A sleeper bus took me up the winding roads to Sapa, where I was greeted by the hill tribe people in all their colourful clothing. The women wore traditional dresses and head scarves and a lot of them had babies strapped to their backs. I was befriended immediately by two ladies, named Mai and Sa. I was well aware that they were trying to sell me a homestay tour into the mountains, but I liked them. They were charming and they did not pressure me to buy from them. They led me all the way into town and pointed me to the nearest hostel. It felt amazing to put down my heavy back pack and soak in the mystical blue mountains, which I could see straight from the dormitory balcony.
After some time, I walked down the street, where Sa was waiting for me! I decided to book a hill trek with her, as we seemed to get along well and she had been remarkably persistent. We negotiated a price for a two day tour and she gave me a bracelet and a pinky promise to seal the deal.
The next morning, we met at the church, as arranged. We walked with a whole group of other hill tribe ladies too. They were all dressed up in their colourful finery, which included indigo tunics with brocade on the sleeves, a vest, belt, checked coloured head scarves and babies on their backs. They also wore shorts and leg-warmers and had combs and silver hair pieces to hold up their long black hair.
The start of the walk was extremely picturesque, with pretty countryside, mountains, a narrow winding dirt track, green tea plantations and stunning mountain views. We passed by cows, goats, ducks and pigs lazing around in the mud. We walked through several remote villages along the way. I could hardly believe these lives existed in this day and age.
We had lunch at a roadside cafe, which consisted of fried rice and tamarind drink. Children lingered around, trying to sell us bracelets. “You buy from me!” they would insist, over and over again. Other children sat in the dirt playing Jacks with stones.
We continued walking high up in the mountains under the hot sun and reached Sa’s village by mid-afternoon. By this stage, I was trekking with two French Canadian guys, which gave me a sense of security, as I was surrounded completely by the unknown. In Sa’s village, we were taken down a path and into a living area with cement flooring and were offered rice wine shots by a boisterous group of ten hill tribe people.
The Canadian guys and I escaped from the shed and from the intense flavours of the rice wine, whilst Sa continued on for an hour or so. Many shots later, we politely asked Sa if she could show us the homestay where we would be staying for the evening. Sa eventually emerged from the party and walked us down the dirt road to her house, where her husband and youngest son were waiting.
Her husband was a jeweller and he made silver earrings, bracelets and rings out of melted down coins. Their home was a shack with a cement floor and a loft. It had a spectacular view over the mountains and we enjoyed eating black sticky rice and watching the sunset.
Outside, chickens and piglets were running around and the garden patch was full of green vegetables. Sa’s husband caught a chicken from the yard for dinner. He killed it in front of us, plucked it, removed it’s insides and cleaned it before boiling it up for the meal. We were treated that night to a large feast, which we shared with some of their friends.
Dinner consisted of a big pot of rice, fresh spinach from the garden, homemade spring rolls, salted pork and crackling, chicken (including head and feet) and a large bowl of coconut tofu and chilli dipping sauce. There were many shots of rice wine, each an occasion for a toast, in which I felt obliged to participate. All meals were cooked on the open fire inside the house. Everything smelled like camp-fire smoke. That night, we saw two bush fires blazing in the distance. We climbed up the ladder to the loft to snuggle into bed for the night and fell fast asleep by 9 pm, exhausted by the huge trek and social evening.
We awoke at sunrise to a baby crying, roosters crowing and the husband hammering his jewellery outside. As I clambered down the ladder, I was greeted by Sa with a big chunk of black sticky rice. The mist crawled over the mountains and pigs grunted, awaiting their morning feed. We had a delicious communal breakfast of rice, noodles, egg, pork, spinach, chilli sauce and sweetened condensed milk coffees. Everything was eaten from small bowls with chopsticks. I bought some jewellery from the family, who must find it difficult to make a living in such a remote place.
After saying goodbye to Sa’s husband and son, Sa and her dog took us walking through some other villages and across rivers, munching on small apples along the way. I learned some ukelele from one of the Canadian guys and played a few tunes over the mountains. I enjoyed learning about Sa’s Hmong tribe and all the different languages spoken in the region. We caught motorbikes back to Sapa by lunch time and, whilst I had loved the adventure in the mountains, it was good to be back to some modern comforts.
Have you been to Sapa? How was your hill tribe experience?