Sapa is one of the must-sees of Vietnam. So when one of our students – Nhim – offered us to stay in her hometown that is close to Sapa, we didn´t hesitate. It´s always great to stay with locals and experience the atmosphere without tourists.
We organized our trip in the end of April. We always try to travel lowcost, so we chose the cheapest alternative how to get to Sapa region, which was a bus (around 360 000 VND one way to Sapa). It was a holiday time and most of the buses were full. Thus, we were lucky that we found a spot in one of the sleeping buses. Even if we didn´t get a bed, we could stay in the corridor on the mat. The bus was hot and crowded but people were nice and they offered us different kinds of fruit.
Our first stop was Nhim’s hometown in Yen Bai province – a small village producing cinnamon. It was a great experience as I have never known how cinnamon grows – it is actually a big tree that looks very ordinary but when they cut it, they cut the wood into very thin pieces and they dry them on the sun during the day. All the roads in the village are covered with drying cinnamon. All the villagers participate in this long process – men cut the trees and bring them to the village, women take care of peeling the bark and drying the wood, even kids help with anything that is needed. When we asked locals what they use cinnamon for, we were surprised by the answer, as they said that they work with cinnamon night and day so they don´t wanna see it anymore. Thus, they just sell big dry pieces to truck drivers that regularly come to the village. The locals even don’t know where their cinnamon ends up. However, they definitely don’t get enough money for all the hard work they do every day.
We spent a few days in Nhim´s village. Since the first moment in her brother´s house we felt at home. They cooked amazing food for us, prepared fruits, ricewine… Along with a wonderful smell of cinnamon that we could feel at every corner we also enjoyed the views of the river and sunsets over the ricefiels.
After three days with those amazing people, together with Nhim and her niece we took a bus to Lao Cai and Sapa. This time we didn´t have to look for the bus company that still has free spots for us. We just came to a “highway bar” (a few plastic chairs with a sheet that provided a shadow, situated under the bridge with highway) and locals just ran up to the highway to catch a bus for us. Once a bus stopped we had to run up quickly to the highway and get on. It was pretty adventurous. We got to Sapa in the evening, accommodated in our friend´s house and enjoyed the fireworks by the lake. We were amazed how many Vietnamese were there at that time.
The next day, we followed our friends so we accidently ended up in the most touristy place of Sapa, maybe of Vietnam itself. It was a park full of everything that you would not expect in Sapa – statutes of Walt Disney characters, crowds of people, no rice fields, shops with souvenirs… Unfortunately that wasn´t the end. I got sick from the local food so we couldn´t even change the plans and go somewhere else…. Luckily after a day in bed and 25 pills of some Vietnamese medicine I got better 😀
Next day we decided to rent a motorbike and drive to one of the remote villages (Giang Ta Chai village) with terraced rice fields as we saw in the pictures of Lonely planet. After a few kilometres we realize that we have to pay to go through the checkpoint for foreigners. We got a recommendation that there is a hiking trail which is good also for motorbikes, so instead of paying the tolls we decided to try it… We ended up on the rocky road going steeply up and down. It was already too late to come back so in some parts we didn´t have any other option than to push the bike. I guess it wasn´t very usual to see a motorbike on the trail so locals and tourists were cheering us up.
After few hours of driving-pushing and plenty of nice views, we arrived to a „road for cars“. We got a beer in a local bar and were surrounded by a bunch of local vendors, (women and kids) offering bracelets, handbags and other handmade stuff… One of them offered us a homestay. As the price (100k VND for a night and 2 meals) and her English were good, we took it. Their house was nearby. It was clean and quite a big house where she lived with her kids, husband and her sister-in-law´s family. The floor was made of clay and a bathroom was actually just a big bucket of water, a toilet was outside. They had some animals by the house, e.g. pigs and chickens.
While mum was cooking a dinner, her daughters took us to walk around. The views were amazing – mountains, river, fields and waterfalls. We had a bath in the river and watched the sunset, amazing evening!
We got back home, expecting good food and local ricewine (as all out friends described Sapa as place of great cuisine), but instead we got instant noodles with an egg and green tea. Marta quickly realized what was going on as she worked with the people from the ethnic minority that had similar behaviours. They were Hmongs and their main characteristics that affected us directly are that they don´t know how to cook and they don’t drink alcohol (which means they don’t produce it, so we couldn’t do what everybody does in sapa). Nevertheless, they were very nice and instead of alcohol we got a very good green tea. It was a great opportunity to get to know their life better – which was very simple. Men work on the fields, women sew souvenirs and sell them to tourists. They don´t have enough money to pay for school for all of their kids so just some of them finish a few grades. They have never been further than 20 km from their house. Some of them are lucky that they can speak a little English so they can bring tourists to their house or sell some homemade bracelets or bags. However, they looked happy and I wish that there were more people like them that can find happiness not in fancy things and number of “0s” on their accounts.
After instant breakfast it was time to leave this gorgeous place and come back to Hanoian chaos.