A visit to the majestic rice paddies of Sapa in Northwest Vietnam was a longtime bucket list item for my husband and I, and so when we found ourselves in Vietnam in their winter we decided to head to the region regardless of the cold weather. We knew we would be missing the verdant green scapes but we hoped to catch a quiet glimpse into the life of a mountain town. The fully booked overnight train and the hustle that bombarded us as we disembarked at five in the morning made it clear that there was going to be nothing low-key about this journey. This was the tourist trail in all its glory and obviously we were not the only ones wanting to cross off a line of bucket list.
Home to colourfully adorned hill-tribes such as the H’mong, the Dau, the Tay, people flock here to see the local markets in full swing, to trek, to do home-stays with a hill-tribe family or to climb Fanispan. In our research we struggled to find a source of information that was not linked to a commercial touring company selling an all inclusive package to the area. We wondered just how much of the fee the local guides were seeing and after wading through the pages of scam warnings and stories of exploitative operations at work we were weary of even going.
We found it strange that so few sustainably-minded operations were at work, given the cultural and nature-based experiences on offer. There are a handful of companies trying to effect a change that is environmentally friendly and beneficial for the local communities but it requires a committed search to find.
Eventually we stumbled across a great online review of a guide named Chu. The writer had bypassed all the agencies and took a chance on this local guide whom he met in Sapa and he described the type of experience we were looking for: affordable, personal and away from the big groups of visitors. Relief! She suggested we meet at the church in the main square in town. Her English seemed pretty good on the phone so we were already heartened.
The time we spent with her that weekend was something we will never forget. We stood waiting in the light drizzle outside the church. There were dozens of women in traditional dress selling goods in the square in the heavy mist and we felt completely overwhelmed at the number of people around us. Before we knew it a small but strong arm gently tugged at my husband’s elbow. A tiny women smiled up at the two of us through the throng. We recognised her sweet voice as she introduced herself to us. This slight lady proved to be one of the fittest, strongest, gentlest human beings we met on our travels.
Happy at finally finding her new friends, as she called us, she took us shopping for fresh produce for our vegetarian lunch. We then set out on a day-long walk through the backs of villages, down misty and sometimes very muddy mountain paths. All the while we chatted about our different lives, trading stories of our different cultures. She introduced us to families, told us a bit about each place we passed through, helped us both navigate some treacherous pathways, never once losing her footing or needing to catch her breath. She was quite remarkable. Fluent in English and in French, she supports her family with the earnings as a guide. Both her and her husband make jewelry and sew up a variety of handcrafts to make extra money. She is passionate about educating her children and equipping them with skills to survive in the modern world, while still preserving something of their rich cultural heritage, as a Black H’mong.
The meal that she prepared for us was mouthwateringly delicious and most welcome after a day spent in on-and-off drizzle and wind. The inclement weather added a real sense of atmosphere to our walk and provided spectacular scenery to photograph. Different to what we expected but just as interesting.
We did pass the odd group of people walking with a guide but she quietly steered us away to take us on a quieter route. We appreciated the effort she made to show us the lesser-seen places but she was very safety conscious and often chuckled good-humouredly at our slow pace. We could not stop mentally thanking the author of the post we found. We were not harassed by any locals to buy things – a complaint that litters the Sapa forums – and we felt like we got a fair but unobtrusive glimpse into life in and around Sapa. We got to know our guide and by the end of our time with her, we felt like one of her family members. We were both so deeply touched by her care, her kindness, her quiet strength and her humility.
So many other travelers that we met had found Sapa to be a horribly commercial town full of hustlers, but had conceded that the scenery was worth the hassle to see. We felt incredibly lucky to have come by the lead we did and we hope to be able to send a few more people to Chu, to help her build up a steady base of clients. She was professional and respectful and wants to stay independent so that the proceeds she earns remain hers.
To contact Chu, her number is 01657256913 and she is searchable on several travel forums. If you are in town and want to stop by another great initiative, Sapa O’Chau runs a Cafe that trains young children from ethnic minorities in different hospitality skills. They also run different volunteer programmes if you have the time and want to give back a little on your visit.
It was such a powerful reminder of the responsibility we have to seek out good service providers and to try our best to promote people that do a good job. This type of trek requires some organisation since you need to book your own transport and accommodation outside of the trek but the reward for the small effort is immense and you will certainly leave with a unique perspective of the postcard experience.
See more of their spectacular images of this trip here.
Words: Verushka Vogt Nel