“I’m going on a tour of Vietnam.”
Just a generation ago, this was one of the worst things you could hear from a friend or family member. Oh how times have changed…
From China to ‘Nam
After a tiring and frustrating week in China where we had to move all of our worldly belongings out of Beijing, get them down to Kunming, and get them in storage, we were finally ready to hit the road in Southeast Asia. In Kunming, we got our visas for Vietnam and caught the bus down to the border. We walked in one building to exit China, crossed a bridge, and then walked through another to enter ‘Nam. It all seemed too easy for traveling in Asia, but not for long. We wandered around the border city of Lao Cai aimlessly, looking for a bus to take us to Sapa. After numerous people told us that the buses for the day were finished, we admitted defeat and coughed up the cash for a taxi. As we drove up the winding mountain roads, the temperature went down and the fog came out; we could barely see a few feet in front of the car. An hour later, and we finally arrived in Sapa.
You have to have your visa in hand when you arrive at the border of Vietnam. We went to the consulate in Kunming and applied by ourselves. We understand that’s not really an option for everyone. In these cases, we recommend Vietnam Visa to help you get everything in order.
The Town of Sapa
This quaint little mountain town in northwest Vietnam has recently seen a surge of tourists, and there are more and more hotels and shops springing up to meet the growing demand. While the town itself is a nice place to hang out, we went there primarily to trek out to an ethnic minority village and do a home stay. Before we arranged that, though, we decided to spend a few nights in the town. We chose to stay in the Sapa Backpacker’s Hostel, as they provide rooms for homeless or disadvantaged children in the area, along with free English lessons every night (so long as there are travelers willing to teach, that is). As experienced ESL teachers, we figured we could offer our services. Upon our arrival, we were greeted with a warm welcome by a group of young girls and an older lady named Mama Susu. Although we had just met, it already felt like we were home – a great feeling to have when you’re technically homeless as we currently are.
As it was cold, rainy, foggy, and late, we didn’t do much but stroll along the walking street to get a feel for the town. We also enjoyed a fantastic dinner in a place called Little Sapa – spring rolls, beef phở, a sizzling plate of duck, and some ice cold Hanoi beers. Our first meal in the country set the bar high, and it had us excited about eating our way from north to south over the course of the month. With bellies full and satisfied, we retreated to the hostel to get some much needed rest.
Unfortunately the weather gods would not be on our side during our stay in Sapa, and the next day was once again chilly, foggy, and wet. We weren’t going to let it rain on our parade, though, so we still went out to enjoy our one full day in the town. A stroll around the lake, a visit to the church, and a hike up Ham Rong (Dragon’s Mouth) kept us busy.
Despite the low visibility, we had a great time walking up the mountain. Along the way, we passed through well kept gardens, admired funky rock formations jutting out into the fog, stumbled upon a shrine in a cave, and saw a performance of local folk music and dance.
That evening, we hung out in the hostel and taught the English class to the three young girls. They were all so excited to study English with us, as they grabbed notebooks and pencils and pulled up stools. Aged 12, 14, and 17, these girls all left their village for one reason or another and work in the hostel. In spite of their tough life, they always had smiles on their faces, and they were some of the nicest kids we’ve ever come in contact with. One thing’s for sure – they’re much better than the spoiled “Little Emperors” we dealt with in Beijing for the previous three years.
After class we went for a walk around the town as it was a Saturday night. Locals were gathered in the main square, chatting, playing games, and just enjoying the weekend. A cool looking place caught our eyes, and we went in to investigate. We found the Color Bar, a stylish little spot that has original artwork hanging all around. A big Hanoi beer and a glass of the local apple wine (listed as “Romantic Kiss” on the menu) were just what we needed. No night is complete without some street food, so we sat down near an outdoor grill and ordered up some pork and mushrooms on sticks.
