A Trek Through Sapa, Vietnam


‘The Vietnamese call us cats,’ Mai explains while sitting on a faded red, low plastic chair in a hillside farmhouse after a morning of trekking through a high mountain pass — a parting of trees amidst a shallow valley that may have once been a waterway long ago. The clearings were special to the Hmong people where there once were wild hogs to hunt between the dense spear-like trees. Earth was compact, trapped as if the dirt had been trampled by stampedes of men and hog for generations, hiding the history of centuries-long war. The Pig Hunt Valley can be seen from the bottom of the main Muong Hoa Valley, where it looks as though a hard part was run through by a barber with an unoiled clipper. There was fog in reach, yet they wistfully swirl around and fade distantly into the fold of terraces. As they leave, they sound like exhales of a person in thwarted thought.

‘They call us cats because we do not wash, and we are dirty,’. Her puffed cheeks change little as she explains that the Hmong people and the Vietnamese dress, talk, and philosophize differently and that her people, the Hmong tribe, are the ethnic minority in this area of land that nearly borders China to Vietnam. Mai is our guide, hired on by Sapa Sisters — one of the few travel companies that had started out by the Hmong community. It is in the last ten years that homestays, rest stops, and trekking guides by the locals started to form, from the sheer necessity to own some control of the local economy that is relentless in its growth. She does not mind being called a cat, in fact, her mother operates a batik and indigo shop called ‘Indigo Cat’ in the small village Kim and I home-stayed. Conversely, Mai feels prideful that she is a part of the economic resistance that the Hmong in Sapa continues to wage.

The Lao Cai province has experienced a water shortage this year and it has hit Sapa Town, a high city on the ridge that overlooks the picturesque terraced rice fields, more than other parts of the country. The shortage comes from less rain this summer season, but also caused by an explosion of development in hotels and resorts that fill Sapa town with tourists from the globe.

More demand to travel to Sapa has come with the consequence of keeping the supply of water in check. Two water sources had dried up. In fact, the Sapa town currently is at the mercy of just one water source — Suoi Ho 2, a source that had traditionally been used for agricultural purposes, a water source controlled by the locals, Mai’s people. There had been threats to Sapa Town from the locals to embargo water, slowing the flow of tourism. At times booked rooms had to be vacated due to the hotel’s inability to prepare water stores. It was only since May that there was an agreement of Suoi Ho 2’s use; though one hotel worker tells us that it’s a constant fear that the villagers will cut their water supply. Its happened before.

Predominately, there has been an increase in wealthier Vietnamese that come to enjoy the cooler and crisper air, a respite from their humid and dense and constricting city life. Air is green and grey in Hanoi, thick with smells of steaming gasoline and chalky construction debris. It’s not a hard thought to want to vacation in a place with blue sky and green fields. You can’t throw a rock in Hanoi without it bouncing off of a travel ad about Sapa. The world looks at Sapa in pictures, point at it, and makes it on the list of must-do places to visit in a Vietnam vacation. That will not change, due to its instagrammably striking beauty of its terraced rice fields, the high mountains, and its intriguing colors of cultural variety.

We came to Sapa town by an overnight train into Lao Cai city. A shuttle took us deeper into the mountains, circumnavigating the deep cut alpine hills that for a time had aided in resisting Sapa from foreign investment. Roads have been built recently to seam Noi Bai — Lao Cai to Sapa. A wide highway gave way to a two-lane road, and suddenly the road started winding following the curvature of green terraces. A glimmer of excitement formed when the air slowly turned blue and pops in our ears signaled that we were nearly thereafter almost ten hours of constant travel from the ferociousness of Hanoi.

