We have nothing planned. Nothing booked. We walk out of our Sapa hotel with a vague plan of getting to Ban Ho, 20 kilometres down the valley. We’ve decided to let adventure take its course. In the main street, we’re approached by a friendly tribe’s woman, dressed in traditional gear. At this stage, we don’t know that this random encounter will turn into an epic experience.
Her name is Mao
She is a Hmong guide and she wants to take us to her village: Hau Thao. The name rings a bell. It’s supposed to be close to Lao Chai, but higher up in the mountains, totally spared from tourists. We quickly talk price. 30? I know that boutique homestays in Ta Van charge 12 $ for half, 15 $ for full board. ‘Yes, but I will also walk with you’ she says. Ok, how about 20? Deal! We shake hands on 20 dollars/person/day - full board and guiding included. Mao’s husband quickly loads our backpacks on his scooter and a big weight literally falls off our shoulders. Let the adventure begin!
To the mountain top
Instead of following the valley road, Mao wants to take us over the mountains. This way we also avoid the ticket booth. ’They say the ticket (50k) is to support the villages, but I’ve never seen any money’ says Mao as we walk towards the Sapa bus station, where the path starts. The trail looks pretty fresh. Sometimes it’s not clear which way to go. Walking sticks are no luxury on the muddy parts. The slope is gentle and Mao takes many breaks to enjoy the view.
The Switzerland of Asia
We’re lucky with the weather. The fog has cleared. On the horizon, we can see the mighty Fansipan - Vietnam’s highest peak. We thought of climbing its 3143 meters, but after the Hell of Rinjani … no thanks. The many grass strokes, the mild temperatures, the mighty mountains … everything reminds me of Switzerland. All we need is ‘the Sound of Music’ playing in the background.
The trip: 20$. The view: priceless
After 1 hour we reach the mountain rim. We move from one WOW moment to another. This must be the best 20$ I ever spent. Horses are grazing next to little mountain lakes. Butterflies are circling around us. Buffalos are hiding in the bushes, pigs chilling in a mud bath. On the horizon, we can see the world’s greatest land art: miles and miles of mountains re-sculpted into meandering rice paddies. It makes the Bali rice fields look like Dinky toys.
Dickens in Vietnam
We slowly start our decent into the Sapa valley and stop for lunch. We are surrounded by children, holding up homemade bracelets, all mumbling the same mantra: ‘buy-from-me-five-thousand-only.’ It feels very awkward, like a scene from a Charles Dickens novel. I am not sure what to do. We continue our journey through tiny villages, endless rice paddies and giant bamboo forests. Most villagers ignore us. ‘They’re shy’ says Mao. Some children start crying when they see us. They’re not used to seeing White Walkers. Actually, all day we didn’t see another Westerner.
It’s close to sunset when we finally reach Mao’s homestay, a simple house in the middle of the rice fields. The family is sitting outside, in a makeshift veranda. My eyes start burning from the blue smoke coming out of the house. I’m offered a little wooden tabouret to sit on.
We traveled back into time
As it gets dark and the winter cold sets back in, life starts evolving around the fireplace in the kitchen. It’s basically a hole in the floor. The chimney hasn’t been invented yet. Smoke fills the house or escapes through the giant gaps in the wooden wall. This must be the world’s worst insulated house. Mao starts preparing dinner. She skilfully turns rice paper into giant spring rolls. A table is set up for us and we are served like kings. There is no way we can finish all this food.
Rescue 911, Hmong style
Mao has been coughing for the last few hours. Her mother-in-law has decided to perform a little tribal therapy. For almost 1 hour, she pokes Mao’s neck and shoulders, until half her body is flaming red. Just watching this is painful. ‘Eh, maybe you should also take some pills’ we friendly suggest. How can all this poking can heal a sore throat? A Nutella jar is finally brought in for some cupping. Outch!
The tour of the house
The house has little furniture and is roughly divided in 3 parts. The middle part is a kind of living room with just one closet and a TV. A wall is filled with souvenir pictures from other tourists. The room on the left is where Mao and her husband sleep. Her 4 kids and mother-in-law have their beds on the right, next to the kitchen, which is built against the house. We are sleeping on the first floor. A series of mattresses and blankets with psychedelic prints are between giant mosquito nets. On the side, there are bundles of hay. Very country. Outside, fresh bacon is living in a little shed.
Indigo is the colour of dawn
The day starts early in the homestay. At 4 am, the house is teeming with life. And noise. We are served a breakfast of spring rolls, pancakes, eggs and bananas. 3 times the amount of what’s humanly possible to digest. We eat outside, in the veranda. The view beats any Hilton in the world. Mao’s mother-in-law is drying freshly dyed indigo fabrics in the morning sun. It’s a messy job. She has to repeat the process until the fabrics look almost black.
And what, eh … about the toilet?
Where is the bathroom? We are guided to a little shack, mostly covered in plastic sheets. I am expecting the very worst. But as I move the plastic to the side, I’m happy to find a sparking clean squad toilet with water running from a hose.
James Brown sang: ‘It’s a man’s world, but it would be nothing without a woman’. Nowhere in the world is it more true than here. From morning to evening, the women are cooking, cleaning, breastfeeding, dying fabrics, guiding tourists and selling souvenirs. The little remaining time is used to make patchwork. I'm not sure what the men do. Mao’s husband sometimes helps in the kitchen, but is almost cruising on his scooter. ‘The men drink too much’ we keep hearing.
Hiking in the mountains, day 2
I’m starting to like it here. We drop the idea of moving to another homestay in Ban Ho. Instead, we want to stay in the mountains and walk to the rice fields of Thanh Kim. Once again, Mao takes us off the beaten track. We walk along dry stone walls that seem to be transported from Scotland. We see many new houses with crosses. ‘Churches’ explains Mao. Most villagers converted to christianity only 3 years ago. Before, they were at the mercy of shamans ‘Who like money.’ Electricity came only 2 years ago. When I ask Mao about her dreams, I expect the standard answers. But she quickly replies: ’My dream is to have warm water in the house.’
Thanh Kim: Rice, rice baby
We pass the Topas Ecolodge: a series of boutique bungalows built on a rim, overlooking the rice paddies. The setting is fantastic, the price too: 136 $/night. That’s 3 times our day budget. The minute we approach the rice paddies, Dzao women are sprinting towards us. The red headgear on their shaved heads makes them Sapa’s most photogenic tribe. But beware, they will charge you for each picture. And no, we don’t need more souvenirs.
The Far West of the East
We stop for lunch in Su Pan: 2 rows of wooden houses along a dusty dirt track come straight out of a spaghetti Western. A scooter with a heavy, plastic containers on each side stops in front of the restaurant. Both are filled with giant carp fish. A sheet of plastic is spread on the dirty road and customers start picking fish. After weighing the wriggling carp, they are cleaned on the spot. A dog observes the scene and licks the giant scales off the plastic. I think I’ll stick to eating veggies. It's another 2 hours back to Mao's house. And once again, we sleep very, very well.
How to book Mao?
Mao’s homestay was an amazing experience. She’s a great person. Her English is basic but good enough to give you great insight in local culture. You can call Mao: +84 (0) 1292 98 12 14
As mentioned before, we paid: 20$/person/day. This included: sleeping, breakfast and dinner at Mao’s home. Lunch in a restaurant. Mao also walked with us. Her husband drove our backpacks around with his scooter. Taking the mountain route saved us 2x 50k (5$) on tickets.
If you just want to sleep over, half board, you should pay minimum 250k (12$) Try to be a bit more generous. Think how much you pay for a coffee in your country.
Sapa can reached from Hanoi by night bus or train.