We knew by now that big Vietnamese cities weren’t really for us, so it was no shame really, that we arrived in Hanoi and it was pissing down with rain. We settled in to an afternoon of watching films and popped to the lakeside street party. The night train would be leaving at 10.30pm so we had plenty of time to kill in a comfy hotel lobby.
The oddest thing happened, when at 9.15 the train station called the hotel to say that our train had been cancelled and we would have to catch the early train that would be leaving in 15 MINUTES.
We arrived to a very surprised Rep'- let’s call her 'Shelly' who had, I suspect not been able to fill up the late train and so cancelled it at late notice, hoping that we’d miss the earlier one. What she didn’t realise though is that we are organised to the point of being anally retentive and were packed and ready to leave in plenty of time- young kids or no.
Shelly walked us up and down the train whilst the youngest cried hysterically, he was inconsolable as our train was pulling away. She seemed more annoyed with us for being there than anything and dismissed us, saying to catch the train tomorrow.
Mike made it quite clear that this would not be possible due to our pre-booked hotel and tour, and followed her around the train station asking her what she was going to do with us. Shelly’s English seemed to fail her at this point, but we persisted, sitting on the floor in front of her with children, surrounded by a pile of bags and shattered dreams of rice paddies and Hilltribe treks.
Eventually the Manager, Dong from our hotel turned up.
That’s weird? He went home with his heavily pregnant wife several hours ago.
Yes, Shelly had called him to the station to get rid of us. Amid the wails and cries of our children, our Knight In Shining Armour SOMEHOW managed to persuade her to pay $300 for a private car to drive us to Sapa- she did the right thing through gritted teeth and we arrived in one piece at 3am. Lucky for us our driver drank a lot of Red Bull and Mike stayed awake in the front to grab the steering wheel when necessary. The driver was tired and the roads were windy- but we got there and our hotel even had staff sleeping in the lobby (sorry staff!) so we could go straight to our room! The stars were all shining on us that night.
The next day we woke up to crisp, mountain air and hit the town. We had booked a tour with Ethos Community Spirit who finance literacy and anti-trafficking projects amongst the Hilltribe communities. When we wandered through the town and up to see them, we were captivated. Hoa the owner met us and was bright, charming and full of energy- I loved what she was doing and that she had so many Guides and Hilltribe service users hanging around, learning and teaching traditional crafts, funded by the treks. We signed up, happily.
Our guide Chat, met us the next day at our hotel and she was dressed head to toe in handmade traditional costume. This was the first thing that drew me to Sapa was the Hilltribe textiles and I immediately had a massive grin on my face. I get to hang out all day with this woman WHO LOOKED SO COOL.
I have always loved to craft with fabric and wool, when I saw the home grown hemp, spun, died with indigo and adorned with embroidery I was lost to it. Chat walked us through the town telling us about herself and I asked about the clothing and how everyone makes their own.
Doesn’t anyone get lazy and just sew something practical and quick?!
Chat laughed. Obviously not… and gave me a knowing look. Then I remembered the people (me?!) who went over the top at school Bake Sales and World Book Day costumes with their Pinterest creations- I realised that some things are the same the world over. Clothing was a badge of honour- why would you take short cuts when you could wear something beautiful?
The market in Sapa had been moved to purpose built structure, which was practical if not exactly beautiful. The produce though was another matter.
It was a dream being introduced to the stall owners by Chat who helped us to try things and explained what everything was. We purchased the ingredients we needed to cook our lunch in the Hmong village and Chat filled up her backpack basket with chicken and fresh vegetables. To me, it weighed a ton but to her, this was all in a days work. I sort of offered to get Mike to carry it for her, but lucky for him, she wouldn’t have any of it. I know, I’m generous, right?
We were taken by taxi to our trekking start point and wound our way up the hills, chewing on sugar cane and stopping every 5 seconds to take in the beauty of the rice paddies that were appearing beneath us.
We stopped at a school that was under the shade of the village ‘spirit tree’ in the Hang Da village and wandered up the hills, watching the villagers working and the buffalo grazing on the growing number of terraces below us. It was an easy trek but at the uphill points the children found it a bit tricky. The sugar cane helped- and Chat was warm and easy with her encouragements, so they stepped up for her and we managed to reach our destination with minimal complaining.
We were welcomed like old friends by our hosts and Chat immediately sat us down whilst she looked over her friend’s embroidery. This easy intimacy that the women had and interest in each others craft was touching- the younger woman with a baby clearly asking advice of the more experienced Chat and true to form she encouraged and assisted her before getting us all to help chop the vegetables for lunch.
