Every traveler longs for that authentic cultural experience where you really bond with locals and learn about their traditions and way of life. We are no exception. Our desire for Vietnamese cultural enlightenment lead us to book a two day, three night trekking homestay excursion to the picturesque rice paddies of Sapa in Northern Vietnam. Instead of finding that authentic cultural experience, we found out how tourism has strongly impacted (for good or for bad) the livelihoods of villagers in beautiful Sapa. Regardless of this fact, we had a wonderful two days in this stunning area of the world.
It all began with an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and a 40 minute journey by bus to the main center of Sapa where cafes and hotels are built along the lake and into the mountain overlooking the vast expanse of rice paddies below. We were greeted at the Sapa Summit Hotel by our trekking guide, a 21 year old Sapa native who lives in one of the villages we would be trekking to. If she hadn’t told us she was 21, we would have guessed she was closer to 30. I began to wonder how often she makes the trek back and forth from her village to the commercial center. We were in a group of eight people that consisted of a Scottish guy named Andrew, a Dutch guy named Sebastian, Cassandra from Canada, a French girl named Faustine (but we all called her Frenchy), an Australian named Abbey, and Morgan the Wisconsinite. We were quite the international crew and ended up having a really great time together over the two day trek. Aside from the eight of us and our guide, we were also joined by half a dozen other women and one young six year old girl from the villages. The women were all extremely friendly and chatty and were always willing to lend a hand during “steep” parts of the trek (nothing was really very steep) and make us grasshoppers and other shapes out of grass as we walked. We embraced their presence and enjoyed speaking with them, all the while wondering when they would ask us to purchase something or give them a tip (as is usually the case when greeted by friendly locals near a tourist attraction).
The trail was really well worn and we made our way through some of the most amazing scenery of our trip. The hills were covered with vibrant green rice paddies in mesmerizing serpant-like shapes. Water buffalos could be found sprinkled amongst the paddies, grazing and cooling off from the sun. The weather was pristine. It wasn’t too hot, not too cold, and the sun was shining. We couldn’t ask for a better day. After enjoying about 9 kilometers of this glorious terrain (stopping every 30 minutes or so to rest and take pictures), we arrived at our lunch spot overlooking a river. The location was lovely but we barely got to enjoy our lunch or the view because it was finally time for the women who were walking with us and the children of the nearby village to pounce. After traveling in SouthEast Asia for six weeks, we were used to being approached to purchase souvenirs, but this took it up about ten notches. The eight of us sat down at the table to eat and we were literally swarmed as if we were all dead cockroaches and the women and kids were ants coming for a feast (side note: yes I am using this metaphor because it is something we see pretty much daily during our travels…see below).(Yummy!)
The girls were mostly selling bracelets and the women were selling handmade bags, wallets, etc. We all ended up buying at least one item but it didn’t seem to help the situation because as soon as we bought one thing, another “salesperson” would come up to us and ask, “Why you NO buy from ME!”. The women slowly exited and left the little ones standing around begging us all to buy more bracelets. Luckily, we were able to distract the girls by playing Rock, Paper, Scissors with them. In between rounds, they would still ask us to buy bracelets, but at least they were being kids and having fun for a few minutes instead of working when they should be playing or going to school. Some of the girls were no more than 5 years old. We were just imagining if our little nieces were forced/taught to do this every day to make money for their families and it made us really sad. It is a difficult thing because on one hand we felt horrible because tourists like us have enabled this lifestyle for them and on the other hand, tourists like us put money into their pockets so that they can live more comfortably. Quite the traveller’s dilemma.