A morning in Sapa City looked like a smaller hot springs town you’d find in Japan, except that you realize that everyone is wanting a piece of it. Upon setting foot, there were motorbikes, buses, and street hustlers questioning our choice to be there for the desire to be in a secluded place. Sapa City stood tall, nearly 4900ft in elevation, moated by the Muong Hoa Valley (1600ft) and protected on the northern side by the highest peak in the Indochinese Peninsula, Fansipan (10K ft). It was hard to tell that Sapa Town was full of such dramatic elevation changes. Streets felt cavernously narrow with ten storied hotels, multistory shopping strips, and narrowing and winding streets with their own story of hard use. It was hard to tell if the buildings were built fifty years ago, or hurriedly in the past ten — as it was eroding at a similar rate. Most of the downward climb to the edge of town was watching your footing for dips, trash, and potholes on the street. At one point on our way out of the town, we jumped over a meter wide gash in the street that exposed galvanized wastewater pipes, with some pipes damaged enough to witness the rushing flow inside. Looking up meant seeing balls and webs of power cables whipping across buildings. It was only when we stepped towards the edge of town, that the valley shyly showed, and a trail of cable cars guided our view to Fansipan.

Mai lead us down the valley opposite of Cat Cat village, through a raw construction site entrance paved in loose gravel, into a muddied narrow path that edged two rice fields. We trudged down ledges of burnt orange soil that easily collapsed and liquidated into twenty-foot falls. We crossed rapidly moving streams, sometimes with footing made by accumulated plastic waste. Some crossings were aided by bamboo, though upon inspection there were many remains of past failed attempts stuck downriver. The trail was so narrow at times, the tall grass wrapped us at our knees, only to be released by uncontrolled kicks. I managed to only fall once. The small time I had looking up out into the landscape had me aquiver to experiencing the vastness of the valley. It became apparent that the dense trees and brush had hidden the valley to those who use this path, and only toward the midpoint that we noticed a change in the angle of scenery.

After a bend marked by a growth of bamboo, the path became wider and drier. There were rest stops where one see women selling bottled beverages, and kids run at you to sell colorfully weaved friendship bracelets. Taking a seat at a rest stop, Kim and I gaze from the ledge as if it was our first time in our lives to looking level from the ground.

It was a couple of months before the rice harvest and a day after heavy rain. The sky had an emerald color that stained with a gradient of grey. The clouds were ever continuous and shaped by the wind to resemble fuzzy versions of steamed rice rolls sold on a busy side street. Rice stalks were at upright attention, full of green with its point in celadon. Indigo grew a foot tall from the earth, leaves felt bloated with stores of juice. Green was everywhere, and the terraces traced layers of the valley like a cross-section of a mille crepe that had been hand-torn apart. The mountain ranges in the farthest points disappear upwards into texture of verdigris. Water in the river, the rice paddy, and small streams and ponds where water buffalo would bathe were colored by the soil. The buffalo would be glazed in copper brown, the tint of the soil and water refracting from the sun. We identified waterfalls cutting through the forest and dips in mountain ranges where water could accumulate and flow down into the river. You can spend an eternity trying to make sense of this view.

Mai took us through irrigation trenches and through borders of rice plots — and after passing three houses, we ducked under a gate that read “Hmong Family Homestay”. ‘Here we will stay’, ‘At my house’. Hmong Family Homestay is Mai’s family project. She had two bungalows built a year ago. Like other quick buildouts in the area, the bungalows were framed of brick and cement, touched with thatched roofing and bamboo cladded walls. The interior walls were cladded in weaving bamboo, with cement floor, and a window yet unsealed of its gaps. A wooden balcony overlooked the river and the other side of the valley. The one-room bungalow was simple, with a single power connection, overhead lightbulb, and a mosquito net. Most importantly, it had nearby access to showers and toilets -with no limit to the use of water.

