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.
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.