Thick strong Vietnamese coffee with sweet condensed milk is the first thing to welcome me to sapa. I’ve arrived on a gruelling and sleepless overnight bus journey from Hanoi up to this region of northern Vietnam, bordering China. It’s freezing up here when I arrive at 5 in the morning, and I’m left waiting outside for an hour waiting for my pick up to the hotel. When I eventually get there this coffee is a life saver.
I’m sat in reception when my guide walks in. Tanned and much shorter than me, she looks out of place in her traditional costume on contrast to hotel. Lin, my guide tells me we will begin out trek from the hotel, walking 20k today to our homestay where we’ll spend the night, and then finishing off tomorrow. We’re joined by four other people then we head out into the town, past the hotels and the sports shops, down a little road and suddenly we’re in the valley.
The air feels fresh and healthy but as we walk, I’m forced to peel off most my layers. As we walk, we’re joined by a few more women from the indiginohs villages, wearing there traditional clothing. Most speak little to no English but they hold our hands when the hike suddenly becomes drastically slippy.
Lin tells us there are many different tribes all across the valleys in sapa and that each speaks a different language. However they are taught Vietnamese in school and communicate that way. Most of the tribe people still wear there traditional clothing and it’s not just for show, it’s a form of identity.
We walk past waterfalls and water buffalo’s before we reach the first little village. More interesting than anything are the children. In their traditional clothing, they’re cheeky and cute chewing on sugar cane and are interested in everything.
After a quick lunch of chicken and noodles at the village, Lin takes us to a shop to show us how the beautiful fabrics they wear are made. We see how the flowers are pressed and made into a blue dye they leaves a silky metallic shine on the costumes.
I’m a good walker but hiking in Sapa is not for the faint hearted. When we arrive in the homestay village, my legs have gone to jelly. Homestays in Sapa are the norm but sadly these are becoming more and more like hostels than guest houses. At first, I’m disappointed that I’m not in an actual ‘homestay ‘ but then Lin says if we fancy another hours walk to the next village, we could visit her parents house.The walk to the next village is uphill the entire way but Lin, in her jumper and her many layers, doesn’t even break a sweat. Lins village is much quieter than the one we are staying in. We arrive at her parents house, where she and her seven siblings grew up and it’s like stepping back in time.
Outside there are pens of chickens, pigs and a new litter of puppies are running about. Inside there is no electricity and the floors are stone but there’s a little hole in the middle of the floor with a wood fire burning.
Lin’s parents don’t speak English but they shake our hands and welcome us into their home. Immediately they heat up a little pot of green tea and serve it to us in thimble size glasses and I’m struck by the generosity of these people who have so little, but invite us into their home and offer so much.
Before we leave we follow the smell of smoke into a small room. Lins father is in a small dark room, tending to a fire.
The last of the days sun is shining in though little slits in the wall and as the light mixes with the smoke, the effect is magical.
The next morning we walk though rice paddies, though bamboo forests, over bridges and stop to rest at waterfalls and again, I feel like I’m in a dream. When we make it to the last village for lunch, before our pick up back to town. We’re exhausted and it’s an emotional experience. Happy to not be walking anymore, we’re all so sad that this experience has ended. Over two days we’ve covered a lot of distance, physically but mentally also.
As we leave Lin scribbles something down on a peice of paper: her mobile phone number. Despite them still living a relatively traditional life, things are changing in Sapa. By us being here, the modern world is rapidly starting to encroach, and phones are just the start. The lure of city life and all its possibilities mean many of these young children will not stay in the villages. Everyone wants an education, the chance for a better job and money in one of the cities but in many ways they have so much more here already. Selfishly I hope they stay this way forever. In reality, I think Sapa has already started to change.