A Trip To The Tonkinese Alps Part 2 : Hiking The Mountains

Hiking or trekking in Sapa is not quite like most countries we have visited where trails were well marked, distances annotated, and difficulty graded. Over in Sapa, these concepts don’t exist. Trails exist not for the hiker or the tourist. They exist for villagers in the mountains to get from one place to another. They are well trodden by villagers. The paths exist so that the villagers can survive and make a living.  The guide told us that she had to walk 10 km just to get to the market in town.

During our trip, we would trek to some remote villages and have hot lunches at a local home. We started on shorter routes to get a good feel of the trails and did longer ones when we got more accustomed.

Unlike in temperate countries, the trails here in Southeast Asia were often muddy with occasional landslides. Our guides who were locals were very familiar with the area and knew exactly where to avoid.

We went with friends and our fitness level varied. Luckily with a lot of encouragement and cheering, everyone was able to subdue their fear and overcome the obstacles. We crossed multiple rivers. Some with bridges while others, the slippery rocks were the only way.

Having spent most of our weekends riding bikes and hiking back home had somewhat helped to prepare the kids for this trip. Still, it wouldn’t be possible for my 5 year old to make it all the way if not for the occasion free rides on his Dad’s strong shoulders.

My old hiking boots gave way after just 1 day of walking but luckily I had brought my running shoes along. However, without good ankle support and with soles that weren’t really meant for trails, I was worried that I couldn’t make it far in them.

The local guides all wore the same kind of slippers. They told us that their 1 dollar slippers work best. The soft soles allowed their toes to grip on the rocks and gave them a good feel of the soil. Few of us could match their speed in traversing the more challenging terrains and I think we must have looked really stupid moving clumsily in our ‘expensive’ looking hiking boots.

We arrived on a cloudy day and the weather forecast for the next couple of days kind of dampened my spirit. Even with a waterproof jacket, I was not keen to be hiking in the drizzle for a few hours.

Thankfully, like in most mountains, the weather never matches the weather forecast. We had the most beautiful weather during the last 2 days of our trip and we did the best hikes with the best views.

The villages had been praying to the mountains and ‘spirit trees’ for their padi fields and they were happy to have their prayers answered.

I realised that while trekking the mountains to us is a form of sports, hobby and leisure, to the villages, these mountains are sacred and their livelihood depends on them. I was reminded how these mountains deserved our respect simply by being there.

Read Part 1 for the trip : A Homecooked Meal
Read Part 3 of the trip : Children of Sapa
Read Part 4 of the trip : Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls



A Trip To The Tonkinese Alps Part 1 : A Home Cooked Meal

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.

Finally, after an hour or 2, our first home cooked meal was served. We had tofu, susu leaves and some stir fried meat dishes. It was a meal like no others.



Read Part 2 of our trip : Hiking the mountains
Read Part 3 of our trip : Children of Sapa
Read Part 4 of our trip : Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls


An Evening With 3 Bananas (A Banana ‘Bread’ Recipe)

It all began with 3 overly ripe bananas sitting in my pantry. I could have just chucked them into the bin and saved all the hassle. After a game of tennis with the boys under the blazing hot afternoon sun, I was tired out, but I couldn’t rest as dinner was waiting to be cooked. To squeeze in baking during this time of the day would almost guarantee a very grumpy me, especially if the bake turned out less than desired.

Somehow, I decided to hang on to those 3 bananas and multitask (which really isn’t my forte). So I stir fried and searched for a good banana cake/bread/muffin recipe. Having ran out of butter made the task even more challenging. I highly suspect that my judgement was grossly impaired by fatigue. I could have ended up wasting more (in terms of ingredients, time and effort) with a failed bake while trying to save the 3 bananas. (which cost a dollar?) Nevertheless, I ploughed on mindlessly.

I found a recipe that required no butter, no creaming, no proofing, no yeast and they called it a bread. It baffled me. My limited knowledge in baking told me that if there is creaming, it’s usually a cake. When there is yeast and proofing, it’s usually a bread and if it’s just mixing wet and dry ingredients, it’s a muffin. And to call the latter a bread, chances are, the person probably couldn’t tell the difference between a muffin and a bread. Either that, or it’s called giving false hope.

Yet I plunged into it, while braving myself for disappointment. (and I couldn’t fathom why I would risk my sanity over 3 bananas)

I mixed everything up in 15 minutes and popped the batter into the oven. An hour later …


It was crispy and fragrant on the outside and fluffy and light on the inside. It was so freaking tasty that I ate 2 big slices even after a full dinner.

I still don’t know what to call this. A cross between a bread, a cake and a muffin? Whatever it is, I got so excited that I stayed up the night to complete this post, a rarity these days.

Plunging into the unknown can be scary but it could be totally rewarding. Who would have thought that I would get so inspired over 3 bananas, definitely not me!

Banana Walnut Bread
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Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
1 hr
Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
1 hr
  1. 2 cups flour
  2. 1 teaspoon baking soda
  3. 1 teaspoon baking powder
  4. 1 teaspoon salt
  5. 3 eggs
  6. 1/2 cup sugar
  7. 3 very ripe bananas
  8. A handful of walnuts, crushed
  9. 1/2 cup olive oil
  1. Preheat the oven to 175 deg C.
  2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
  3. In a large bowl, whip together the eggs and sugar till pale and foamy.
  4. Stir in the mashed bananas and oil.
  5. Stir in the flour mixture, a third at a time, until just combined.
  6. Stir in the walnuts.
  7. Pour the batter into a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan. Bake for about 1 hour.
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