Chat cooked with our hosts over an open fire in their home, which was a simple structure made of wood with an earth floor. There were two bedrooms and an outside toilet which were shared by 10 people. The ceiling was draped in corn, drying out to be used as animal feed or as popcorn for the children. It was home that was practical and also cherished- you could tell- as all the women fell into their places around the fire to catch up on the day.
Animals were constantly being shooed out with good humour as we talked. Their symbiotic relationship was evident as both relied on the other for survival, especially during the harsh Winters that the women told me about.
Our children were in heaven- a house perched on the side of a mountain full of chickens, puppies and pigs, vegetables to prepare and corn to feed the animals. What’s not to love? They quickly ate their lunch and then returned to tending the pigs.
We sat and talked to our female hosts as the men were out working- how do you give birth? (at home!)How do you marry? (you get ‘stolen’ during Tet!) Why do wear combs on your hair (it’s like a wedding ring!) and what’s it like in Winter? (Bloody hard!)
Chat patiently interpreted for the six or seven women who all came in turn to meet us, then at last came the guest of honour- the eighty year old Great Great Grandmother. She brought with her a bottle of rice wine to have with our lunch and wouldn’t let us leave- she giggled, until we had drank it all.
Who were we to be rude? So we spent the afternoon eating, chatting, laughing and learning as many Hmong words as we could. Needless to say I have forgotten them all.
Babies were passed around and jokes were made. It might have been the rice wine, but I could talk all day long about how wonderful that simple house was and how much life and kindness shone out of our hosts’ faces. We realised we really HAD been there all day and it was time to go but not without promises to return. The connection felt genuine and despite sharing such little language, it was profoundly felt by us Wheelers.
The walk home was, unsurprisingly a bit more wobbly for us adults than the walk there. The rice wine was still a good idea though, I’d forget the headache in time.
The sight of the cloud rolling through the mountain distracted us and hangovers were forgotten in an instant. Chat explained that the Black Hmong were originally nomadic and from Siberia, but had settled here for hundreds of years… With the growth of population, many more Vietnamese people were moving up the mountains and encroaching on the Black Hmong land. Their land is communal and not ‘owned’ by anyone leaving their villages vulnerable to being divided up and sold to the highest bidder.
Living such hand-to mouth existence would mean that without their land, the Hmong would have nothing to farm and nowhere for their animals to live. It is a real worry that this change will cause the Black Hmong’s way of life to be eradicated. Seeing the beauty of their culture- unchanged for hundreds of years gave me mixed feelings about our trek.
I was so honoured to witness this beauty, but tourism is its demise, surely? How ethical was our visit, bringing our Western ways to the mountain village?
I spoke with Chat who was passionate about Ethos, our trekking company who were an advocate for the Ethnic Minorities in Sapa. Change in inevitable but revenue from tourism can be used to educate and conserve heritage. I felt proud of our decision to use ethical services and the extra expense was worth every. Single. Penny.
Chat’s husband kept calling her mobile, as we had spent ALL DAY on the rice wine- but she didn’t seem to mind. We were taken by taxi back to Ethos HQ where we met other people being briefed about their treks. We glowed after our incredible day- what better advertisement than this! Hoa and her helpers handed out tea and introduced everyone by name- the place was a hub of passion and excitement and it felt more like a party than a place of business.
We eventually left after much tea and talking- safe in the knowledge that in our six months of travel this had been the most poignant and profound yet. Sapa had ruined us but in the best way possible. We can’t wait to return.
Where we stayed:
Blue Sky Hotel, Hanoi- 16 GBP per night with the best customer service we have experienced.
Sapa Memory Hotel- 20 GBP per night for family room.
How we got around:
Sleeper train from Hanoi to Lau Cai (the nearest station to Sapa) cost 23 GBP return, arranged by Blue Sky Hotel as the system was fraught with scams! (see above)
If arriving at Lau Cai station you will need to take a 1 hour taxi or bus from the station to Sapa town- best arranged via hotel.
All transport relating to our trek was provided by Ethos Community Spirit
What we ate:
Banh Mi from local stalls and at local Vietnamese restaurants. Many tourist restaurants existed but were quite expensive so we ate local and the food was good.
What we did:
Ethos Spirit of the Community- a tour for a family of 4 would cost 120 GBP each for a 1 day experience- other tour options are available including homestays.
Sapa Market for lots of bargaining and handicraft loveliness.
Sapa Museum- the kids loved having a tea party with the display. We weren't popular but nothing was broken!