When I started planning this adventure back in March, one of the things on my must-do list was a trip to Sapa. I had seen pictures from friends who had traveled here, and it just looked majestic. So, when the forecast was set to rain the entire time I was there, I was bummed, and wondering if I should still continue with my trek.
Almost as an answer, it seemed as though the world conspired against me as I was on my way to the train station. My taxi was late and charged me too much, the train company lost my ticket, and it started to pour. Visibly distraught, I was comforted by a woman from Dallas who realized I just needed a hug. Just when I was about to give up, the manager came to get me and gave me and told me to hop on his motorbike. Were we biking to Sapa? I was definitely not prepared for that. What ensued was a quick ride in the rain straight to my train car. As raindrops were falling on my head, I realized what was happening, and I just laughed. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected in Vietnam.
Once aboard the train, I met the two women who I shared my compartment with. They were both from Taiwan and around my age. One of them had even lived in Colorado!! Small world! The train ride was slow, rickety, and loud, but I still slept like a rock. This whole traveling thing is tiring!
Upon getting to Lao Cai, I boarded an hour long bus, or 15 passenger van, to Sapa, where went to the Sapa O’Chau* office. I had found this NGO thanks to the Lonely Planet book. They are an organization completely owned and run by local minority people (who from the looks of it were no older than 22) and they sponsor a high school through their tour service. At their office, I was greeted by cinnamon tea and hot breakfast. My Sapa journey was quickly looking up.
It was at breakfast that I met Nina, from Germany, and Vroni, from Austria. We quickly hit it off and Vroni and I spent time talking about the wonderful city that is Vienna. I may have to make that my next trip… Ich vermisse Wien! They were going on a different trek, but we are following a similar path down south. I hope I meet up with them again!!
Around 9:00, I met my guide, May, and the two other people I would be traveling with, Zach and Konstantin, two recent grads from the US. We set off by foot through Sapa Town (passing the water buffalo that were in the middle of the city) and then we were off on our trek!
May is from the Red Dao minority in Sapa, one of 6 minority groups who live in this region. She met us in her traditional costume that she made herself, and spent one year making!! May encouraged us to ask her anything about her culture because she knows everything, which was so true. May just started leading tours 5 months ago, and she has only been speaking English for 7 months, which absolutely floored me. She taught herself, and was eager to learn and ask us for help. She also speaks her local language, Vietnamese, other local languages, and a little French.
The Red Dao is a patriarchal society, and May is from a village of about 3,000 people. Weddings are a very big deal in Red Dao culture, taking about 3 days and over 1,000 people attend. May is recently engaged and will get married in October. However, as is custom, she did not get to choose her husband and did not meet him until they got engaged. She is now living with his family, as is also custom. The arranged marriage custom was so interesting to learn about because I have such strong feelings about being an independent woman and what that means in the US. Most girls get married young (14-16) in Red Dao culture, so May is older at 21. I definitely found it hard to not impose my beliefs on another culture, and this reconciliation of the two ideas has been eye-opening.
As a part of the wedding ceremony, she has to make costumes for herself, her husband, and her mother in law. These costumes are incredibly intricate and take over a year! Women begin to sew at age 7 in Red Dao communities and spend a lot of their time sewing. Many of the women that we passed or women at the homestay were constantly sewing during any free time. In addition to sewing, women help with the daily life in the villages, cooking, going up on the mountain and feeding animals, gathering herbs for medicine, fishing, planting and harvesting rice, and many other activities. Most of what the Red Dao consumed are cultivated by the community. Children in the community go to school, but most do not get degrees, so getting jobs outside of the community is hard. Right now, May’s sister is the only person going to university in the village (though May has a desire to go as well).
On our trek, we hiked down into the valley through the rice fields. Much of the first part of the trek was completely downhill, rocky, and very wet. Sapa O’Chau provided us rain boots, and I am so glad I took them. With the rain boots and the poncho I had a nice tourist chic look going on, but was I glad I did. Hiking along the rice paddies was really slippery, and I almost fell a few time’s. It gave me an incredible appreciation for the hard work that the farmers do in Sapa. I was initially concerned that we’d have fog all day, but we still got amazing views of the rice paddies and mountains. The fog just added to the atmospheric grandeur.
Along the way, we passed through many small villages. One village was a Hmong village, another minority group that has different customs, traditions, and language than the Red Dao. All of the communities use indigo for clothing, and we saw a man making indigo dye as we passed. May explained how they get the indigo that color and the process by which the dye is created. When people are making dye, their skin is dyed a deep blue, and it often stays that color for months.
Throughout the trek, we passed many water buffalo, pigs, chickens, and dogs. The animals just roam freely, but everyone knows which animal is theirs. I’m not quite sure how they keep track of all of them. May said her mom has over 100 pigs and she can look at them and know that they are hers.
We had lunch in the village of Ta Phin, which means big flat. Our lunch was a delicious meal of rice, steamed chicken and vegetables, cabbage, egg, and spring rolls. Though a simple meal, it was warm and filling, which is just what I needed mid-trek.
As we set off again after lunch, we were followed by a group of young girls trying to get us to buy from them. May explained that this is a problem for the minority cultures. Children will follow tourists and ask them to buy things, and if they do, they won’t go to school. Instead it is better to give them supplies or fruit.
May explained many of the customs surrounding their costumes. Everyone has a slightly different costume based on what they like, but there are some symbols that everyone uses like rice, pine trees, and chicken feet.
When we finally made it to the village, May took us to her parents house. The house is very simple, but very spacious. In the main room, there is one stove (a hole in the ground with wood planks) that is used during winter to warm the house, the main room also had a temple dedicated to the family’s ancestors. Red Dao are not religious, but they pray for their ancestors. The next room we saw was the kitchen where there were many big pots and pans, a large wok looking stove used for making rice wine, and a small stove for cooking. Sitting over the stove, we met May’s grandmother, who was drying toilet paper. Why? I’m not sure, but why not? She was an absolute riot. As one of the older women in the village, she does not speak English, but sitting there drying her toilet paper, she had a lot to say. I wish I could understand her, because she was so full of life and energy! We also saw the bedroom, which consists of one bed shared by all 6 members of the family. May’s house has been used by 4 generations, which is a long time for houses in the area. They made the house themselves using wood from the forest. During recreation time, women stay in the kitchen and men sit in the main room. In the past, men and women used to eat separately, but now they eat together thanks to tourism and being exposed to new customs.
After touring May’s house, we went to or homestay across the street, owned by May’s cousin. We had a few hours to relax in the serenity and peacefulness of Ta Phin. After the business of Hanoi, the nature and stillness of Ta Phin was idyllic. In Ta Phin, there is a cave that members of the community hid in during the war. The Vietnamese government would not let them fight, so most of the community stayed in the cave.
During our rest time, May and her family members taught me and the women staying with May’s family how to sew. For anyone who knows me well, they will know that I’m not great at crafts and I don’t t have patience. This was no exception. The stitching, though relatively simple, was complicated for me and took a finesse that I do not possess. After a few failed attempts, May finished my bracelet for me, and it is beautiful.
Dinner that night was in our homestay with The adults of May’s family. Similar to lunch, we had rice, pork and vegetables, steamed morning glory with garlic, flash-fried fish (yummmmm), potatoes, beans, and spring rolls. It was all amazing. Simple flavors, but beyond delicious. Everything we had, down to the cooking oil from trees, was from the community. May explained that meat is eaten at special occasions, but most meals are rice and vegetables. Eating with the whole family was quite the experience. It was loud, vibrant, and full of love. Though we didn’t speak the same language, it was easy to communicate. When the rice wine was poured (and poured again and again), “cheers” is something that can be understood in any language.
After dinner, May and her cousin drew us Herbal Baths in tubs that reminded me of the matchmaker scene in Mulan. The Red Dao are famous for their herbal baths, and after a day of hiking, it was the most wonderful and relaxing thing imaginable. Between the bath and exhaustion, I passed out for a deep sleep (finally!!!)
The next morning, I woke up to a rooster (which makes sense on a farm!!!) and relished the absolute serenity that was Ta Phin in the morning. For breakfast, we had pancakes that were really crepes with honey from the mountain and bananas. Yummmmm. We got to speak to May’s cousin, also named May (it’s a popular community name meaning the first girl), for a bit as she joined us for breakfast. She has been hosting tourists for five years and has met people from all over the world. I can’t imagine how amazing it would be to have people come into your home to learn about your culture. Both women loved that they get to meet people from around the world and learn so much about other cultures by being hosts. After breakfast, we said goodbye to May’s family (and the adorable children I became friends with) and set off on our trek again.
Our second day was much foggier than our first, and we had a persistent mist follow us on our journey. Despite that, the trek was amazing. Most of our second day was through the forests of the mountains. The terrain was so lush and green but difficult to maneuver. As we were walking, it hit me why this country was so difficult for the US soldiers as the pervasive mist and overgrowth would have been completely foreign to many of them.
I asked May about her culture’s music (#musicteacher), and she explained that they didn’t really have any music. The local songs were very hard and only the older people knew them. When we passed a Hmong village, however, we heard a Hmong man singing a local song, which was beautiful and haunting.
We finished our trek with lunch of fried noodles at a small rest stop and made our way to a car for our ride back to Sapa. Once we returned, I said goodbye to May and got invited to her wedding in October. I told her I’d plan on attending.
I had a few hours to kill, so I walked a bit around Sapa Town. Sapa Town is small, but manageable and clean. May had explained that many Vietnamese people have moved into Sapa to start businesses for tourism. I wandered around the city for a bit, stopping at the market where minority women were selling their crafts. The market was alive with color as all of the women were in their minority costume. I wish I learned more about each costume and what they meant!
After wandering the market, I talked with a couple from Moldova, who told me all about the galleries I needed to see in Hanoi, and watched a bit of the World Cup with the tour guides at Sapa O’Chau before boarding my bus to Lao Cai. Lao Cai is right across the river from China, so I did a quick wave to a different country. We arrived at the train station, and I was quickly given my ticket and told I’d been upgraded! Such a better experience than in Hanoi!! A nice family from Quebec City was on my bus, and they invited me to join them for dinner. I have loved meeting people from all over the world and it has been incredible eye opening to recognize that some of what I thought I knew was very wrong. Vincent, Isabelle, and Marianne were so lovely and kind, even when I mistakenly made generalizations about Quebec and Canada. It’s a great learning experience for all! We also talked about education (both Vincent and Isabelle work in schools), and recreation in our communities. They are incredibly well traveled, so we discussed all of the places in the US they have been that I have yet to go to. Looks like a road trip is coming up.
After dinner, I boarded my train and we began our journey back. I cannot believe I almost didn’t go to Sapa due to a set back at the train. Even though it rained the entire time, Sapa was easily one of the best experiences of my life. I cannot wait to go back.
Highs of Sapa: Pretty much everything, May as our guide, all of the food, learning about the Red Dao culture and learning to sew. Lows of Sapa: my confusing train situation at the beginning, rain and fog, seeing all the children peddling souvenirs. Surprises of Sapa: my motorbike VIP service, having a grand old time despite the rain, befriending the Quebecois Family for dinner.
*If you are ever going to Sapa, I cannot recommend this organization or May highly enough. I’d be happy to give you details.