We just came back from a one week holiday in an incredibly picturesque mountain town in Northern Vietnam. Sapa is located at 1500m above sea level and lies in the mountain range near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam, known as the Tonkinese Alps.
We were contemplating between going back to the quaint mountain village in Switzerland and somewhere nearer. We chose the latter for its rugged scenery and its rich cultural diversity but we later realised that the journey with a 3 hour plane ride to Hanoi and an 8 hours train ride to Lao Cai followed by an hour drive to Sapa town, was comparable to a trip to the Swiss Alps.
It was our first time taking a night train and it turned out to be one of the highlights for the trip. The cabin we booked for our family was a cozy little space with 4 bunk beds. The boys were thrilled to board the train and they would have climbed and jumped from bed to bed the whole night if we allowed them.
We had read up a bit about the place before the trip but it didn’t quite prepare us for the experience that followed. There was much uncertainty when it came to mountain weather and the mood of a 5 year old. Thankfully the tour agency we chose, Ethos Adventures, was very flexible in planning an itinerary that suited us. They basically took into consideration the weather, the fitness level of our group and our needs and preferences. I seriously haven’t come across a tour agency that is more thoughtful.
The tour agency is run by an Englishman Phil and his Vietnamese wife Hoa and I was truly impressed by how they strive to be a responsible leader in the tourism industry. Apart from providing tourists with an unique travel experience, they aim to preserve the traditional cultures of the colourful hill tribe people and help to improve the lives of these ethnic minorities.
We arrived in Sapa on Sunday morning and as soon as we deposited our luggages with the hotel, we were introduced to our tour guide, So. She was a chirpy 30 year old who was from the Hmong tribe but spoke impeccable English. We planned to have a traditional home cooked lunch at her home and we had to make a trip to the local market to get the necessary ingredients.
A typical meal in the family consists of mainly rice and vegetable. Meat dishes are considered a luxury and are only reserved for special occasions like for weddings and friends. The Hmong are farmers who make their own traditional costumes and grow their own crop. It takes about 6 months to make a set of traditional clothes, from making their own thread to sewing it and 4 months to grow the rice. They store the harvested rice to feed the family and corn for the buffaloes that work in the padi fields.
They barely grow enough crops to feed their family and few families are able to sell what they have grown in the market. Leaving leftover rice in your bowl is considered a serious wastage. Guide So supplements their family income by working as a tour guide.
She brought us to her home which is built from wood and laid with clay flooring. The house was dark with almost no light except for sunlight that streamed through the cracks between the roof and wooden walls of the house. When it comes to winter months, the cold air enters through the cracks and makes the house unbearably cold.
It literally takes a village to build a house as all houses in the village were built by the villagers. Guide So told us that it took them many months to gather the wood needed to build the house but just 1 day to put the house together, with the help of other villagers.
In the living room, the kids helped to prepare susu leaves for stir fried. Susu plant is a local plant they grow for its fruits and leaves. Everything was cooked over an open fire in the house with lard which was stored each time a pig was slaughtered.
While waiting for lunch to be cooked, the kids poured out a gunny sack of toys – rusty metal rings and wooden walking stilts. They spent a fair bit of time playing with newly hatched little chicks and learning how to ‘weave’ their own toys using wild plants from the roadside.