Much like Halong Bay, Sapa delivers another escape from the chaos of Vietnam’s buzzing capital city. Four hours north of Hanoi, the mountain town offers treks through its captivating landscapes, warming home stays with tribal people and colourful markets that will beg you to spend your Dong.
Our trip to Sapa was a bit of a gamble. We only had one night to spend there so we went for maximum time efficiency of a night bus there and a night bus back with one night in the middle in a home stay. We’d been given a number to call for a lady to stay with by the name of Mama Sung. I called her from our hotel in Hanoi and just about managed to communicate that we wanted to stay at her house for a night to a wispy voice at the end of line. We would meet outside “the church” in Sapa at 6am when our night bus arrived.
First impressions of Sapa – it’s wet. We managed to locate Mama Sung a little later than planned outside the church and she told us that she would guide us to her home, but we had no idea how far this would be. Tired and grumpy from the journey I definitely uttered the words “I really hope we’re not trekking up a mountain for five hours in the pissing rain”. Of course, that’s exactly what we did – and it was glorious! Once in the swing of navigating my feet through muddy inclines, rushing streams and slimy stones, I was filled with relief to be away from the drain of the city, breathing in fresh mountain air and relaxing into the slower pace of life. Although our surroundings were cloaked in cloud and we were soaked to the bone, there was something unique about this experience; once you embrace the rain you can appreciate the beauty of the countryside in a different way.
Finally reaching Mama Sung’s charming home at virtually the top of the mountain, we settled into the peace and quiet of her family environment, taking in the chatter of her children and the occasional sounds of “the good life” from her collection of livestock in the garden. This was the most remote and authentic home stay I’d ever experienced and it felt really special to be there. We were completely removed from the modern world and stripped of all technology – a fantastic moment just to sit, pass the time of day and completely unwind. Although I couldn’t resist the temptation to teach her kids how to make loom bands!
Our lovely host fed us well that evening on an assortment of tasty dishes – rice, pumpkin, pork and tofu – one of the freshest, simplest and yet most delicious meals I have ever eaten. This was all washed down by a scary amount of rice wine. We’d heard this was all part and parcel of tribal life in Sapa – it’s like their life blood; Mama Sung pretty much existed on it. She’d told us that the night before they’d had a party and she’d got really drunk, and there she was sat with us necking shot after shot of the powerful stuff. I couldn’t believe how much this tiny woman could drink – she barely reached my shoulder! I resorted to doing mini shots just to keep up with her. Even her eight year old daughter managed a shot or two! “Happy water” as it’s affectionately known is brewed by many locals on the mountainside and stored in empty two litre water bottles for special occasions (or just general everyday drinking). We went to bed very early but very easily that night after so much food and booze, not to mention the five hour hike! What a day.
We had a slow start the next morning, waking up and lying in bed to the sounds of the soothing countryside. Mama Sung had prepared another amazing meal for our breakfast of wholesome dishes with rice and lots of green tea (no rice wine thank god). We grazed on the nourishing feast for an hour or so, gazing out at the now clearer sweeping landscapes of rice fields and tiny villages below, before a three hour trek (slightly less slippery this time) to a tourist point where we caught a xe om (motorbike taxi) for a picturesque ride back down to the main town of Sapa.
We were really lucky to have had such a real experience with a tribal family, far away from the closer “home stays” organised by the tour companies. It was so simple to organise. You’re bound to learn more about the life of these wonderful people, not to mention it will be half the price of going through an agency. If you stay with Mama Sung, her hospitality and kindheartedness will stay with you forever. She taught us so much about her life in the mountains and I felt an incredible sense of genuine welcome in her home. If you want her number or you want to know more, please leave a comment or message me.