Take a Hike: Trek and Homestay in Sapa
After a 12-hour overnight train ride from Hanoi, we welcomed the sight of cascading valleys lined with lush green rice terraces and towering mountains drenched in fog with sleepy eyes that grew wider and wider as more of the awe-inspiring landscape of Sapa came into view. It was the last weekend of our big trip and we were determined to go out with a bang. One look at this remote frontier town and we knew we couldn't have chosen a better place to wrap up our adventures.
As we made our way to our guesthouse, we heard voices emerging from circles of ethnic tribal women decked out in handmade indigo clothing and varying head accessories: "Trekking?" "You want to trek?" "Trek with me!" We definitely wanted to hire our own local guides rather than booking a tour, but with flocks of ladies swarming us, we didn't really know where to start. In the end, we decided on a pair from the Black H'mong tribe ~ Lam and Zur ~ who didn't make us feel hassled into anything and offered a good price for a one-day trek plus a homestay. And honestly, I think we just wanted the opportunity to squeeze the cheeks on Zur's little baby Ku as much as we wanted.
Bordering China, Sapa is home to eight different ethnic minority groups who live in the hills and make their living cultivating rice, hosting treks and homestays and producing handicrafts in their differing tribal styles. I absolutely loved the look of the Black H'mong's long indigo blouses with intricate embroidery in a rainbow of colors. They're also characterized by the long scarves they wear wrapped around their legs, the combs they wear to hold their wrapped hair in place and the large earrings through their ears that indicate that a woman is married. "We sometimes wonder what's wrong with a woman if she doesn't have the hoop earrings in," Lam explained, noting that the earrings are made from Australian coins.
Throughout our trek, we also learned about the neighboring tribes and how each group speaks an entirely different language. The "o'chaus" we used to thank our H'mong guides were switched to "chau becks" when we stayed in a homestay run by a family of the Giay tribe later that evening, although most of the people we encountered understood a basic English "thank you" or the Vietnamese "gahm unh."
Trekking over uneven terrain and steep rice terraces, it took us nearly three hours to reach Lam and Zur's adjacent homes in Lao Chai village. Needless to say, we worked up quite an appetite along the way. To combat the hunger, we picked bright orange, raspberry-esque berries that Lam pointed out as edible.
When we finally arrived to their modest homes, we lit a fire on the floor of Zur's kitchen area and cooked up a hearty meal with ingredients from the market in town. The tofu dishes were absolutely to die for, but I was a bit put off from eating the chicken dish as they were still in full-form when we bought them from the market. I wish I could cover all my food in the spicy chili-lime sauce they whipped up!
From there, we continued on for a couple of hours to get to the next village for our homestay, stopping for souvenirs and photo opportunities at every turn.