The Sapa Valley, dubbed the "Tonkinese Alps", lies close to the Chinese border in northwest Vietnam. My journey there started in Hanoi, where I boarded an overnight sleeper train. The carriage accommodation was basic, but comfortable and I shared it with a Vietnamese mum and her two teenage sons. After setting up our pullout bunk-beds I was lulled straight to sleep by the train's rhythmic motion, only to be woken by the eldest son passing wind in his sleep.
Sapa town has two distinct dress codes: tourists donning waterproof outdoor gear and tribal women with colourful headscarves and sporting bamboo baskets on their backs.
Arriving at Sapa in the morning meant I headed straight to the mountains after picking up supplies locally. The hill-tribe people from the surrounding villages come to the market each morning to sell their handicrafts. The market also has shops offering good quality outdoor gear for a fraction of the price at home.
As with all Asian markets, the food section is interesting. A huge variety of colourful fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices are displayed. The butchery is not for the squeamish; full cattle carcasses are hacked in half, and skinned sheep heads stare out with their eyes intact.
Near the market was the meeting point for my trekking group. We were nine in total and had signed up for a two-day hike. We met our guide, a local man encouragingly called Zoom. Contrary to the connotations of his name, we set off at a slow and steady pace.
Our group doubled in size as we left Sapa town. An entourage of H'mong tribal women walked with us. Each chose one of us to befriend and later they did the hard sell of their inexpensive, but well-crafted scarves, bags and purses. The H'mong are the largest tribe in the region, accounting for 52% of the ethnic minorities in Sapa. The women were great company and happily chatted, giving an insight into how they live and offering a helping hand when the terrain became challenging.
I visited Sapa in winter, when it was cold and wet and the rice paddies were brown and empty. But still, the scenery was jaw-droppingly beautiful. The rice terraces are cut into the earth with such precision and graduate downwards like giant steps into river valleys. The moving body of clouds and mist made for an ever-changing landscape and parted to reveal Vietnam's highest peak, Fanispan (3,143 metres). Dotted throughout rice paddies are farmers working the land while buffalo, ducks, pigs and chickens roam freely.
After a 12km walk we were happy to rest for the night. Our mountain accommodation was a home-stay with a family from the Giay tribe. Unlike the H'mong, the Giay family did not dress in traditional costume. Their house was surprisingly modern with a TV and a Karaoke machine, which seems to be a household necessity in Vietnam. This was in contrast to the kids playing hopscotch and with homemade bamboo toys in the villages we passed through that day.
The second day's trek was just 7km but on tougher terrain. We navigated up and down muddy paths and across the terrace fields on slippery ledges. A welcome respite came at a cascading waterfall on the far side of a lush bamboo forest.
That night I boarded the night sleeper train back to Hanoi and I was surprised to end up sharing the carriage again with the same family. We greeted each other with warm smiles and communicated in broken English and over-dramatic hand gestures.
During the night I woke up my cohabiters with snuffles from the cold that I had developed on the trek. At 4am the mother treated me like one of her own and leaned across from her bunk to mine and maternally slapped me on the back while I coughed. As a lone traveller I was happy to find that mammys are the same all over the world.
Deirdre have eight years production experience in the television industry, in both RTÉ and the independent sector. She began in TV as a runner before went on to get experience researching, shooting DV and production management roles. She directed her first documentary short in 2012 and it won the Auidence Award for Best Short Film at Dingle International Film Festival.
The greatest job in the worldSince 2004, she have worked as a broadcast, print and on-line travel journalist and have contributed travel articles to The Irish Times, RTÉ.ie, Outsider Magazine, Backpacker Magazine & Metro Eireann. She have broadcast live on RTÉ radio and television - RTÉ Radio One, RTÉ Two FM, RTÉ Two TV. She is currently staff travel writer with RTÉ.ie.
In 2010 she received Travel Journalist of the year international award in Mexico. In January 2013, was awarded a Travel Journalist of the Year Award for her work in 2012 for RTÉ.ie.
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Deirdre : You should go back at the end of the summer, it's completely another world out there, thanks for your story !
Sapa Story webmaster
Thanks for sharing, too bad there was no more details about your homestay experience, interesting story thought !