When you first start researching Sapa, a touristy town in the hills of northern Vietnam, most of the people who travel there are backpackers who do the “Homestay’ trek with the Hill tribe people.
There are 4 or 5 different hill tribes in the area.
I have been fascinated with the Hmong people ever since I read a book called “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman.
Reading this book, I learned that the Hmong people were originally nomads, mostly around southern China, Laos, and the rest of Indochina. They have no written language but a strong culture.
I highly recommend reading this book if you want to learn more about them.
So, out of all the hill tribes there, I knew if I was going to do one of these “Homestay treks”, I would try to do it with one of them.
My real goal was climbing Fanispan and when I booked my guide, coming out of the office, a woman, dressed in hill tribe attire, approached me about a trek.
I said, maybe when I finish the climb up the highest mountain in Indochina (Fanispan). She said “take my phone number for when you get back” You can read the story about my climb here. (it rained a lot!)
After I got back, I did call Ze and said I’d like to do a trek to her village the next day.
We agreed to meet at 10 AM at the big church next to the village square (well it’s round, but in the center of town and where the buses drop you off)
She showed up right on town and we headed right out. First 15 minutes was walking through town through a section I hadn’t been to before. Past some people making boards with a chain saw and then she stopped to explain to me, and show me a family soaking material (found out later it was hemp) in barrels full of water and leaves. The plant was indigo and it is what gave them the color of their clothes.
After the 2 days of pouring down rain that we just had, we quickly found out that the trail through the terraced rice paddies was very muddy and the running shoes that did me so well on the wet rocks of the big mountain, well, they were useless here as they slipped on this mud so bad that I could barely stand up!
Not 10 minutes into the traverse through some paddies, and falling too many times, we spotted some kids who had bamboo sticks for support. She interpreted for me and we waited while the biggest kid (10 years old?), went out with his machete and cut me two poles. I paid him a little over a dollar for both of them and now, I had crutches. Badly needed crutches too.
A few others had passed us while we waited and it didn’t take long to see which people had knobby soles and which had ones like mine. Many people were falling and being helped down the mud track.
But the terraced rice paddies and indigo and corn fields were everywhere and very well maintained. (much better than the path,
Up and down the path went and we struggled and laughed and cleaned our shoes in mud puddles and got to know a few of the other trekkers. All were guided by women, mostly Hmong women, and all of them were in their traditional hemp, indigo clothes.
Eventually after about 3 hours, we reached a village at the lowest elevation of the trek, along a big river. There were many restaurants to choose from and kids and women always trying to sell you their handmade purses, belts, hats, etc. She chose the one and I ordered from the menu: spring rolls, stir fried tofu,salad, some cabbage soup and of course: rice. Lots of rice. They only eat with chopsticks, even the soup,, so it took me a while to eat.
We continued on and there were waterfalls now coming down the mountain and draining in the big river. These waterfalls were crossing the (now) concrete road every few hundred meters and some seemed dangerous as it was a steep cliff on the other side.
Eventually, we got to her village, and she stopped to buy some bananas at her local shop (found out later, it was her sister’s shop) and we climbed up some steep steps, through small alleys between houses perched on the hill, until finally she said: “We’re home, this is my house”
She introduced me to her husband and son and then told me a story about her daughter who had a breakdown and couldn’t talk and had to be spoon fed. It reminded me so much of the girl in the book I mentioned who was an epileptic. The girl did come out and smile but went back to bed.
The house was big, very clean and she showed me where I would be sleeping in the loft.
I had about an hour or two before dinner so walked around the small village a bit.
Almost every house had a pig or two. Some had water buffaloes, All had chickens and a few plants.
I ran into some other trekkers who were staying in the house next door and we discussed how we were amazed that these people seemed so happy with nothing but basic needs: A fire pit in the kitchen where the smoke just rises into and through the ceiling. I had seen this many times in Nepal and Indonesia, but never this clean.
I helped cook a bit as I brought out my backpacking stove to make some tea. Figured I’d be helping them save some firewood but actually, they had a system that was so efficient and the water was put on the fire whenever they could. Real pros at cooking over a fire for sure!
That evening, when it was time to eat, her sister came over and sat down to have some tea and talk. All the time she was sitting there she was fastening strands of flattened hemp together and winding it around her hand.
I had seen many of the steps in the hemp fabric making at Cat Cat village tourist center a few days before, but, here was the real thing going on.
We talked about many things relating to their culture that I remembered from the book and asked about. Good conversation with intelligent people, living a simple life. Even though they had electricity, they only seemed to use it for lights and charges for their phones. I didn’t even see a rice cooker!
The next day, after a good night’s sleep in the loft and a big breakfast of eggs and rice and s
And I saw a few more of the steps in turning of the hemp into their traditional clothes.
On a woman’s back porch, I saw her doing the flattening stage of the stalks where they roll a log over them with a board on top, not unlike a see saw.
And then an older woman, again in her backyard, converting 4 balls of the tied thread onto spools for the loom with a rocking motion on a strange contraption.
So much of their time and work to make the clothes they wore, all my hand. No electricity used, no machines, except ancient ones made out of wood and bamboo.
I enjoyed this trek, probably more so even than my climbing of Fansipan a few days before, even though the high peak was my goal on this trip.
I had a thought of bringing my family with me next time and so, did a video chat with my wife when we walked past a grocery store selling fresh veggies etc. She said: Oh yeah, I could eat that. So……….maybe I’ll be back next year with my wife and son.
ps. And the road construction signs can be funny: