August 20, 2014
If you have been following our Facebook posts you might have realized that we fell in love with Sapa. When researching our trip I kept seeing the words, indescribable, exhilarating, beautiful, extraordinary – and even with those words they still don’t completely describe the beauty of this place and the people who live here.
Sapa is northwest of Hanoi – reachable by car or by a 10 hour overnight train. There are about 8 different trains that make this trip daily, all year long. They vary only a little bit in price and in the times they leave and arrive in Sapa. The main difference in price is how you are going to ride the train. We opted for a private car/compartment which is the most expensive, but well worth it.
The ride was long and bumpy from Hanoi to Sapa. I think we slept a little bit. Our train was about 2 hours late arriving in Sapa. We were greeted by our guide but by the time we got to the bus for our hotel it was full. We were put on another bus and then observed a pushing match between our new guide (a tiger lady) and another driver as they argued over who was going to get the passengers. The tiger lady picked up a couple people in town to fill in the empty seats.The price for the 35 K ride was $2.50.
Our bus trip up to the mountain was eventful. Driving in Vietnam is always a hair raising experience, but this was the scariest I have seen so far. Our bus driver was passing everyone, even on the corners. Once we narrowly missed another bus, once a truck and one time a motorbike ran into our bus. No one was hurt but the driver yelled out the window at the bike. Our room wasn’t ready when we arrived – it was only 8:30am, so we had breakfast and decided to take a trek to a local village.
Our hotel, H’Mong Sapa Hotel hires local staff and works with Sapa O’Chau tours, who also hires local guides and helps to educate their guides as well as support the local schools. Most of the youth from the villages only stay in school through 9th grade. The high schools cost to attend and most of the children are needed to help work to support their families, or in the case of the young girls their own children as most get married at 15.
Our first trek was to Cat Cat Village to see the waterfall and then onto another village Xi Chai. It was about 6 miles, usually either going straight down or up. Our guide, Chinh (19) was wonderful, he is from Cat Cat village and we met many of his family along the way. He shared so much about their culture and his family and lifestyle. In their culture when you are ready to take a wife you do so by kidnapping her. His brother (who at 23 has been married 3 times) kidnapped his first wife by breaking into her home with 5 men. She stayed with him 3 days until they went to her parents to pay the bride fee. She refused to go back. His second wife stayed wife him for a year before leaving him to marry someone else. The third wife he took off of the street. It is much cheaper this way. The bride fee is only $50 US if you take her from the street instead of her home. I was really taken aback at first when Chinh explained this, but it isn’t quite as brutal as it sounds. I understood that the women’s family usually know in advance of the kidnapping, and the women are free to go back to their families if they don’t want to stay. Chinh can’t ask for a wife for another year as his brother just got married, they can only have one marriage per family, per year. His 3 younger sisters have all been kidnapped and married. The youngest is 15, the oldest is 17 and she has 2 children.
Our trek on day two was very long, but we are so glad we went. Walking through the many rice paddies, small villages and countryside was breathtaking. Once again our guide, Louis, was so incredible. I am not sure if the people are as genuinely as nice as they seem, or if Sapa O’Chau tours offers suggestions to their guides on customer service. It doesn’t matter – we felt like we were best friends with both guides after spending several hours with them, talking about our families, sharing bits about our cultures and teaching them English while learning (trying) a few H’mong word and phrases from them. At the end of the day we would help our guides with their homework, which was learning a few new words in English, such as anxiety. Try to explain that word to a none English speaker.
This trek took almost all day and was about 12 miles by the time we were through. We went through several small villages before ending up at the Red Dao (pronounced Zao) village where we spent a few minutes in a mineral bath. We were unfortunate to end up at the bath at the same time a group of Vietnamese men were there who had already been partaking in much rice wine and beer. They were very loud which took away some of the joy of our visit and bath. John and I had a “private” room with two barrels. You sit in the barrel of very hot water that has been steeped in many different herbs. It smelled a little like eucalyptus. We were already so hot that the hot water wasn’t that refreshing. We sat in the barrels for as long as we could – only about 10 minutes of the allotted 25.
My words won’t be able to describe the scenery – so the link to the pictures is here.
It is such a different world in Sapa. The life of the people in the villages is simple. Although it has been very changed by the tourist industry which is about 20 years old, their lifestyle in the villages has stayed the same. They do have electricity but only for lights and the occasional T.V.. Their homes are one or two rooms and if they have a second floor it is to dry and store the corn and rice. They cook over fires, usually inside. They work hard at farming and the women at their sewing and embroidering. The women play up their lack of education a bit as they ask you to buy their crafts from them, and those with babies usually ask for you to help support their children by buying their products. They will follow you as you walk through town and on the treks. I liked when they followed us on a trek because that is when we really got to talk to them. We always bought from them trying to spend at least $100,000 VND (about $5) each. Very little for the amount of work they put into their products as well as the amount of time they put into the sale. They were tireless as they walked along for many kilometers, caring their heavy baskets, trying to teach us a few words in Hmong, asking us our name, where we were from, etc. They all speak at least that much English. I can now say, thank you, hello, and goodbye in Vietnamese and H’mong. The ladies in the town don’t really want to visit, they only want us to buy from them, which we did – too much. I really enjoyed watching my husband bargaining with the ladies.
It is so beautiful here – have I mentioned that before? It got very warm during the day although at night it was cool as we sat on the balcony with a bottle of wine and John enjoying his cigar watching the stars come out. There is so much light in Haiphong we seldom see the stars – and they are so close here. It is about 5500 feet in elevation and very foggy, wet and green. It is like Shangri-La.
A few other tidbits –
The H’mong language was never written down so they write their words as they sound in English.
Rice, black cardamom (the spice) and indigo plant (to dye the fabrics) are their biggest crops. They all have water buffalo as well as pigs, ducks and chickens to support their families. Every spare corner grows a vegetable or plant to feed their families or their animals.Read More