeping mats and sheets. We had not expected to rough it quite that much but were touched by his humility. There was no question it was an authentic village experience.
At the home of a Red Dzao family the next night in Ta Trung Ho, a retired North Vietnamese Army officer was the head of the household. He had "arranged" a marriage for his eldest daughter so she would stay home in the village to care for her father in his later years. She took charge of ensuring we were properly welcomed over dinner with toast after toast and shot after shot of nasal-clearing rice wine, home-made throughout the region.
On the final night of trekking, in the village of Thanh Pho, our host family was very accustomed to guests. Instead of growing rice, they sustained their four generation clan by taking in trekkers, raising ducks for sale, and farming fish in a small concrete pool in the yard. The grandmother of the house made us delicious pancakes for breakfast and sent us off by singing a Tay ethnic song. She strummed an instrument made from a gourd while her husband hummed beside her.
In the end, our trek across Northern Vietnam was not about how much English was spoken or the availability of modern conveniences. Three families in different ethnic villages gave us one genuine welcome. Roughing it was not that hard after-all.
If you go:
cinnamonhotel.net/en/(Ask for the Hanoi Cinnamon Cathedral Hotel)