After living in Vietnam for a year, I can say without a doubt that the best ecotourism experience in Vietnam is… trekking through Sapa!
When most people travel, they are looking to get a better understanding of the culture, see foreign landscapes, and experience local traditions and daily life. While anyone who first arrives in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City are struck by the uniqueness of the culture, there is nothing like seeing people in traditional ethnic costumes who live and work on steep mountain sides.
A few years ago, I went on a two-day overnight trek and homestay with a Black Hmong guide, Mao, and her family. Trekking through Sapa and staying overnight in her family’s home was a great way to learn about how remote groups of people live in Vietnam. It also gave me the chance to travel off the beaten path, and leave the environment and people in better condition than when I arrived. This particular experience happened to inspire me to work with ethnic weave artisans full-time, help preserve their culture, and relocate to Vietnam from Australia.
What You Can Expect in Sapa
After getting off an 8-hour train ride from Hanoi and another 45-minute van ride from the train station to Sapa, I was happily greeted by many Black Hmong women who spoke English more fluently than most Vietnamese you meet in the big cities. They interact with tourists on a daily basis so they have a lot of experience chatting with foreigners.
There are over 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam and many of them happen to live in the north. This area is remote due to the landscape; therefore their cultural traditions are more preserved than other ethnic communities that live along the eastern coastline and in the Mekong Delta.
You will find beautiful handicrafts in the main town at local markets and find them carried by locals who are always ready to make a sale. Their handicrafts can include weaves, handbags, scarfs, sarongs, hats, combs and bracelets. These women are very clever and great at selling!
The mountains in and around Sapa are absolutely breathtaking. It is quite amazing to see how people are able to live in harsh conditions, but still manage to grow rice on steep mountainsides.
The mountainous region creates a ski town feel in Sapa with houses built into the hills and balconies overlooking the mountaintops. Ploughs are pulled by water buffalo, and often times double as guard dogs! I learned the hard way by trying to walk down a path when all of a sudden I realized I was being charged. Needless to say, I recommend sticking to the main paths unless a guide accompanies you. People in Vietnam are not territorial, like most of us Westerners, but their animals are.
Living Like a Local
When you sign-up for a homestay, you are essentially living like a local for a couple of days. Once I arrived at Mao’s family’s house, I washed up in their outdoor shower and then helped them prepare for dinner. She had an 11-month-old boy, so in between chopping vegetables I got to play with him. Mao mentioned to me that her sister had a baby close in age to hers, so while Mao would be on a trek, her sister would breastfeed both babies – these communities really do live up to the saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’!
After sitting around a big table with the whole family and having dinner, out came the rice wine. This is usually homebrewed and brought out for special occasions. Guests are made to take one shot after another until the host gives up. After about the 3rd shot, I thought it would be best to fake the rest of them so that I could make it back to Sapa the next day! That night I slept on a mattress on the ground with a big mosquito net next to other people who had gone on the tour. Tip – to avoid getting malaria, bring 50% DEET with you as it is nowhere to be found in Sapa.
During the trek, Mao explained how they made their traditional clothing by growing hemp, spinning it into thread, dying it and then weaving it into shirts, skirts, belts and turbans. The patterns they weave represent what they see around them, their placement in society and the ethnic group they are a part of.
Plan Your Trip to Sapa
Most people who are going to Sapa will be coming from Hanoi. While you can go by motorbike or bus, I highly recommend hopping on an 8-hour overnight train, as it is safer and quicker. Usually tickets are 600,00 VND ($30) one-way and can be purchased on the day at the train station.
Once you arrive in the city outside of Sapa, you will need to haggle to get a good price for a van that will take you to your accommodation in Sapa. Make sure that you negotiate the price BEFORE getting into the van. Once you are in the van and it is moving, you are at the mercy of the driver.
I recommend checking out Airbnb, and TripAdvisor for accommodation recommendations. You can usually find decent rooms starting at 300,000 VND to 800,000 VND ($15 to $40) a night. If you are going in the off-season, it is also quite easy to just show up on the day and ask around what the hotels’ pricing is and then negotiate.
Booking a Trek
There are many companies that offer trekkings around Sapa. I booked mine via Sapa Sisters, but also via I Like Local you can book some unique trekkings. I still keep in touch with Mao to this day, so I highly recommend going with them as your trek company. I arranged the trip with them the day before, and then met up at their office in the morning before heading out. Two older Black Hmong ladies also accompanied us part of the way and they ended up being my lifesaver since they held me up when I started slipping in the rice patties and down steep hills. Be warned though, that if you use their help then it is expected that you will buy some of their handicrafts at the end of the trek- I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Danica Ratte is a sustainable travel addict who is now an expat living in Australia AND Vietnam. She is the Founder of Wild Tussah; a weave and leather handbag line that preserves ancient weaving cultures in Vietnamese ethnic communities. You can also read more on the Wild Tussah blog.