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Entering the village of Ta’van, you begin to see more white faces. Ta’van is known for it’s wealth of homestays which populate the village. The homestays are community run and helps the village to sustain a livelihood.
A trekking Sapa homestay in Ta’van Village
The village is home to the Tay and Giay tribes people. Aside from farming, many local farm family houses are set up to operate as legitimate trekking Sapa homestays for trekkers looking to learn more about the culture (here is great info on homestays).
We saw a sign for foreigners, reminding them of the culture’s conservatism and appropriate etiquette to observe:
“No public displays of affection“, “Always ask permission before photographing people“,… The list was long and tight.
Arriving at our trekking Sapa homestay, it was a large wooden house, with a long outdoor table for dining, an outhouse and floor beds upstairs. It’s living room was large, spacious and furnished with a television set for the family. The kitchen in the back was large, low lit with a flourescent light. Minimal, clean, nice.
I dropped my bags and immediately went to explore the village. Walking up the road took me to the center of the village. A small shop, a school and a road towards more homes. Walking the opposite direction took me down to the Muong Hoa river where I could wash my shoes.
When I returned to my homestay it was time to take a hot shower and settle in for dinner. Meanwhile, two more trekking groups arrived to join our trekking group of three- an older French couple and two young French teachers and a U.K. couple, led by other guides. It was a wonderful international bunch. And again, I was the lone American.
The house prepared a heaping Vietnamese meal of five delicious dishes- vegetarian included! Our hosts offered us their house rice wine and we spent the night sharing travel tales and comparing itineraries.
When it got late, around 10:30 pm, we went upstairs to crash on our mosquito net protected bedding.
So what is a trekker’s home stay accommodations in a village like?
This is the second time I’ve done a trekking homestay. My first trekking home stay was in the valleys outside of Chiang Mai, almost a year ago. I was curious how my Vietnamese homestay accommodations would compare. While the furnishings are often minimal and basic, what you get in the essentials are still a lot. The homestays like to make sure you’re well-protected from night mosquitoes and cold as well as, handsomely-fed.
We had hot water and a shower was “in the house”, which was easier than what I experienced in Chiang Mai. There, if you didn’t shower early enough, you’d be showering in the cold dark of night with wind stealing into the open cracks of the wooden shack. The village home we stayed at in Sapa was much nicer and larger. It had the convenience of facilities connected to the house.
The toilet however, wasn’t. That was an outhouse in back of the home.
Trek Tip #1: Always pack a flashlight, hand sanitizer and mosquito spray.
The home had an upstairs floor. Thick community blankets were laid out for guests and wedged side by side to make beds. Individual mosquito nets hung over each bed as an invisible line of separation. Me and my fellow trekking group were like one big travel family. Fart and your family might not appreciate it…
Falling asleep to the sound of Sapa’s mysteries bugs, bull frogs and crickets felt relaxing in a way I can’t express. Nature had her own “noise” completely devoid of urban sounds. No outdoor hum of a street light, car alarm, my Korean neighbor climbing the stairs in her heels at 3 am… or a wall clock counting seconds…
Either it’s the trekking or the remoteness of it all that makes sleep come faster. I fell asleep the moment my head hit the pillow. Lights out.
Next morning, breakfast came in large plates with generous mounds of pancakes, bananas and fruit. It was more than anyone could eat.
Vietnamese must think westerners have hearty appetites. Looking at the build of most travelers compared to a local villager, you can see where the assumption is true. I felt a stab of guilt, staring at all that food in front of us. The Vietnamese family would finish what we left behind, but you can’t help but compare the abundance of food made for travelers against the villagers’ own lesser welfare. Each traveler’s stay however, does drive their village economy.
Trek Tip #2: Only take what you know you’ll eat.
By 10:30AM, a wave of Hmong women and girls were perched, sewing, waiting, guarding their usual stake out spot… our guesthouse entrance. This made us all a bit uneasy and reluctant to leave the house. The moment we left, we’d be entering tout territory.
Those Hmong women sure are doggedly persistent.
Tourists, tourists and touts, everywhere
The tourist scene is unavoidable in Vietnam; Sapa is no exception. As a result, the minority hill tribes have gotten bold with stalking tourists in the effort to sell their crafts. You don’t have to go out of your way to look for them; they’ll find you!
Sapa town feels like a trekkers’ Disneyland. Whether you’re in town or in the valleys, all feels strangely like a circuit tour, as you run into the familiar faces of travelers you met in your trekking groups, on the train, in town or on the bus ride over! While everyone has different guides and itineraries, overlapping paths seems to be a consistent norm. I must have run into an easy 10 people at least 2-3 times. Interesting odds, even for a small town.
Did this take away from the natural beauty of Sapa or the village experience?
Not in the least.
Despite the throngs of backpackers, which file in daily and the disappointing effects of tourism it wreaks, as hill tribe people flock around you for your dollars, the idyllic beauty and unbothered peacefulness of the land is still pretty remarkable. Furthermore, as a solo traveler it was refreshing to continually cross paths with certain travelers as if we were all jail-broken from the walls of our hotel.
Sapa town is a backpackers dream.
Trek Tip #3: When dealing with touts, especially village children, be warned that if you buy something from one of them, all of them will flock to you. As you see below, this backpacker bought a bracelet from one and all of the child sellers ran to him. Fortunately, he seemed kind, very prepared and more than willing to buy one from all of them.
Mud mud everywhere
When breakfast ended, it was time for all the house guests to part ways and file back into the group we came from.
My part of the trek ended today, while the French couple would continue on. I’d trek to the next village and then take a bus back into Sapa town, where I’d pick up my bags, shower and leave on the night train back to the rambunctous motorcycle gateway of Hanoi.
I wished I had more time. This was paradise. It was the perfect balance of solitude and social for a solo wandering gal.
Being monsoon season, I knew trekking in Sapa had the potential to be difficult, slippery and *muddy*.
The previous night, it rained and rocky slopes were slick with sludge pockets. The hiking path was no more than a foot and a half wide with a steep drop. My life might be at risk with one false step or slide. This was definitely not a Disneyland ride. The ledges were caked and mashed over by fellow trekkers and water buffalo footprints, making each step I took extremely careful. Each time I put my foot down, the mud formed a quick suction.
Trek Tip #4: Wear shoes that are made for hiking and trekking. It’s made to have greater traction and balanced support for various terrain. I only had running shoes so I had difficulty; while the French couple had hiking shoes and managed to navigate this rough terrain with greater ease.
The eldest of the Hmong women was wearing rain boots and helped pull us up and through unreliable mud-soaked slopes. She even held my hand and firmly and confidently walked me through.
Those Hmong grandmothers are strong.
It was a crazy hot day. The heat and humidity were smothering… the equivalent to taking a sweat shower. But young Kuh and her Hmong entourage walked on, unfazed.
With the heat slapping down on us, we trudged through incline upon incline, hill checkpoint after hill checkpoint. When we arrived at our last checkpoint, there was a nice waterfall of relief. The Frenchman took off a newly-bought Hmong belt/bandana, only to find that between the heat and sweat, the Indigo dye had inked his forehead. That was sure to leave a mark for days!
Trek Tip #5: Whenever buying Hmong clothes and fabrics, always wash and cure the fabric before wearing it. The dye runs off and stains whatever it touches. Don’t store it with the rest of your travel clothes but in a separate bag.
After a challenging and soaked workout, we descended the mountain for lunch at a local cafe. We had a bowl of ramen and at that point it was the best bowl of ramen I tasted!
It was time to say Goodbye to my group, Hmong guides and my wonderful three-day trek. Between mud and sweat, I needed a bath!
When I got back to Sapa, Emotion Hotel let us use the employees’ rooms to shower in. If the staff didn’t mind, then I didn’t mind.
Finally clean, I ran into town for some quick shopping and to squeeze in a 30 min foot massage of sheer heaven!
Then I caught a group van back to Lao Cai train station and boarded the overnight train to Hanoi.
It would be a long train ride, but the familiar social circuit of backpackers, who were making their way back to Hanoi with me, would keep me well-conversed along the way!