I went trekking in Sapa and had my first truly authentic homestay experience. When I say ‘authentic’, I mean I stayed in a ramshackle house on a mountain side in a village shared with 3 large cows, a lot of chickens, 3 dogs (with 4 puppies) and god knows what other creatures. I felt like I was Farmer Brown!
I wanted an authentic Sapa trekking experience… I have heard stories of the mass-tourist treks that can be booked from Hanoi but that left me cold – the last thing I would enjoy is staying in some ‘hotel’ in the mountains, going on short, boring, dull day trips to nearby villages, only to return to the hotel at night and have whatever western food the place sells. No thanks.
Alternatively, there are ladies called ‘mamas’ that run their own little homestays in the villages surrounding Sapa town. They come out to the busses arriving in the town every day and try to attract tourists to come to their modest homes. A friend of mine had given me the contact details for one such Mama – Mama Sa. I called and arranged to meet her upon my arrival. True to her word, she was there when I arrived after a 9 hour commute from Cat Ba.
The first thing you’ll notice about this short, delightful lady is she is always smiling and happy. It’s as if she sees herself as your mom whilst you’re staying under her roof. She has the personality of someone you instantly like and trust. If you decide to come to Sapa, give me a shout – I’ll pass on her contact details.
My experience started with a rather terrifying motorbike ride. Her husband gave me a ride from the town to her village on some of the worst roads Vietnam has to offer. Sapa is a hillside town and the roads are windy and contain a fair amount of sheer drops. I was more than happy to get off that motorbike and never see it again. My body was vibrating after all the potholes we encountered. Every now and then, I thought I’d be launched off the bike when we hit such a pothole. At that point, I best learn to fly or else I’d have been pretty dead. (It’s not as bad as you think mom, calm down 🙂 )
When I first saw her house in the village I’ll be honest and say that I did have an ‘oh shit’ moment. It’s a typical house for the region but it’s a proper local house. It is not touristy at all (which is what I wanted) but I was taken back a little by how rudimentary it was. That said, over my time there, I realised it had everything you need and Mama Sa made it so comfortable. She even came through to the room where myself and a few other travellers were sleeping to make sure we were all comfortable and warm before turning off the light. She is adorable.
The food her family prepared for us was unreal – so so so good, safely some of the best Vietnamese food I’ve had in my month in the country. We huddled around a small table and ate until we couldn’t eat anymore, listening to Mama Sa’s stories. She has such an infectious laugh and laughs at anything. Her one child – 3 years old – fell and bumped his head. In those 3 seconds where the kid was deciding whether to cry or not, she bursts out laughing and the kid is so taken aback he starts laughing. Maybe it’s a good trick to prevent tears?
We went on a few treks around the neighbouring villages over the 2 days I was there. The scenery is stunning and rural. There isn’t much going on in the countryside with the exception of farming. Wherever you look, there will be numerous rice paddies covering any available hillside space. It’s really quite something to see.
After bidding farewell to Mama Sa, I spent a night in Sapa town. This is a nice enough place but over-run with tourists and vendors selling you everything from ‘genuine’ North Face clothing to handmade souvenirs. It’s a good stop for a night but I wouldn’t stay much longer than that personally.
Now, I’m back in Hanoi and head for Cambodia on Thursday. It’s ridiculous how fast this past month has gone!
Cheers for now!