Sapa is easily one of the most beautiful and especially unique regions I have ever visited. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes it so special but I think a large part is due to its raw and simple beauty. While it is most widely known from photographs of its abundant green rice terrace fields, which first enticed me to visit, I found after exploring the region I gained an appreciation that goes way beyond the famous rice terraces and more toward the heart of its people.
As soon as James and I stepped off the bus in the main town at arrival, we were greeted by a cluster of Sapa women of all ages offering tours and showing us their handmade clothes and accessories in hopes we would buy. Although we had no interest, we smiled and cheerfully answered their questions because we were so happy to see their energetic smiles and decorative clothes greet us straight away. From that first experience, I immediately felt the charm of the region and was interested to know more about its people.
We had booked a homestay called “Miku’s Chill House” with a local woman named Miku and her family near the popular Ta Van Village, only 8km from town but a 30 min. taxi ride down a rocky road along the edge of the mountains. It ended up being a perfect location considering it was away from the more commercialized homestays and restaurants in the center of Ta Van Village but still accessible to some of the most spectacular tracks in Muong Hoa Valley. Nestled up in the mountains next to a rice terrace field, we enjoyed a breathtaking view and were happy hanging around the porch taking photos, writing and chatting with other guests when we weren’t trekking. In the evening, all the guests would gather at the main table on the porch and Miku and her family would serve us their “family meal” to share. There was tons of steamed rice and plates of mixed vegetables and meats to mix together in a bowl to eat. Although not free, it was delicious and a fun experience to enjoy with other travelers.
There were always dogs and kids running around barking and laughing, giving life and authenticity to the place. I loved watching the kids and giving my best attempt at interacting with them, although it wasn’t always so good considering I don’t speak Vietnamese.
The best interaction happened soon after we arrived and set out for our first trek to explore our surroundings. What we thought would be a stroll ended up being a two-hour trek led by an 11-year-old girl named Ban and the two nine-year-old boys, Lou and Gang (names are probably inaccurate but that’s how I understood them). It wasn’t until the three kids ran after us down the mountain from the house that we realized we were being accompanied on the journey. Good thing we were though because they led us down a track we never would’ve found- winding us through loads of crop fields, across the river, to the top of a waterfall, through the jungle and then through some more crop fields and a village before returning. Along the way we passed chickens, dogs, pigs, kids in trees, toddlers playing at the mountain edge and even a baby holding a sharp knife. It seemed the further we went, the weirder it got. I was shocked at the number of children I saw free to roam around without supervision. Of course I was most concerned for the baby holding the knife and wondered how the parents could be so absent but at the same time realized how much more independent and mature the kids seemed to be because of that freedom. All these new discoveries easily made this trek my favorite. It was not only an eye-opening and awesome experience to trek with the local kids but also a great opportunity to learn so much about the region and lifestyle of the Sapa people.
In as little as two days and two nights, I fell in love with the simplicity of the villagers and connectedness to the land that defines their lifestyle. Aside from homestays, cafes and restaurants that seemed to be mainly built for tourists, there is hardly any commercial buildings. Especially away from town and toward the villages, nearly every man-made structure is a modest wooden or brick house, or a crop field of some sort. Of course the fields take up the majority of the land though so while you may be looking up at the mountains, a lot of what you see is farmed rice terraces or vegetables gardens.
What was so magnificent about this farmed land though is that it blended in so well with its natural landscape. It was almost as if you could tell the land was being used the way it’s supposed to- not for huge resorts, skyscrapers, and cars but for plentiful crops, animals and hard-working people.