Home » What it’s like to do a Hmong homestay in the hills of Sapa

What it’s like to do a Hmong homestay in the hills of Sapa

written by Kelsey Reaves June 14, 2016

There’s just something about Vietnam that’s always attracted me. I’m not quite sure if it was the images I saw of its Jurassic Park style jungles, or even just my early obsession with pho, but when a fellow traveller told me about his incredible journey trekking the northern Vietnamese hillsides of Sapa, I was set on going.

A few weeks later, I found myself boarding a small white van en route to Sapa with a close friend. After four hours spent winding back and forth up the mountain, we were eventually greeted with a quick breakfast in the Sapa Summit Hotel. We guzzled down warm toast and coffee laced with sweet, condensed milk. Our tiny, vivacious guide met us there.

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La, in her traditional garb. Image c/o Hayley Reaves

Her name was La, and she was wrapped head to toe in traditional Hmong clothing—an intricately embroidered black dress with bright bands of colour. Her long black hair was pulled back tightly with a single silver clip, and a sweeping, infectious grin stretched across her face. Over the next two days, I never saw her without it.

As we put on our packs and headed out into the hills of Sapa, I got my first glimpse of something that, until then, I had only seen in my stash of National Geographic magazines. Each hill was blanketed with rice paddies saturated in glistening water, dotted with workers harvesting crops. An hour into the trek and we were met by water buffalo passing us along the trail. As I stumbled to keep my cool and quickly make my way around them, La simply bobbed ahead, content and unfazed.

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Walking on the trail. Image c/o Hayley Reaves

We continued walking, and we started to talk about La’s life. She had four kids and a husband at home. When I asked her what her husband did, she jokingly said, “My husband? Oh, he just relaxes at home. I do all the work!” I had a sneaking suspicion she was telling the truth. She told us she leads hikes every day, and only takes three or four days off a year.

Once we reached the homestay – where we were going to sleep – she was going to have to hike back the four hours we just trekked to be with her family. She told us that she had led hikes up until she was 8 months pregnant with each of her children. Speaking with La, I could tell she was tenacious. I admired her a lot.

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Image c/o Mathias, Flickr

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Image c/o J Duval, Flickr

As we neared our homestay, we passed a group of four women carrying sacks of rice on their backs down an unstable slope. The packs must have weighed at least 50 pounds, but they zipped by us almost effortlessly. Not only were they dressed in the thick, traditional Hmong clothes that don’t allow for much ventilation, but they each wore plastic, yellow sandals that had basically zero grip. Here I was skidding and slipping in my padded Nike trail shoes.

Our homestay was a delightful home, nestled in the Sapa hillside and made out of bamboo. The owners spoke almost no English, but we were still able to communicate through simple gestures and smiles.

They cooked us a full dinner, complete with rice, tofu curry and morning glory. As we finished eating, the owner of the homestay pulled out a bottle of rice wine he had brewed himself. In one swoop, he threw five small glasses on the table and starting pouring out shots for everyone. One by one, we yelled the Vietnamese cheers, “Một, hai, ba, vô!” and threw back the celebratory drink.

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Image c/o United Nations Photo, Flickr

Once our bellies were full of rice wine, we were shown upstairs to where we would be sleeping. The room was little and the mats were thin, but it was all we needed. It was perfect.

When we woke up the next morning, La had returned to lead us on our second day. She had warned us today would be more strenuous, and within minutes we were hiking up what seemed like a ninety-degree hill. To say it was difficult was an understatement. The ground was unstable. There was no clearly defined path. My friend and I constantly found ourselves having to help pull each other up. After a gruelling hour, we finally made it to the top, and was it worth it. We could see almost the entire village of Sapa burrowed in between two steep mountains. We each took a few moments to let the scene register. La walked over and told us what we had to do next: a group selfie.

As we trekked down to our final destination, I got to thinking: I had only seen three other tourists on our two-day journey. In today’s world, overrun with tourist sites and overpriced souvenirs, I felt like I had hit the jackpot. I was truly living a day in the life of a Hmong woman – and it felt real.

Having spent two months in Southeast Asia, I often find myself thinking back to this single moment in Sapa. Today I live in Austin and work for a home improvement company, but I still wake up in the morning and think about La and the extremely friendly people of Sapa.

