After an 8 hour overnight train trip and a winding mini bus trip over the pass, we arrived in the mountainous town of Sapa, in the North-West of Vietnam. In all honesty, Sapa looks like a town out of the European mountainside. That is, until you see the traditional woman walking around in their brightly coloured customary clothing.
As we arrived at the Sapa Sisters office, we were welcomed by the friendly staff, a breakfast of our choice and the offer of a shower. Our guide, Lan, went through the two different prospective routes with us. We chose our route, with a little persuasion from Lan, and off we went.
The decent into the valley was muddy and misty but none the less, it was breathtakingly beautiful. It was like going back in time. The farm animals were free roaming and happy as they went about their daily lives. The homes were simple and the local children were running along the terraces without a technological device in site.
As it was December, the rice had already been harvested so the fluorescent green rice paddies depicted in photos were no where to be seen. Yet, the terraced layers with fog rolling over them was a spectacle in itself. As we descended towards the villages in the valley, we had many questions for Lan, who always answered openly and truthfully, transferring her knowledge of the landscape and people onto us. I was happy to learn that the rice terraces are owned by the people working on them in a subsistence manner as the rice is harvested for consumption, not sale.
We reached Lao Chai where we stopped for a buffet style lunch cooked and served by the local villagers. As soon as we sat down, we were bombarded by locals trying to sell us their hand made traditional materials, clothing and jewelry. Although beautiful, the insistence of the locals was slightly over bearing.
As we trekked through the village, Lan showed us the traditional way of life, which made me realize how artificial and fast paced our lives are in the city. In these villages, life is slow. Traditional clothing is dyed using the indigo plant, which is planted, grown and harvested by the locals. Additionally, they also harvest their own hemp to make material. Traditional “machinery” is still used grind corn and rice, which can be human or water powered. These are things that my technology numb brain would never have thought of.
That night, we stayed at Zao’s Homestay with about 20 other trekkers. We all ate a home cooked Vietnamese meal together that ended with shots of rice wine from a plastic bottle. Needless to say, it was a good evening.
Why Should You Trek Responsibly?
Many of us trekking through the valleys surrounding Sapa come from well off backgrounds and have never had to face the types of hardships that the Hmong people do, especially woman. In their society (and many others), males hold majority of the power, resulting in their ownership of land being dependent on their marital status. In a society that lives off the land they own, this is vital to their quality of life. Additionally, many woman in the valley fall victim to human trafficking in China, whose border is fairly close.
Although tourism has brought many benefits to these people, it has brought a different form of exploitation through low wages of local guides working for major tourism agencies operated from the major Vietnamese cities. A guide who feels valued is more likely to provide you with a more insightful trip, which is exactly what I experienced. Our guide, Lan, was forthcoming with information regarding the valley, open to answering all of our questions and could speak fluent English, even joking with us along the way.
By trekking responsibly, you are not just supporting a single woman. You are supporting an entire community that can continue to live their traditional lifestyle of subsistence farming on the rice terraces, whilst improving the lives of their families and the villages you trek through. People in these villages have been empowered through tourism by learning new skills to open their own restaurants, home stays and by selling their traditional clothing and accessories.
I’m so glad I could responsibly contribute to this society whilst experiencing their way of life.