Vietnam – Sapa
We arrived in Sapa at half past five in the morning after a long and bumpy journey on the night bus. We’d both slept pretty well but there’s nothing like stumbling out of a bus just after sunrise and trying to find your bearings in a new place to finish off a rough night. Luckily, we’d already been recommended a guide and arranged over Facebook for her to come and meet us. She recognised us straight away and bounded over to the bus with a huge grin on her face, ‘Georgi? I Shosho!’ Shosho (say ‘so-sho’), like lots of the other women waiting at the bus station to offer their services as tour guides, was wearing the full, patterned skirt, black jacket and head scarf particular to her village – the Black H’mong people, and chattered to us excitedly as we made our way up into Sapa town.
On the way we met her sister Su (say ‘zoo’) who was wearing a similar outfit with beaded leg wraps poking over purple wellies, and was very sweet and friendly, although a little quieter than Shosho. ‘Su is married’, explained Shosho, she doesn’t have time for Facebook. I not married, I can do whatever I want!’ We had breakfast with the sisters and Shosho showed us a map of Sapa town and the surrounding villages, which are inhabited by different minority groups or ‘tribes’ like the Black H’mong, each with their own distinct style of traditional dress. We chose a route which would avoid the muddiest parts of the rice fields (after Shosho performed an elaborate pantomime of the group she had led the previous day getting stuck in the mud and, apparently, suffering great distress), and then Shosho scurried off to meet another group, and Su started leading us out of the town.
As soon as we got past the high street and the buildings became fewer and farther between, we could see all of the incredible scenery stretching out around the town in every direction. It was exactly like the photos of Vietnam that I’ve been drooling over for literally years – rolling hills and mountains covered in vivid green rice terraces with the occasional river, waterfall or dirt road making a path for the farmers and their buffalo up to their wooden houses and bamboo forests. I really couldn’t get over it.
We walked with Su for a couple of hours, chatting about her kids and the traditions of her village, as well as the local plants, the growing of the rice and all of the buildings we passed, including the bright yellow school buildings, currently empty for the summer holidays. Su’s pig just gave birth to eight piglets and they’re living in her house until they’re old enough, so her kids have their hands full chasing after them!
We took lots of photos as we wandered up and down the hills amongst the rice terraces, occasionally passing small serious children (who wander the fields apparently unsupervised) or groups of traditionally dressed women, farmers planting and tending to their fields, or Buffaloes left to go on a terrifying rampage around the villages (Su insisted they were harmless but you never can tell with a buffalo).
Finally we made our way down into Su’s village and were welcomed into the lovely simple home of her mother. It was a low wooden building with a hard earth floor and a low table, and as we sat and waited for lunch (our offers to help were refused and we were allowed to sit and rest in the main room while Su and her Mum busied themselves in the next), four little kids gradually poked their heads around the door and sidled inside, first to stand and stare at us, and then, when they were bold enough, to come closer and crouch by the table, playing quietly amongst themselves and stealing glances at us from behind their fingers. Then Abi got her phone out and they all crowded around, eager to tap on the screen and try to make sense of the games.
Lunch was a huge spread of noodles, chicken, tofu, vegetables and rice, and even after Abs and I were full up, there was enough left to feed about eight more people. Su’s Mum kept spooning rice into our plates, urging us not to get hungry, and we had to explain that we were all full up and in no danger of going hungry!
After lunch Su taught us to weave simple bracelets, and then helped us secure our wonky creations around our wrists and ankles. We said goodbye to the littluns and headed back out into the rice fields. Over the top of another muddy hill and through a village, we came to our homestay. Homestays are, in theory, an opportunity for visitors to eat dinner and spend a night with a local family, but unless most local families happen to have ten mattresses on their upper floor and a wifi router, ‘just in case of visitors’, most homestay experiences lack a little authenticity. We actually didn’t mind this at all, and sat with Su on the huge porch playing cat’s cradle with off cuts from the bracelets she was weaving, until we had enough to tie hair braids into each other’s hair. Later, we shared an amazing meal with a couple of other tour groups, and then Shosho led us all in a terrifying drinking game that involved chopsticks and a bottle of ‘happy water’ (strong rice wine).
The next day we trekked to a gorgeous waterfall (which we clambered up while Shosho stood at the bottom despairing of her ‘crazy English girls’) and stopped to have a huge lunch of the freshest rice I’ve ever had (it was fat and swollen and delicious) before being driven back to Sapa on motorbikes, Abi and her driver on one, and me sandwiched in between my driver and Shosho, who squealed and giggled behind me the whole way.
Shosho and her sisters (we met a few more along the way) were all genuinely lovely, hospitable and kind hearted and we felt lucky to have spent a couple of days exploring the unbelievably beautiful landscape of Sapa with them.