Experience some traditional Hmong hospitality on Intrepid’s Sapa Adventure small group trip. 

 

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5 comments

Monica January 31, 2018 - 9:29 am

Hi! I am going in February to Vietnam will it be worth to go to Sapa even if it is not the best season?

Reply
Emily Kratzmann January 31, 2018 - 10:53 am

Hi Monica,
February in Sapa is quite cold and rainy, so it’s important to take warm clothing, wet weather gear and good hiking boots (the trails can get pretty muddy). While it may not be the most picturesque time of year, travellers get a wonderful opportunity to meet the locals and really immerse themselves in day-to-day life, without the crowds!
Hope this helps

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Eldon Albertson July 18, 2017 - 12:26 pm

I had a wonderful 19 day trip to Vietnam last August, traveling from Hanoi into the Northeast Highlands and then the length of the country to the former Saigon. In the Highlands, from Sapa, I had a 40 year old woman take me on a daylong hike to her home. We left my hotel at 10. We walked through Sapa, where she bought food at small markets, for the lunch she was to prepare when we reached her home. That took us almost 2 hours of mostly off-road mountain trails. I was 77 then and had no major problem following her. I did not know that her daughter was bringing a man and two young woman from Spain from Sapa for lunch. Soon after they arrived, we were served an excellent, tasty, lunch on a table that was about a foot off the floor. The food had been prepared using a two burner stove heated with propane gas from a metal tank under the stove. We all sat on short stools. There was no running water inside the house. A hose ran from outside into the kitchen. The house was built of unfinished boards nailed to the studs. There were no boards on the inside of the studs, so no insulation. You could see the outside through many gaps in the exterior boards. There were 3 bedrooms, two of which were covered on one interior wall with just a blanket. One of those bedrooms was for the two daughters and the second was for the son. The adult bedroom was fully enclosed with boards and a door. I saw no bathroom or toilet area. They did have electricity and a television. There were a few houses close to where she and her family lived, but it was not a ‘town’. There was a small herd of water buffalo there, as well as a few pigs in pens. Also chickens walking around free. After lunch, which ended with a drink of some kind of homemade alcoholic drink, my guide and I left to continue our hike down through the hills to a village in the valley below. We passed two recent graves on our descent. They were marked with homemade wooden crosses with names written on them. We passed a shed in which three young women were making pillow cases, from heavy cloth, on electric sewing machines. Because I like to buy items like these from people who make them, without middlemen making a large percentage of what is paid by the buyer, I bought one from one of the women who had her baby there with her. My guide…unfortunately I do not remember her name…and I continued on our hike. We had a bit of rain here. We eventually reached the valley bottom. It was covered with rice fields. It was not yet harvest time, so I did not get to see that happening. Finally, at about 5 pm, it was time to return to Sapa. I was really dragging by then. My guide talked with two young men along the way back and they agreed to take us back to Sapa for a very reasonable price. I asked my guide to tell them to go slow since the road was much in need of some TLC. In places it was more potholes that actual paved road. If we were going slow, I would not want to ride with them when they were going fast. We did get back OK and she and I walked back to the Square near of my hotel. I paid her 800 Dong for everything. I do not remember the exchange rate now, but I think that was under $10. That seemed satisfactory to her. She had approached me the day before at the same Square. I am happy that I had agreed for her to guide me. Earning a living for many people in Vietnam is a day to day struggle. Even so, throughout the country, the people were the most friendly you will meet anywhere. I would highly recommend visiting Vietnam. You can get a very nice modern room with bath, and most times with breakfast, for under $30. I traveled on my own, having made most of my reservations before leaving home. Transportation can sometimes be a problem because Vietnam is a long country and I like to travel by day so that I can see the country. On occasion, I needed to change my travel plan because of this. So, just be open to change in your travel schedule here. Just enjoy

Reply
Rebecca Shapiro July 20, 2017 - 1:15 am

Hi Eldon, thank you for that fabulous message. What an adventure! So glad you had such a fantastic time in Vietnam. Really wise words and a great story – thanks for sharing!

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Eldon Albertson June 14, 2016 - 6:17 pm

I will be staying in Sapa for 3 nights in mid August and hope to have experiences like yours. I have not planned my time there, so may be able to hike into the countryside. This is my first trip to Vietnam so it should be very interesting for me.

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