Sapa is a popular tourist town in the northwest corner of Vietnam that serves as a gateway for visiting the ethnic hill tribes that live in the area. Around Sapa there are rolling hills covered in rice terraces and many small Hmong and Dzao villages, where people still follow their traditional ways of life (although western influence and tourist money is slowly changing that).
Most tourists book a package that includes the train, accommodation, and trekking with a guide, but we contacted a guide ourselves through Sapa Sisters, a group of local guides from the Black Hmong tribe. Our guide, Mao, was excellent and we got a much more personal experience than the larger tour groups had, plus we knew the money we spent was going directly to our guide and not a travel agency in Hanoi.
After a quick bowl of pho in the market, we were off hiking. I thought it was going to be an easy hike when I saw Mao in big purple boots, but I was wrong – it wasn’t easy, it was just muddy. Mao took us off the main trail and along tiny trails used by the locals. Even though we had a guide, we also had two other women follow us, helping us whenever the trail became slippery or steep. It wasn’t until we stopped for lunch, almost 3 hours later, that they tried to sell us something. Emily bought a small purse. That’s 3 hours of hard work for a $2 sale.
Persistence was a common sales technique for the older Black Hmong women. The young girls relied on their excellent English and their cuteness. I don’t think they understood our responses, but they would ask “Where are you from?” “What’s your name?” and a few other stock phrases in perfect English before trying to sell you a bracelet.
I enjoyed the scenery along our hike, even though the hills were shrouded in fog. The view would be amazing in the summer when the rice is in bloom. The highlight of our hike though was talking to Mao about her life and discussing the interesting cultural differences of life among the hill tribes. Most of the tribes in the area originally migrated from China hundreds of years ago. The women seem to be the bread winners and still dress in traditional clothing, while the men are a bunch of slackers. Mao told us the guys have trouble learning English, so all the guides are women. The women also do a lot of the daily work and cooking.
The most interesting thing we learned from Mao was about the marriage customs. According to her, she’s been ‘married’ to her husband for a year (she’s only 17) and they live together, but they haven’t had a wedding yet. She was hoping that during the new year celebrations, both of their families would give their blessing and then they could have a wedding.
Our night in Sapa was spent at an “intimate” homestay in a small village, or at least that’s how it was advertised. There were 12 other people and enough bed’s to sleep 30, so it was more of a rural hostel. However, the other guests were friendly and it was good to get advice on places to go on the rest of our trip. We had an excellent, candle-lit (the power went out) dinner and afterwards our hosts brought out “happy water” – home-brewed rice wine. It was served from a water bottle, and even though it was remarkably strong, it was also very smooth.
The next morning we got up early for a motorbike ride back to Sapa and then a bus trip to Bac Ha, home to a popular Sunday market. The hill tribes (mostly Flower Hmong) converge on the city to swap fabrics, foods, and livestock. Unlike most of the other markets we visited in Vietnam, the Bac Ha market is largely geared at locals, with only a small section selling souvenirs. While we wandered around taking pictures, Mao went off shopping for dried beans and a purse.