After our impromptu shopping trip, we trekked three more kilometers to our homestay. We crossed over a brand new concrete bridge to get there (recently added due to the tourist traffic) and passed by a nice looking bar with signs for beer and cocktails and other signs for massages and spa sessions. I felt as if I was in some sort of twilight zone. Weren’t we supposed to be going to a homestay in the middle of a village to meet the family and live like they do? Somehow a touristy bar and the opportunity to have a massage in the middle of the rice paddies seemed, well, inappropriate. The homestay was only two or three buildings from the bar and we were all welcomed with open arms. We all shared the open upstairs level with mattresses on the floor and bug nets. Very basic, but surprisingly comfortable. Our guide was picked up by her husband on a motorbike to head back to her village for the evening. At least we felt better that she didn’t have to walk the rest of the way!
We had arrived mid-afternoon, so some of our group decided to go get a beer next door at the bar. After they left, the son of the family explained to us (through Google translate) that a European man opened that bar and has been indirectly forcing them to change their way of life to keep up with the desires of tourists. The homestay had hot water, beer for sale, and WIFI!! Apparently, what we imagined when coming to a homestay in the middle of a rice paddy is what their home used to be before the European moved into town – basic, no WIFI, cold water showers, etc. With the tourism industry on the rise, they had to make upgrades or they would no longer be able to compete. This was more than enough to convince us not to patronize the foreign-owned establishments. Instead, we spent the afternoon hanging out on the porch, chatting with each other, and taking in the marvelous rice paddy views.
We were treated to some tea and amazing garlic fries as a snack and then were spoiled with the best meal we had in Vietnam (tied with our Blue Butterfly creations in Hanoi)! The dinner consisted of lemongrass pork, veggies and chicken, a version of the popular Vietnamese tofu tomato dish, rice, and of course, fried spring rolls! We topped this off with some local rice wine and played “chopsticks” (think “spoons,” but with chopsticks as to make-do with the resources at our disposal) with our fellow travelers. The evening was remarkably cool and we were smitten to be wearing our down jackets again. We slept like babies under the extremely thick blankets we were given. If they didn’t weigh so much, I would have purchased a few and sent them home because I still dream about them.
We woke up the next morning to banana honey crepes, thanked our hosts, and hit the dusty trail again for five kilometers through more rice paddies and bamboo forests. This day, our guide was carrying her baby boy on her back the entire journey. He was quiet the whole time! She stopped a few times to feed him, but he seemed quite content with the journey and he must be very used to it. We had a stopover at a gorgeous waterfall where we took in some final majestic views before a lunch consisting of ramen noodles with an egg on top. We were again joined by women and children selling bracelets and bags. Luckily, it was much less crazy this time. That was a good thing because we didn’t bring much cash with us and couldn’t afford any more souvenirs!
Now guess who we saw while we waited for a bus to come to take us back to the main area of Sapa? Alex! This was the third or fourth time we had run into him since we split up in Saigon! He rented a motorbike just for the day to check out the views and was headed into the villages as we were heading back to town. We caught up for a few minutes until we had to get on our bus and we left him behind as he was swarmed by the bracelet queens.
We spent the rest of our day in Sapa briefly exploring the town before having our final meal at Sapa Summit Hotel. Although the trip felt much more touristy than we expected, we still had an amazing time seeing the villages and spending time with our trekking group and the villagers. We hope to see the travelers we met again whether it be on the road or in one of our home countries. If any of you read this, you are most welcome in Boulder or anywhere else we happen to be in the states!
We caught our night train back to Hanoi and spent the following day in a hotel cafe doing our taxes. We couldn’t escape Uncle Sam, even halfway around the world. Our taxes were quite complicated this year because we got married and I was self-employed for half of the year, so needless to say it wasn’t our favorite day of the trip. We still managed to meet a nice older couple from the states with a friend who runs a trekking company in Nepal! Even doing taxes while traveling allowed us to make worldwide connections! We breathed a huge sigh of relief when everything was finally submitted and spent our last precious hours in Vietnam purchasing some gifts and gorging on Vietnamese food from Blue Butterfly. We weren’t really mentally prepared yet, but we would soon board a twenty-two hour bus to Vientiane, Laos! Giant huntsman spiders, here we come!