Tung had buck teeth and a smile that played about her eyes. She wore huge hoop earrings and indigo embroidered clothes that marked her out as a member of one of Vietnam’s highland minority groups, the Black Hmong.
It’s hard to tour Sapa in Vietnam’s northwest without being mobbed by the Hmong. When my bus arrived in town, I barely caught a glimpse of the charming mountain village before my exit was blockaded by a horde of little ladies dressed in the trademark Hmong clothing: black hemp jackets and skirts embroidered with bold, geometric patterns in even bolder, contrasting colours. They covered their legs in cotton ribbons wound all the way up to the knee. On their backs they carried woven baskets as if they were backpacks.
You can’t move through Sapa without Hmong women badgering you to buy their textile wares or join them on a hill trek. But you can’t really blame them. Tourism is what it’s all about in Sapa. It’s the town’s raison d’etre.
And for good reason.
Sapa resembles a Swiss alpine town, but with a greater tangle of electrical lines and more rundown façades. The main road snakes down a valley and is lined with enticing eateries and shops brimming with mountain gear and ethnic souvenirs.
Hiking in Sapa
This is the base for Vietnam’s biggest hiking region. So when some travel friends told me they had employed a Hmong woman to guide them through the hills to her village for an overnight stay, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for both the hike and the local encounter.
Our guide, Tung, wore plastic sandals and hammered metal bracelets on her wrists. She swept her black hair onto the crown of her head and held it in place with a silver comb. She looked like an ethnic diva ready for a rave, not a hike. She had a gentle soul.
She and her friends escorted us out of town, beginning a steady ascent into the hills beyond. We passed through lush forests and looked out over hilly landscapes shrouded in mists. Tung stopped occasionally to point out cardamom trees and hemp plants from which she made her own clothes.
Heavy clouds pressed in upon us. Yet although the rain stayed at bay, the paths were treacherously slippery and Tung and her girl friends intoned us in high pitched voices to take care. They picked corn cane for us to suck the juices from and fashioned horses and love hearts out of bamboo sticks for us.
We came upon Tung’s village suddenly along a small concrete road leading downhill to the bottom of the valley. Midway down the slope lay a ramshackle building of brick and aluminium that Tung called home. She beckoned us inside.
The interior was dim; electricity was relatively new and used only at night. There was an upper floor for grain storage and a big bamboo silo in which Tung’s children slept. A fire burning in a pit represented her kitchen. The smoke wafted up into the children’s sleeping area above. Beside the firepit was a double bed for guests.
The living room was the honoured room. While tables and plastic chairs were a given, the room also held the family heirlooms, including medals Tung’s father-in-law won during the Indochina wars. In a corner was a shrine bedecked with a pot full of used incense and red and white strips of paper to worship the family’s ancestors.
When Tung disappeared to prepare dinner, her friends surrounded us with their embroidered goods. We allowed them their pitch; they had, after all, given us all due attention on the walk home in an attempt to foster a relationship before the hard sell.
It was a clever method. With a bond formed between us all, we couldn’t resist rewarding their efforts and combed through their colourfully woven bags and belts to find a decent souvenir.
As the day progressed, we toured Tung’s village and the rice fields beyond. Local women came to chat with us while children ran past with the age-old past-time of hoop rolling.
After my encounter with fishermen in Ha Long Bay, I knew dinnertime hospitality meant generous servings of rice wine. And the Hmong didn’t fail us. We toasted one another, the children, the home. We toasted things I didn’t even understand. Tung and her best friend downed the liquor and descended into childish giggles.
But as Tung got tipsier, she became more intimate. She pulled out pictures of her younger sister, Mien and wiped away a tear. At 16 years old, Mien was taken and – Tung believes – sold across the border in China. Tung’s family had neither seen nor heard from the teenager since her disappearance over a year ago.
These disappearances among female Hmong teens is sadly a common tale in Sapa – if you want to learn more about it, read this phenomenal article by Latterly.
Mornings begin early for the Hmong. I heard footsteps and muffled conversations before the sun had risen. Smoke wafted through the house as Tung began preparing for breakfast. As the sun hovered weakly above the terraced hills, children tottered uphill to school.
Tung was in a playful mood, pulling out her traditional clothes and treating me as a mannequin as she layered the heavy, damp items over me, down to the velvet cloth wrapped around my legs and tied with ribbon. It felt mildewy and suffocating – I couldn’t imagine hiking the hills in this get-up in the heat of the day. Feeling left out, my male companions replicated the look on their own calves, to which Tung howled with laughter; this leg fashion was for women only.
It was timeless here, yet soon enough we had to get moving. I shed the weighty ethnic clothing in favour of my lightweight hiker’s gear, and we started moving lower in the valley.
The walk back from Tung’s village led us through the tourist trekking highway between Lai Chau and Sapa. We descended into the valley, then up through bamboo forests, along a muddy trail. Tung cut bamboo stems for us to use as walking sticks.
The sun was burning, but we enjoyed blue skies and tremendous views of richly green rice paddy fields. After lunch, Tung assured us the rest of the way was easy-going. But perhaps easy-going meant something different to a woman from the hills to a coastal girl. Our final two hours were directly uphill.
“This isn’t uphill,” Tung reassured me. “It’s flat!”
I enjoyed my sojourn with the Hmong. And I enjoyed the simplicity of their lifestyle.
But when we reached Sapa in the mid-afternoon and farewelled our host, I headed straight to one of the Western cafés lining the curvy main street and ordered a fattening steak. STAT.
More experiences in Vietnam
Vietnam offers a diversity of experiences so you can really have it all. Here are just some of the other things you can do in this wonderful country: