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open mind, empty stomach

travel, food, and fun

Located in northern Vietnam, not far from the Chinese border, Sapa is best known for its ethnic minorities and terraced rice paddies. The Black Hmong and Red Zhao are the two largest minorities and you can tell them apart by the red headscarves worn by Zhao women. I didn’t take pictures of the locals in fear that they would think I was trying to capture their souls. My first encounter with the tribal people consisted of a hoard of them sprinting towards my transport as I arrived in Sapa town. They swarm visitors instantly upon arrival trying to sell handicrafts. These little (most are 5′ or less) women are not nearly as persistent/aggressive/annoying as vendors in other places and many will guide treks/homestays for a great price.
The town itself is not very big, offers beautiful views (on clear days), and is in walking distance to a number of minority villages. Due to the elevation, the climate is much more temperate than most of the country. In July, it was not humid and even got cold at night! Lodging was very reasonable for Vietnam, with dorm rooms starting at $3.50. I stayed at the Green Valley International Hotel. It was $7 for a single with hot water and in-room wifi. The hotel is run by a Vietnamese family and a very cool Aussie named Glenn. I really enjoyed my stay there and think it’s a great option when visiting Sapa. Glenn set me up with an excellent private trek/homestay.
Several people had told me of a Hmong lady named May that is supposed to provide the ultimate trek/homestay. Unfortunately, I did not get her number until the night before my trek would begin. Her phone only gets reception when she is near Sapa town and she had apparently gone home for the night. If you are in Sapa and want to give her a shot, her number is 01659483870. My homestay experience was May-less, but still a-may-zing. Glenn’s friend Olivier and his family hosted me. Olivier’s story is reminiscent of the Last Samurai. While he didn’t kill her husband in battle, he did marry a widower with children and has gone totally native. Originally from France, Olivier came to Sapa 6 years ago on vacation and never left. He speaks English, French, Hmong, Zhao, and a little Vietnamese. In addition to hosting homestays, he is also a trekking guide. Olivier and his wife were perfect hosts. Their home is a 2 hour (1 if you go at Parasco pace) hike up the mountain from Ta Phin. The top of the mountain is a relatively short, steep, very scenic hike from the house and definitely worth the effort. The family has 2 big pigs, 4 piglets, 2 chickens, and a garden. The dinner I had at Olivier’s house was, by far, the best food I had in Sapa. They prepared banana flowers with peanut and lemon, fried green chilies, pumpkin with soy sauce and sugar, french fries, and rice. The banana flower and chilies were really, really good. Everything was made from scratch using fresh, local ingredients (and a light sprinkling of MSG). I got to sample 3 different rice wines that were made by the family. They were strong and tasty. The strongest and darkest wine came from a bottle full of bees! Many homestays allow you to stay with an authentic Hmong/Zhao family, what I had at Oliver’s was that and more. If you go to Sapa, e-mail Olivier at tsen-ang@hotmail.com and experience it for yourself.
Due to booking the trip at the 11th hour, I had another guide take me to and from Olivier’s house. Sa May is a 28 year-old Red Zhao woman and an outstanding guide. Her English was very good, she could walk really fast, and taught me quite a bit about her home. People her age were among the last to have prearranged marriages; Zhao and Hmong can now choose their partner. They also get married in their early 20’s instead of early/middle teens and have 2 children instead of 10. This isn’t the only recent change.
Traditional dress has become a work uniform and is worn to sell handicrafts in town or when visitors come to the village. After work the women change into western clothes. Almost all of the men I saw were wearing western clothing. Sa May took me to visit her home. Her 86 year old grandmother, a man who looked to be in his 50s, and 4 children were watching Korean soaps dubbed in Vietnamese. Her house was made of wood and, with the exception of the television, looked as it may have a century ago. She also took me to her family’s rice paddies. They use pesticides and recently began using a type of rice and corn seed that Sa May thinks comes from China. These plants don’t produce seed crop, so they must purchase seeds annually. Seed prices have been steadily increasing. It costs $1/kg for pesticides and $100 for rice seed annually for her family’s large farm (which she explained as if it was a lot of money). I tried to ask if it was GMO, but was unable to explain the concept to her.
Everyone we passed asked her (in Zhao) if I bought a lot of handicrafts. The town center was full of locals waiting to sell their handicrafts to visitors. The local people may be hustling for dollars, but this is a plantation like atmosphere. The few restaurants and shops in the village are owned by Vietnamese, not Hmong or Zhao. They bought small pieces of land for absurdly low prices from unknowing locals and are the only ones with the startup capital for businesses. The Vietnamese government and private individuals have been aggressively pursuing more land in the villages around Sapa, but the locals have held their ground. Sadly, I think it is a matter of when not if they will find a selfish/shortsighted family in each village. Westernization/commercialism has definitely arrived in Sapa and it is only a matter of time until (what remains of) their traditional way of life is gone forever.
Despite the rapid growth of tourism in Sapa, it is still a truly wondrous place and I wish I could have spent more time there. The food scene is nothing to write home about and Sapa is still my favorite place in Vietnam (sorry Hoi An). This speaks volumes about how special of a place Sapa is. I have been fortunate enough to visit some truly beautiful places and Sapa ranks among the best. The landscape isn’t just breathtakingly beautiful, it gives you chicken skin. Words and pictures cannot begin to do Sapa justice. If you go to Vietnam, please visit Sapa before it’s too late!

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