During the entire month I spent in Vietnam, this was my favorite place, by far. Sa Pa was beautiful, authentic, and inspirational. I felt so invigorated and alive while I was there. I joined my friend Michelle who I had been traveling with for a while on a bus to Sa Pa. As we got away from the misty and smog-ridden city of Hanoi and towards the sunny fresh aired Sa Pa, my move instantly lifted. The minute I laid my eyes on the rice terraces, I could not stop grinning. I felt warm and happy inside. Maybe it was the sunshine, lush green mountains, and happy villagers that reminded me of trekking in the Himalayas, where I really found my happy place. Somehow, I felt at home.
Most people arrange for a multi-day trek beforehand at their hostel (which is much more expensive), but Michelle and I decided to just arrive in Sa Pa and figure it out from there. Multiple people told us that you could just take the bus to Sa Pa, and upon arrival, tons of little village women would be waiting of you saying “homestay, homestay!” Turns out they were 100% correct. As our bus pulled up in Sa Pa town, I peered out the window to see the local village women dressed in traditional outfits waiting for us. I waved at one of the ladies who had the biggest smile on her face.
I got off the bus and Michelle was already speaking to the lady with the smile. She was glowing! Her laugh was precious. She introduced herself as Sah, of the H’mong people, shoving a map in my hands indicating to us where her village is and the treks we could do. Sah was accompanied by her friend, Chou (or Chelsea, she said her English name was), who had the cutest baby hanging on her back. Chou had a big smile with a gold tooth that made me love her even more. Her little baby, Lily, who is by far the sweetest child I have ever met in my life, is ultimately what convinced us to go with these women to their village.
We head first to the local market to get some food, and we see many other backpackers with their homestay hosts. We’re the only ones who are not in a big group, and immediately we are glad we made the choice not to book something beforehand. Our experience was going to be much more intimate and authentic. Sah and Chou are chatting and laughing with the other local women, and we could not be happier ourselves. I take in their outfits, which are all unique and so colorful. They wear big earrings and their hair is wrapped up with combs and pins in them. They seem so genuinely happy.
Chou takes her motorbike home with her husband and our huge backpacks, and we head on a 4 hour trek to her village with Sah. She teaches us about the different villages, cultures, and local customs. This seems to always be the case, but as I’m walking I can’t help but feel like I’m in Lord of the Rings (really I just to be an elf in Lord of the Rings). The mountains are lush and green, huge rocks and trees dot the scene. Baby animals and their moms are running around us, chickens, pigs, goats, and cows. I have to stop every 5 minutes to take pictures of the stunning view. The rice terraces are not full of rice, but instead water. Not the picture I had in mind, but still stunning. The water reflects off the ground making the entire view sparkle. We pass no other foreigners, which is exactly what we wanted. We pass by the local children who look at us curiously, always jumping up to wave and say hello.
When we arrive at Chou’s home around 5pm, we are disappointed to find a few other foreigners. We thought we would be alone. That’s the hypocritical thing about being a tourist yourself— you don’t want any other tourists there. We sit around, waiting for Chou to come back. More tourists arrive, staying in the little wooden house next to ours. Our moods sour. This was not the experience I wanted. This was why I had avoided homestays my entire trip, because I did not want a fake commercialized village experience like I had before in Thailand in 2015.
Sah is nowhere to be found, and we can’t help but feel a bit abandoned. We go to the kitchen where we find the hosts cooking, asking if we can help. They say no, so we force ourselves to socialize with the 13 other tourists who are there, not happy about it at all. Our disappoint is written all over our faces. We wonder where Sah and Chou are, and if this entire experience is going to be interacting with the tourists and not them. “If I wanted to hang out with other foreigners, I could have just stayed in the hostel back in Hanoi,” Michelle says. I could not agree more. Don’t get me wrong, I love meeting and socializing with people, but I did not want to be a part of some fake commercialized village package. It seems weirdly imperialistic to me.
Just when I decide to only stay for 2 nights instead, Sah comes back, telling Michelle and I to join them for dinner. Wait, really!? We’re not staying or eating or doing anything with any of these other people? Nope. It’s just going to be the two of us living with Chou’s entire family and Sah. I feel victorious. The two of us head inside to see the table set up with little bowls and chopsticks, and pots of vegetables and meat. We sit on the bench with Chou, her husband, mother in law and father in law, Sah, and Chou’s three children. We’re ecstatic. The food is amazing. Everyone is so friendly. We learn so much about Chou’s family and the H’mong people. Their lifestyle, the language… it’s all so fascinating that these tribes manage to still stay true to traditions that are centuries old. Technology has been introduced in their lives, but for the most part, their daily tasks and practices have remained the same.
I stay in their little wooden house for a total of three days, switching to Sah’s house on the fourth day. Three generations live in a single household, babies, parents, and grandparents. I had no idea how we were going to fit in these tiny houses with so many people, but they made it work. They were so kind and wanted to make us as comfortable as possible. It surprised me to discover that Sah is only 35, and she’s already a grandmother. Her eldest daughter who is 17 already has a daughter. But in Sa Pa, this is normal. The H’mong people get married young and have children as soon as possible. By 16, a girl is married off and she leaves her village into her husband’s home. We learn that Chou is only 27, and she already has 3 kids! It’s no doubt that the women here are strong and resilient. They take care of the family, trek through the mountains, cook, raise their children, farm… they impressed me much more than the men.
We spent the next few days trekking around the mountains. The scenery was stunning and the villages were charming. The outfits different women wore changed depending on the tribe they came from. The H’mong, Xa, and Xe people all live in the Sa Pa region, but still had completely different customs, language, and clothing. It all seemed so simple and everyone seemed so happy. I compared the ridiculous amounts of clothing I had at home to the same outfit Sah and Chou wore everyday. Sah bought herself a shirt on one of the days and I realized this was a special moment for her. All they had in their homes were a few beds, tools for their crafts, a table and some benches, pots and pans for cooking. They lived only with the essentials, because they did not have any money for frivolous things. My apartment back home was full of stuff that I never even used. Things I don’t really need. I felt so humbled while living with them, learning that you don’t need very much to be happy.