Trekking to an Ethnic Minority Village
The next day, we got up early and joined Mama Susu’s sister-in-law, Mama Chi, to head out on a trek to her village. The ladies and the young girls all belong to the Hmong ethnic minority group (there are 54 in total in Vietnam), and they make the 4-hour or so trek between their village and the town multiple times a week. This is how they earn a living – they make handicrafts in the village and sell them to tourists in the town, while also working as tour guides and inviting people to stay in their modest homes.
Thanks to the constant rain, the hike was nice and muddy. As we struggled along in sneakers, the ladies kept on cruising with nothing but plastic flip flops on. On the way, we passed through a few other villages where we saw plenty of chickens, dogs, pigs, and smiling children. Even though the weather was nasty and we were wet and muddy, it was a great hike. A few hours later, and we made it to the village of Hau Thau and Mama Chi’s home.
Her husband was busy going about his daily work, and three of her children were busy playing with friends. We were welcomed into their home as if we were long lost family members, and she immediately set out cooking us up a feast of veggies grown in her garden, pork and mushrooms, tofu, and rice. It was during this lunch that we had our first experience with the local “happy water” – rice wine that’s homemade and probably about 25-30% alcohol. Over food and shots of happy water, we got to know more about Mama Chi, her family, and her village. Although her English was at quite a low level, it was rather impressive considering she’s only learned from talking with foreigners and being a guide.
There wasn’t much to do after lunch thanks to the crummy weather, so we just wandered around the village a bit and sat on her front porch, looking out into the fog and chatting with our fellow guest for the night from Germany. A few hours later and it was time for another group meal and even more shots of happy water. After dinner, the kids turned on their tiny TV to watch a Chinese kung fu show. As the only people in their village with a TV, their home is officially the party spot for the local kids, who trickled in throughout the night to bask in the warm glow of television. At this point, we got the biggest surprise of the trip. Mama Chi scaled a ladder, rummaged through their small attic, and came down with a long, green branch. “You like happy marijuana?”, she asked as she pulled out a bong made from bamboo. Another villager who was hanging out excitedly grabbed it, filled it up, and lit it up for us. Bong hits and television – we were in a minority village in Vietnam, and yet we could have easily been on a couch in Boone or East Lansing.
Exhausted from all of our travels and a long hike, and beautifully buzzed from all of the “happy” things, we slept like babies on our mattress of bamboo. In the morning, Mama Chi cooked for us yet again, but this time we drank green tea instead of happy water. We headed out of the village and walked through the rice fields and past the local schools on our way back to town. A slightly terrifying motorbike ride took us the final five kilometers or so, and we all made it back to the hostel in one piece.
The ladies helped us arrange our transport to Hanoi – an overnight sleeper bus equipped with rows of beds. We said our goodbyes and told them we hoped to return again sometime in nicer weather. As we were leaving, Mama Susu gave us each one of her handmade bracelets as a token of friendship. These ladies and these young girls – who live what most Americans would consider a very tough life – are some of the happiest, friendliest, and just all around pleasant people we’ve ever met, and they reminded us to be grateful for everything we have in life. Our short time in Sapa was eye-opening, and it was the perfect way to begin our month-long trip through Vietnam. Next up, we hit the nation’s capital of Hanoi where we try to avoid being run over by motorbikes as we meander through the Old Quarter, explore the city’s many museums, and of course over-indulge in street food and beer.
Transport: We took the bus from Kunming to Hekou in China. Tickets were about $25 each. We crossed the border to Lao Cai and then took a cab for about $25 to Sapa. If you can get to the train station there, you’ll find mini-buses for much cheaper.
Accommodation: We stayed at the Sapa Backpacker’s Hostel in a private double room for just $12/night.
Activities: In the town, we climbed up Ham Rong ($3.50 each). We also joined a 2-day, 1-night trek to the village ($30 each).
Food & Drink: There are plenty of restaurants along the main strip in Sapa, and there are also a few cool bars. Our favorites were Little Sapa for food, and the Color Bar for a place to hang.