Bumpy. Bumpier. Bumpiest. (And painfully slow at times due to a heavy load on a small bike taking on the steep mountain roads like a champ.) Add a little rain to the mix and it was a recipe for a long (two day) ride up to Sapa from Hai Phong, but a beautiful one at that. Sapa is a small town located way up in Northern Vietnam right near the Vietnam-China border. With the damp mountain atmosphere, this stunning corner of Vietnam is prime rice farming territory. To characterize the landscape is nearly impossible with it’s steep mountain sides and lush, deep valleys terraced with rice paddies that quilt the countryside as far as the eye can see. Combine Sapa’s unique beauty with the fact that it is home to many of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups, including the Hmong and Red Dzao people to name just a couple, and it is clear why this was high on our Vietnam to-do list right off the bat.
Our first morning in this quaint mountain town, surprisingly rain-free, we ventured off to the local market to scope everything out…and to feast on some delicious chocolate bread for breakfast of course. What we found was astounding! As I mentioned before, Sapa is the home base for many Vietnamese ethnic minority groups, but what I failed to allude to was their love of color! Sprinkled throughout the crowds were women from many of the rural villages dressed in their traditional costume composed of vibrant pinks, reds, greens, blues, and yellows in the brightest hues you can imagine. It was spectacular! Watching all of these smiling women (some with more teeth than others thanks to mass amounts of sugar cane juice) situated among the marketplace selling their local crafts was like watching a rainbow come to life. Utterly amazing!
We wasted no time setting up a trek for the next morning to explore the villages of the different ethnic groups and tromp among the rice paddies. We wound up deciding upon a company started by a couple of teenage village girls a few years back called Sapa Sisters and boy are we glad we did! When morning rolled around we met our guide, Mu. She was a part of the Black Hmong tribe and grew up in one of the villages we would be visiting. The day was sunny and beautiful as we departed town and was clearly a sign of a great day to come as we headed into the heart of Sapa!
It did not take long for us to pick up on the fact that Mu was a very interesting person as she guided us through the winding trails and eroded dirt roads from village to village. Her English skills rivaled the best out there. That alone is saying something seeing as she has never been to school a day in her life and simply learned from listening and conversing with other tourists over the years. That is still hard for me to grasp. Wow! However, what we really found interesting was that although arranged marriages are still a prevalent part of this culture, she took it upon herself to make a stand and ran away from home to Hanoi when her parents attempted to get her to marry. She refused to return until they called the whole thing off. Again…wow! Obviously, we had some great conversation in addition to the terrific scenery.
After a solid morning of up close and personal gawking at rice paddies and admiring motorcyclists navigating the muddy, rutted, and steep trails with ease that we were having a hard time walking up and down without stumbling, we stopped for a visit as Mu’s parents’ home where she grew up. The idea that she was one of 8 children and the little barren hut we were standing in housed the whole family did not seem to add up. It was bizarre! When you look around at the empty room with a fire pit for cooking and straw mats to lay down for sleeping being among the only possessions, it really brings things into perspective. (Of course like everywhere else in Vietnam they managed to get a satellite TV set up though!) Looking at the tons and tons of rice from this year’s harvest waiting to be eaten in awe and learning about her family’s Shaman belief system was really eye opening and a fantastic glance into what her life really was like.
The day was not over yet though! After a bit more hiking we reached our homestay for the night. This particular homestay was run by Mu’s sister, Ju. We had a great time relaxing outside before dinner, shooting the breeze with some of the local ladies keen on selling us more crafts that we just didn’t need. (What they didn’t know however was that we were well versed in this after a lunch filled with adorable little girls continuously mumbling, “You buy from me?” over and over again until Ron shocked them into silence with a magic trick.) All in good fun, I offered up the option for one particularly persistent woman to just give me the purse she was selling for free. She thought about it for a minute and promptly replied that she would give me the purse for free and that I could give her my Kindle for free. Same, same…right? Unfortunately we were not able to come to an agreement…but we all had a good laugh at the very least.
Dinner was an absolute feast with mounds and mounds of food. Some we recognized, but most dishes were a mystery to us. No worries though because Mu and Ju’s family and friends who joined us were more than happy to make sure we tried everything though, so we were in good hands…that is until they broke out the rice wine (or happy water as they prefer to call it). Yikes! One taste of that lethal beverage was more than enough for us.
A relaxing morning and before we knew what hit us we had walked through a bamboo forest, stopped for a short break at a little waterfall, and were on our way back to Sapa. We fell asleep that night dreaming of the new bike seat that Ron drove two hours for to get installed the day before and praying for a more comfortable ride seeing as our hindquarters were on the verge of tears by they time we rolled into Sapa on the front end. With nothing left to do but hope, we drifted off to get some rest before heading southbound again in the morning.
Check out the photos below: