Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Living with the Locals in Sa Pa, Vietnam


sa pa vietnam trekking

Sa Pa lies up in the North of Vietnam among the mountains. It’s a very scenic town and some even call it the Vietnamese Alps. Unfortunately, it’s become very touristy and the city center is no longer a pleasant area to stay due to aggressive sales people and over-priced restaurants. But a 2-hour hike brings you to the most amazing views and a true local experience if you dare to take a chance.

Most people who visit Sa Pa book an organized tour, often leaving from Hanoi. Others take the bus or train to Sa Pa and book a homestay through one of the Hmong people advertising on the streets. While a homestay is nice in theory, most are crowded and not much different than staying in a hotel or hostel.

I was lucky enough to get some great tips from fellow travelers prior to arriving, including the contact information for a local Hmong woman. As soon as my travel buddies and I arrived in Sa Pa, I called her and arranged to go trekking and spend the night in her home.

The next day, we met Mama Sumy and she took us trekking through the mountains to her small village in the hills. While the hike wasn’t too difficult overall, we did struggle with some steep inclines that we were amazed Sumy easily climbed in slippers. Throughout the trek, she offered a lot of insight into our surroundings, showing us green tea plants, her family’s rice field plot, and the local animals. We were careful not to disturb the wild buffalo as we walked a mere 5 feet away from them. Mama Sumy even made us hats out of the wild plants.

sa pa vietnam trekking mountains

That night, we headed back to her home, which was modest but much more developed than we would have thought. She made us tea and introduced us to her two small puppies. She even showed us the marijuana plants growing in her yard but informed us that they were strictly for selling to tourists as most locals do not smoke. Later we chopped vegetables and helped cook dinner, which was a delicious feast of spring rolls, beef, and stir fried veggies.

We were joined by her 15-year-old son for dinner. Her husband was away in town for work and her other three children were in school. Because the school is a long hike away, most students live there during the week and come home for the weekend. Although Sumy spoke English very well, her son did not since it is not taught in school.

After dinner, we still had a lot of time to kill before bed. Sumy insisted that we all drink some “Happy Water.” When asked what was in it, she simply replied, “alcohol!” It was much too strong for us! We pulled out some cards and attempted to teach her and her son a game. We quickly realized the language and cultural barriers made this difficult. Even games that seemed simple to us proved to be too different for them to understand. But we had fun trying!

The next day, Sumy made us pancakes for breakfast. She gave us bananas which we rolled in the pancakes and ate like hot dogs. She then insisted that we try on her traditional clothing! We looked ridiculous and she had a good laugh. Afterwards, we hiked back to the city center of Sa Pa.

This was one of the most memorable travel experiences for me. There were definitely more moments of silence than I’m used to and some uncomfortable situations, but I highly recommend that everyone stay with a local from a truly different culture at least once.


8 Ways to Befriend the Locals While Traveling


One of the best ways to truly immerse yourself in a different culture and have a unique travel experience is by befriending the locals in a new city. They can show you things you would have never found on your own and share with you insider pieces of knowledge. They can show you what daily life is truly like for the average person in that area, as opposed to your run-of-the-mill, sugar-coated tours. Yet, making friends is difficult, especially in a foreign country. Here are some ways to break through these barriers. And remember that learning about the local culture and being open-minded can greatly help your chances!

travel friends locals

Hanging out with the locals in Kilkenny, Ireland

1.) Reach out on social media

You might be surprised by how many friends-of-friends or distant relatives live in the destinations you want to visit! And more often than not, they will be happy to let you into their world and show you some local treasures.

2.) Stay with locals

Couchsurfing and Airbnb are two great resources for finding locals willing to spare a bed (or couch). Read through the host’s reviews to see if they prefer to be more independent or if they are the type to introduce you to their friends and show you around town.

3.) Stay in hostels

There are multiple ways to make local friends by staying in hostels. First, I’ve found hostel owners to be some of the kindest and most knowledgeable people I meet in most cities I go to. Especially at smaller hostels, they may be willing to show you around, introduce you to friends, or simply give you advice on where the locals hang out. Second, befriending other hostel goers is a great way to make connections. Their hometown just might be your next destination. Finally, I have occasionally met people from neighboring cities who were trying to save a few bucks while traveling for work. You really never know who you will meet!

4.) Go solo to local pubs

Hitting up a bar or pub for dinner and a drink is a great way to mingle with the locals. Whether it’s the bartenders or other patrons, let’s face it: people are most open to outsiders when they’ve knocked back a few. This is especially effective in smaller towns and cities in Europe, where pubs are often very much a part of the local culture. I think it’s also important to go alone and sit at the bar. Going with friends or acquaintances seems to hinder your chances of actually connecting with new people. I frequently did this in Ireland and I made many new memories, such as being invited to a party by members of the Irish navy.

5.) Try WithLocals

Currently available in Asia and select European cities, WithLocals site allows you to book unique experiences, such as home-cooked meals or arts and crafts, with a city’s locals. Some of the most unique options include sleeping in a cave with your host in Malaysia and net fishing in Cambodia.

6.) Couchsurfing events

Couchsurfing also hosts events where travelers and locals can connect in a fun, no-pressure environment. Also, since most Couchsurfing hosts prefer to board members with good reviews, these events are a great opportunity to gain positive references and make a name for yourself in the community.

7.) Think outside of the box

Look for opportunities that put you in contact with the locals, rather than traditional tours. When I was in Colombia, I located a tour of Santa Marta that was produced by a local who introduced us to his home and served us lunch. It was an incredible first-hand experience of the local culture and living conditions. I had a similar experience in Sa Pa, Vietnam. It just takes a bit of deep research on the internet to find these unique experiences.

8.) Join clubs or volunteer

If you’ll be staying in a city for an extended period or are moving abroad, try joining clubs, groups, or volunteering. You’ll be ditching the other tourists and you’ll be connecting on an entirely different level since you’re being united by a common interest or goal. Language exchange programs are also great for this!