Dinner was at seven. As we showered, hung our wet clothes and picked dirt off our boots, Mai’s mother was scurrying in a facility adjacent to the main house — a detached kitchen. A few clucking chickens and two dogs flowed freely in and out of the kitchen as a single wok burner fired and emptied dishes one after another. A roaring of moistened grains, charred earth, and sweating root vegetables wafted into the courtyard where a wooden table was set up with seven mismatched plastic stools. As the sun lowered, darkness slowly crept without direction, dressing the yellow table in an ultramarine hue. Buzzing and clicking of insects intensified and things like the bleating of oxen from afar felt closer. We sat under a hanging light, warmed by the closeness of Mai’s family and steam coming out from plates of fried spring rolls, wok-kissed morning glory, beef, cabbage, and peppers. Produce, mainly hearty vegetables like cabbage, squash, and brassicas are the main component of nourishment here in Sapa. Eggs and meats are for special occasions, rarely does a meal require those distractions. So when Mai’s mother cracked open a dozen eggs to fry after the first few rounds, although full, we felt compelled to finish it off. Stick to vegetables here.

Mai’s mother served the main component, rice — a family grown harvest. I noticed it distinct from rice that I know, where this rice had resembled a miniature version of puffy Cheetos in white cheddar flavor. They were large grains, oblong in shape with rounded edges, less tack- meaning less starch, with less adhesive qualities. Though the rice was slightly over-cooked and over hydrated, the texture of the chew was pleasant, which meant the interior integrity of the rice was solid signifying a more direct cooking method than an electric rice cooker. More protein than fat. The semisweet and hay-like aroma hint that there were remnants of rice husks still present from the milling practice. It may be possible that the Hmong people store their rice without de-husking first. The water that was used to cook the rice was hard, evidenced by the smell of slight mineral and shine of surface stripped of luster and texture overall. It was rice, simple, and unadulterated of the valley. The table was vibrant with the clangs of utensils and rips and chews and slurps of several mouths. Everyone was silent until we were liberated from our instinct to devour.

Around my third helping of rice and fifth crispy spring roll, Mai’s father pulled out a scuffed up Dasani water bottle and poured the clear liquid into several one-ounce cups. It is a tradition of the community here to drink ‘happy water’ for every meal, especially when guests are around. ‘Happy water’ behaved like a single distillate from a rice ferment. They didn’t tell me exactly how they processed it, but the taste and smell and perceived alcohol content points to the method very similar to shochu. Tasting rice shochu in the past and comparing it against ‘happy water’, I nostalgically acknowledged it as identical in category.

After my third or sixth happy waters, Mai continues to explain that she is currently building two more bungalows, all with the help of her friends and neighbors. She tells us that her goal is to make a website, market her Homestay and be her own boss. For a woman of just twenty-three years old, with no reading or writing ability, and two children, Mai’s ambition and goals trump a lot of those who have much more means to do so. She overcame a lack of school to master speaking English by talking to tourists resulting in an amalgamation of British, Australian, American, and Euro-English inflection. Her face lit up, reflecting her speckled dots of the sun and eyes were widened fully revealing colors of deep carmine while describing exactly how she will get to building her business.

We spend two nights here exploring the crevices of the ecosystem. Mornings were greeted with rice noodles and maybe if you have a western counterpart, pancakes!

(more like crepes because they were thin and flat and flexible) On three days of hard trekking, its great hearing coffee and instant in the same breath. Every morning started out with a map and devising a plan for the day after breakfast. Since Sapa Sisters were locals, they were extremely flexible and granted our wants of varying levels of difficulty in hiking by adding nuanced information about particular hikes to prepare for the day.

The taxi picked us up back to Sapa town after a three-hour trek upwards into a bamboo forest and following a waterfall path down into a small adjacent village. We were dropped off at the Sapa Sisters headquarters and quickly had to say our goodbyes to Mai. The bus was a full sprint uphill.

If coming to Sapa, do a homestay with a Hmong person- there’s water, happy water with every meal, best produce in the region, access to places normal people don’t think it to be acceptably accessible. You’ll make friends with neighbors and families. Know that when you inevitably have to sleep, staying with a local there contributes to their success in ever-growing and globalizing surroundings.

I write about my relationships with food through travelogues, memories, dreams, and emotions. To make sense of the universe by taste and smell… like a dog.

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