When we first arrived in Vietnam, we had pretty much no idea how we were going to spend our 30 day visa. We knew we wanted to go to Halong Bay and we had a vague idea of stops along the way, but it wasn’t until we got chatting to a few different travel agencies that we learned about trekking in Sapa.
We hopped on a bus from Hanoi without any plans, hoping to do a homestay and some hiking while we were there, but no real idea what to expect. What we ended up with was the most incredible experience of our entire trip.
When we got off the bus we were approached by several women in traditional Hmong attire. Most had babies strapped to their backs. One particular woman attached herself to Luke and I, no doubt sensing we had no plans and not a clue where to go. Her name was Bau. She offered to take us to her home in a small village nearby. We could stay for as long as we wanted, we would live in her home and she would take us for a few different hikes through the mountains.
She was so genuine. She told us she was 26, a year younger than we are, yet her skin was browned from the sun, she was missing a few teeth, her chunky baby boy asleep on her back. We agreed.
I hopped on a motorbike with her husband in front and her behind me. Luke got on another bike with her brother-in-law. We wound into the mountains, through deep puddles of water, all on completely unpaved roads, the three of us (plus baby) balancing on his Honda Dream.
I got this rush of excitement, adrenaline coursing through me, as we climbed higher into the hills. I kept smiling to myself. These are the sort of moments you imagine having on your travels, but are sure they don’t really exist.
We spent the next three days hiking through the green rice fields of Sapa. We met people from Bau’s village, spoke to other Hmong women, bought lots of silver bracelets and headbands and bags. We colored with her daughters in the evenings, ate rice and onions, green beans, bamboo stalks and the best pork I’ve ever had in my entire life.
On our second night Bau’s husband went outside after we finished dinner. A few minutes later he came back in with a 2 liter bottle of Aquafano (it’s amazing how many bottling companies rip off brand names in Vietnam). He sat back down and unscrewed the lid. It made a hissing sound.
Bau brought us three shot glasses, “I would like to have some with you, but I am still feeding my baby, so I cannot have it”.
The first one burned. My whole mouth was hot. The back of my throat, my esophagus, my stomach, all felt instantly warmed. I could feel my face growing redder with each shot.
Her husband spoke no English. He taught us how to say cheers in his language: “o-chò!” Then it was a series of taking a shot, making eye contact, laughing. All three sets of eyes quickly glazing over.
At some point, I turned my glass upside down and shook my head. The boys kept going.
By the end of the night the bottle was empty and we were all deeply flushed. I think we laughed, said thank you in their language and probably several other non-existing ones, and put ourselves to bed.
We were meant to rise at 7am and go for a hike. The smell of coffee woke me at some point. I checked my watch, it was 9 o’clock.
Luke was already up. He was sitting outside taking deep breaths, watching the chickens fight each other for the corn kernels that Bau’s children had laid out for them.
We did go for that hike in the end. After some eggs and coffee I felt a lot better. Bau laughed at us; we all laughed at her husband who was supposed to wake up at 6 and check his rice field, but woke up around the same time we did.
The hikes each day were challenging, through muddy trails, up steep hills. Both lasted most of the day – about five or six hours. I got horrible sunburned on the second day. There are so many things I wish I’d packed for trekking.
But for the entire time we were there and several days afterwards, I couldn’t stop smiling. I couldn’t stop thinking about this family, about this amazingly strong woman who raises her children, cooks every meal, pedals for business in town, and hikes with her infant strapped to her back, stopping to feed him along the way.
They have very little, at least the way in which we measure things. One bed between the five of them, an open fire to cook over, only enough food to feed themselves. The only income they have is through these homestays and some of Bau’s crafts that she sells at the local market. She makes all of her family’s clothing, these incredible ornate, colorful pieces that I really loved.
Despite this, they are so happy.
When we said goodbye, my eyes watered. I wanted to stay, I wanted to get to know Bau even more, wanted to play with her two hilarious daughters, Lili and Mai. Lili is older, more confident, while Mai is shy. She took to Luke quickly, loved to watch him draw and hear him talk.
We bought some more bags from Bau, gifts for friends and family back home. She gave us bracelets off of her arm, letting us choose which we wanted. She insisted we choose some for our families as well, one for each of our parents and siblings.
“We’re friends now” she said as we hugged goodbye, “please come back and visit me”.
**Please note that things have changed a lot in Sapa in the last two years and finding these sort of homestays is now much more difficult. Unfortunately, I no longer have contact with Bau as the number I had for her is no longer in service.
If you want to read a great guide to hiking in Sapa, check out this one from Television of Nomads.