Vietnam had been high up on our list for years and we finally got to experience some of it this summer. First on the itinerary was trekking through Sapa. We flew in to Hanoi via Hong Kong and headed straight to the train station to catch an 8 hour long night train to Sapa. The spirits were high in our cabin as we rolled away from the platform, the excitement to finally visit Sapa knew no bounds – until we realised that our passports were no longer with us… (Read our stolen passport story here). A little shaken and a little worried we decided to put the passport issues out of our minds for now, until we were back in Hanoi.
The train rolled into Lao Cai in the early morning. The five of us stumbled out of the train and found a mini bus to take us to this former French hill station of Sapa. The day woke and so did we on the hour long winding ride up into the Tonkinese Alps not far from the Chinese border in northwest Vietnam. Once there we quickly realised that Sapa was not a picturesque alpine town any more, if it ever were. Rapid building expansion and modern tourism has taken its toll but it is the trekking base for northern Vietnam.
We had booked a three day trek with Sapa O’Chao, a non profit, social enterprice travel company, set up by a local H’mong woman. We had breakfast and a walk a walk around town whilst waiting for our guide to arrive.
We met with Xu and embarked on our 38km (24mile) trek spread over the next three days. We walked out of Sapa and through several small H’mong minority villages, through 100 year old rice terraces to Lao Chai. Our children are 6, 8 and 12. The terrain was varied which broke up what otherwise might have been a monotonous walk for the kids. We walked through rice fields, down fast flowing rivers, through mud banks and bamboo forests. We passed children herding buffaloes and crossed endless little brooks, rivers and land slides caused by heavy recent rains. We jumped, balanced, slid and fell – and loved every minute of it.
We arrived in Lao Chai in the late afternoon and were welcomed by Mai and her husband at our first Homestay. It felt wonderful to get changed into clean clothes and have a cold beer. The children immediately made friends with Mai’s children. We watched village life go by whilst the children played football, made up games and made more friends. Our youngest, Nova, has the ability to make himself at home where ever he goes. Below is Nova with his newfound best friend who taught him how to best wrangle sweets out of the street vendors.
The food was plentiful and delicioius. Mai’s husband cooked us a traditional Vietnames H’mong dinner of chicken and rice, spring rolls, tofu, furn and banana blossom. A clear bottle of home made rice wine appeared on the table and Mai invited us to try out her clothes. This meal and the stay at Mai’s house was one of the highlights of our trip. It felt very genuine and it was immensely interesting to get an insight (however small) into indigenous Vietnamese life.
We woke early on our second day and set off after a breakfast of pancakes and coffee. This would be our longest walk of 16km. Again we passed amazing landscapes and rice fields, minority villages and ample photo opportunities. There were less other walkers now but still some. Our first stop was the village of Ta Van where Xu lived in a traditional wooden H’mong house. It was just before arriving in Ta Van that I slipped down a mud bank and discovered my first leech whilst cleaning myself off in the river. It wouldn’t stop bleeding for hours. That’s the thing about travelling like this, you get worms, leeches and tics and when it happens it hardly faces you at all, you just pull them off and sprinkle some antiseptic.
After chicken noodles and a rest in Xu’s house we followed the river for a while, crossed a land slide and walked for hours along the road past more villages and children herding cows and buffaloes. We walked through what used to be a trail but was now a fast flowing river. We took a shortcut down to Ban Ho village. This was the most challenging part of our trek. The rain water had flushed away the path and carved a narrow and steep mud gorge in the ground and we had to get down it in heavy rain and thunder. That’s when Nova delightfully said to us: – Mum and Dad, this is just like a waterpark – but dangerous! Can we come here again?
The last half an our we walked in the pitch dark before reaching the homestay of the night with a Tay family. We rinsed the mud out of our clothes and hung them to dry over their open fire where they also cooked their food. It had taken us 10 hours to get here through mud and rain. Endless to say, we slept soundly all night.
Our guide Xu was a bright young woman and mother of two. We had many interesting conversations with Xu, one of which was about children. She said that she knew that we, in the western world, don’t beat our children but here, they have to. She told a story of what had happened the previous day. Both her and her husband were working away from the village so the children were looked after by the elderly grandparents. The grandparents also had to work, tend the rice fields and look after the animals. Her eldest son, 8 years old, had gone with some older boys to the river, although he had repeatedly ben told never to go there. Because he was not a strong swimmer, he had gotten stranded on a rock too afraid of swimming across to the other side and was left there alone by the older boys. He was stuck for hours before the grandmother had found him in the middle of the river on a rock, crying his eyes out. He could have drowned. -I had to beat him hard with a stick. Because next time he might die, Xu said. She didn’t like to beat him but she felt sha had to. She she couldn’t always be there in person to look after him, she had to instill fear into him. This felt wrong at first but it also made sense. I watched her with her children and there was nothing but love for them. It was what she felt she had to do to keep them safe.
After another breakfast of pancakes and bananas (bananas are very different here, they are much more acidic and a little chewy) we crossed more rivers and walked through Red Dao minority villages. We were picked up after lunch and driven back to Sapa where we spend the afternoon before going back to Lao Cai and the 8 o’clock evening train to Hanoi.
It was an incredibly beautiful trek and we felt a great sense of achievement to have completed and shared this experience with our young children. If anything, it was too short! How I would love to live in one of the villages we passed for a month and really learn about village life.
The little I know was told to me by Xu. Most of the ethnic minorities in Vietnam live in the mountainous areas in the north, near the Chinese border. Many of them do not consider themselves Vietnamese or even speak Vietnames. Even Xu who had gone to primary and secondary school admitted not to be fluent in Vietnamese. Each ethnic minority group have their own language, in most cases intangible to the other groups. Life is very isolated for these groups and many of the elders have never even ventured outside of their village due to the fact that they only speak their own minority language and would struggle to communicate with Vietnamese people people from other minorities.
People are poor and their modest dwellings are simple wooden houses with very simple facilities. Every family farm their own food, grow their own rice and keep their own animals. Primary and secondary school are free but very few attain high school or collage.
The Vietnamese government is trying to improve the lives of these indigenous groups with subsidies; better health care, accessibility and education to encourage ethnic residents to move to lower altitudes. Because there is mistrust in the major lowland residents and conflicts in the past, most of the ethnic minorities stay and live in the mountains.
Some useful links: