I’m sitting on a bus on the way back to Hanoi after spending a couple of eye-opening and heart-warming days in Sapa, this place has got under my skin in such a short space of time and I feel like I’m leaving a part of myself behind but gaining so much more in return.
Sapa is a town in a mountainous area in Northwest Vietnam which is famous for it’s terraced rice fields grown on the Muong Hoa Valley, by the nomadic tribes that live there.
I learned a lot about these tribes and the hardships they’ve faced as a result of discrimination and marginalisation by the Vietnam government, through the tour company I used, Ethos Spirit of the Community.
Ethos are committed to helping the minority tribes through various projects, the two that stayed in my mind were reducing infant mortality, with 1 in 5 babies not reaching their second birthday and child human trafficking, with one pre-pubescent girl being sold to China for prostitution and slavery every five days.
We booked two tours with them, the first was to go to a local market with a tribe member and choose ingredients to cook in their house for a shared lunch. The second was a guided tour up the mountains to a waterfall.
Ethan was feeling restless while we were having our tour briefing so the owner, Hoa, asked a young girl in the office to get some toys out for him, and the two of them played a game in another room. I asked if the girl was Hoa’s daughter and was saddened to learn that she was the daughter of an opium addict whose wife had run away to China. Ethos had taken the girl in and she was living with them whilst receiving an education too.
Later we were introduced to our guide, So, part of the Black Hmong tribe, who had 18 years of experience as a guide – she looked too young for this statement to be believable – I suspected her mountain lifestyle had youth preserving properties. So had a cheeky smile and glint in her eye and I knew immediately we would get along, she also had a five year old son, seven year old daughter, and a bunch of puppies and piglets, I knew Ethan would have a great time there.
My favourite part of travelling is learning about other cultures and So was a great talking companion, she answered all of my million questions with depth and description which I soaked up like a human sponge. I learned that she had an older daughter too, an 11 year old who she had sent to Spain for a year or two to keep her safe from the kidnappings and trafficking we’d learned about.
We spoke about the heartache of making such a decision weighed against the relief it brings knowing you had the means to keep your child safe. Why Spain? So’s sister had been a tour guide to a Spanish woman who had gone on to adopt her years ago. She had since married a local man and extended the invitation to So’s daughter.
So’s house was a two and a half hour walk from town, where the tour company’s office was, so unless her husband could give her a lift on the motorbike, she would walk that distance twice a day! Even in the rain, and Sapa gets a lot of rain! We opted for a taxi to drop us 30 minutes from her house and that short distance was hard work, up a steep incline.
So’s house took me by surprise, it was a mash up of modern and traditional. A vast single storey wooden structure with a corrugated metal roof, dirt floors, no windows – yes, NO windows, an open fire pit in the middle of a room with no chimney, and a small bedroom presumably for all four members to sleep in alongside a TV in the living/dining room, a fully tiled shower room and several pressure/slow cookers.
We had learned that the tribes used to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice, so houses were taken down and furniture was put onto the back of a wagon and so it all had to be very small. Although the tribes were now settled and So had been in this house for 8 years, they still had some tiny furniture like plastic stools around 15cm high, and a low-down table and benches for dining on. In the Western world, we would use this furniture for our children, it was the first comfortable seat Ethan has had in the trip.
I helped So prepare the vegetables for lunch and noticed similarities between us, watching her run around doing several tasks at once, in what seemed a random way to an onlooker, she later admitted to having so many dishes cooking in different places that she often found forgotten about food at the end of meals – that sounded exactly like me!
Food was cooked on the open fire three times a day and with no chimney or windows to let the smoke out, respiratory disorders was common, especially in children. Soon after the fire was lit for our lunch, the five year old was coughing in a way that made me wonder if he had asthma – as an asthmatic myself, I spent limited time inside and was grateful for the dry weather. The outside area was muddy, with pigs, chickens and dogs running around, adding rain to the formula would have made it unpleasant.
I was impressed by So’s hygiene in preparing the food, the vegetables were washed several times in cold spring water as were the chopping board and knife. The food was cooked in a mixture of a frying pan on a stove, a boiling pot over the fire, an electric slow cooker, some sweetcorn barbecuing on the fire and potatoes buried into the ashes of the fire. The only seasoning used was salt but all of the food tasted incredible, it really showed what a difference cooking with fresh, organic, locally grown veg made.
The other thing that impressed me massively was how undemanding So’s children were. Earlier that day I had asked her what their favourite foods were, so we could buy it at the market and she had looked confused and said they liked everything. I assumed she was being polite but observing them in contrast with our picky eater was evidence of her response.
So’s children were far more independent than any I’ve witnessed. They had been helping a neighbour catch fish that had escaped after a heavy rainfall and when they came back, her daughter, Lala, chastised her mum for leaving dirty dishes behind when she had left for work and set about washing them and continuing with the cooking that her mother had started. She too, was very fastidious about cleanliness, any time she touched an animal, she rewashed her hands, up to her arms before touching the food. She later helped her mum fashion a toothpick from a bamboo stick using a pen knife with expert proficiency. Lala was a sassy, confident and beautiful young girl that I could see going very far in life.
Her five-year-old brother, Ken, came in and headed straight for a shower without a word from So, he then happily amused himself climbing on and off a broken toy motorbike and his dad’s real one. There were no demands on his mum or sister to play with him, or requests to have the TV on. When Ethan decided he wanted to play on whichever bike Ken was on, Ken moved aside without batting an eyelid – I couldn’t imagine Ethan being as accommodating.
When it came to lunchtime, the kids sat down and ate their food with no fuss, helping themselves to more food when they needed it. In sharp contrast, Ethan needed coaxing, bribing, threatening and eventual spoon feeding to get him through his food.
The next day we headed further up the mountains in a taxi to see a waterfall and Ken joined us. As it was his first time in a car, So wanted him to sit on her lap in case he didn’t take to it. Strange to think of sitting in a car as a transitional thing for a child that could climb mountains wearing flip flops.
Having Ken on the trip with us was a pleasure, language barriers don’t exist between kids and he and Ethan found a rhythm, holding hands to climb together and playing chase whenever the opportunity came. As parents of an only child we actively seek opportunities for him to make friends.
Ethan gave Ken two of his toys, in recognition of Ken not having toys like that, one was a Superman car that he enjoyed playing with, which made us feel very proud. He had also given some of his toys to homeless children begging on the roadsides of India and was recognising the differences in how other children lived compared to him. These were the lessons that couldn’t be taught in classrooms.
After the waterfall we headed to a vegetarian restaurant in Sapa town for lunch, the food was delicious, and it was a relief not to worry about things being cooked in meat sauces or fish oil. From there we drove over to another mountain, where the Red Dao tribe live, they are a much larger tribe, of 3000 people and have a mini town.
So warned us that when we got out of the taxi, we would be approached by women wanting us to buy things, if we didn’t want anything we should give a polite “no”, if we said “maybe later”, they took that as a “yes”.
As soon as I stepped out of the car, three women descended on me like vultures to prey, it was very uncomfortable and felt a little threatening too. I was trying to get my bag on and give Ethan his sunglasses and the women were right up in my face firing questions at me, each one followed with “Buy from me”.
I knew that selling wares was a way to supplement bad harvests so didn’t begrudge their efforts, but had I not had this information then I’m sure ignorance would have provoked a less patient response from me and Lee.
We were in this village to try their famed herbal baths – they picked herbs from the mountains and steeped them in eater which was filled into huge barrels that you climbed into for a soak. There were four barrels in a room, so a family could bathe in privacy and all of the rooms had big windows with mountain views.
The baths were fun for Ethan who fit nicely into the barrel and loves baths, I was able to fit comfortably in but kept getting light headed and having to climb out, but poor Lee was squeezed in, with his knees touching his chin and no room to move lol
Post the bath my skin has been silky soft even after two showers, so it was a worthwhile experience and one we wouldn’t have known about if Hoa at Ethos hadn’t suggested it for us the day prior. The tour I had booked was only for the waterfall and some trekking, stopping for lunch at a village home, but considering we had Ethan, Hoa suggested we drove to the waterfall, back to town for lunch and then on to the baths. All of this was at no additional cost to us, I was impressed by how accommodating Ethos were.
Heading back to our car, I was talking to So about the interactions I had seen between her and other tribes and Vietnamese people, I marvelled at how much respect everybody had for each other. She explained that there was no open rivalry amongst the tribes, they all had their own languages and ways of doing things but accepted these differences, and cross-tribe marriages were also accepted. Vietnamese was the common language shared between the tribes and the towns people, that removed language barriers, but not prejudices.
She told me about a Vietnamese couple that had arrived before we left the baths, I had seen them and noted that they looked down their nose at all of us and also that the man took the only seat left with no offer to his partner. So told me that he demanded a bath from her and she said “I’m not the boss, speak to my hand” hahaha. He then bluntly asked her how many husbands she had! She retaliated by asking how many wives he had, to which he proudly stated two! So retorted that she only had one life, and one husband and that her people were not like him, having wives here and there!
Marriages in the Hmong tribe sounded like they ran by a good system, the boy and girl were free to choose who they wanted to marry but the boy’s family had to pay a dowry for the girl. The amount was decided by the girl’s family, So joked that if the family didn’t like the boy, they would ask for an absurd amount. The money was kept by the girl’s family until the couple wanted to build their own house, and it would be given to help with that. If the couple wished to divorce, the dowry would be returned to the boy if the girl petitioned for the divorce, kept by the girl if the boy petitioned or divided equally if it was a joint decision.
I asked her about the Chief and learned he/she was democratically elected and ran for three year’s and re-elected if they were good. I commented that it was great they had female chiefs too, she agreed but said women didn’t want to be chiefs as they had too much home and family work to get done and didn’t have the time for Chief duties. I guess these problems are common around the world.
If you ever go to Vietnam, plan a trip to Sapa, two days is a good amount of time, anything longer is a bonus. There are overnight trains that go there but they arrive at a station 1.5 hours away from Sapa at around 6am, and the railways are not the best so the journey isn’t the most comfortable.
We travelled by Eco Sapa Limousine Bus, a very comfortable 9-seater minibus with leather armchairs and wifi. It is a five hour door to door journey, including two breaks and was cheaper than the train!
We lucked out with our hotel, The Spa Freesia Hotel, it’s newer than other hotels in the area and the service was impeccable.
A final note on Ethos Spirit – they’re a great company, the communication was fantastic, it was easy to book tours and even easier to modify them, and above all else, they are doing a fantastic job for the wonderful people of Sapa.