After many years of traveling around Europe, I began to feel the need to venture into Asia. Asia has become one of my favorite places to explore. Why? Because it is so authentic and original. Many Asian countries don’t spend money on infrastructure or pretty buildings – what you see is what you get and I love it. Not to mention the fact the food is outrageous and cheap.
I was always fascinated by the thought of visiting Vietnam – this mythical country where my dad spent several years away from the family. Greg was totally on board with the adventure so I started digging for ideas. I did my homework and found 2 words in the guide books that intrigued me – Home Stay. One thing I found during my research is that YouTube can be used as a phenomenal source of information – I know – everyone else knew this years ago – I am clearly slow on the uptake. There are several videos that illustrate what it is like to stay in a Vietnamese home – once my eyes digested the experience, I was all over it like white on rice.
The best place for a home stay experience is in Northwestern Nam in a place called Sapa which is situated very close to the Chinese border. You can find more great information about Sapa via the Sapa Wikitravel Guide. One thing to know is that you cannot do a home stay without a guide – for your safety and the safety of the families. Besides, they typically don’t speak a lick of English so unless you speak Vietnamese, communication can be entertaining. I came across a tour company called Handspan Travel. To be honest, I picked it because it was cheap and the website looked nice – what can I say, I am easy.
The option I chose was an adventure 3 day, 4 nighter where you take an overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa, hike down (very steeply) into the valley and spend 2 nights with 2 different families, then take an overnight train back to Hanoi. I recently checked the Handspan website and it doesn’t look like they offer this option anymore. I would suggest calling them to see if there is chance they can create a special package for you. My feeling is that one night in a home stay is just not enough.
What was the trip like? Magnificent.
The Train: The overnight train ride was interesting – unless there are 4 of you, you will share a train car with other people so you will have to get over that fact. The beds are a little short too, so if you are over 5’8″, you may find yourself in the fetal position whilst sleeping. Bring earplugs – the sound of the training cruising along the tracks is loud enough to keep you up at night. The tour operator should ensure you get to the train safely and they should have a representative to greet you when you arrive to Sapa.
Sapa: Sapa itself is a cool little town with an abundance of shopping and eating opportunities. You will see many of the ethnic minorities in full on traditional dress wandering around selling their wares – it sort of feels a little like a Mexican border town but it is not something you should miss. The Black Hmong is one of the most prevalent minorities you will see – from what our guide told us, they are a little further down the totem pole as far as social/wealth status and are ‘not to be trusted’. We totally enjoyed them and found them to be very sweet and entertaining.
The Trek: The guide will take you down into the valley where you will see some amazing scenery – rice paddies, people working the fields with their water buffalo, rustic farms, lean-to-sheds where people live (and you will stay at some point). The trail is pretty steep and was not smooth single track, at least when we were there. If you go during the rainy season, the trail will be very slick – I would avoid it like the plague. Here is the somewhat annoying part…the Black Hmong women will follow you the entire way to keep you from cracking your skull (and with an ulterior motive of course). At the end of the road, they expect you to buy the stuff they are selling – purses, jewelry, etc. Being the sap that I am, I loaded up with a bunch of ‘hand made’ purses for friends. How could I say no? One had a baby on her back and 2 others held my hand on the sketchy parts of the trail.
The Home Stays: This is the BEST part of the whole trip. Many of the homes are wood frames built on concrete with tin roofs. The beds we slept in were thin mattresses on the ground with mosquito netting. Of course they do not have indoor plumbing (don’t expect a hot shower) and I can tell you, they certainly do not have granite counter tops in their kitchens. In fact, the kitchens include 2 holes in the ground and are fueled by wood.
The meals they cooked for us were unbelievable – 5 courses, all sorts of meat and veggies – some from their own gardens – and all from the 2 holes in the ground located conveniently in the corner of their home. The hosts were all very lovely and inviting and were more than willing to share their daily lives with us. The one consistent luxury we saw was a rice cooker and one house had a TV – other than that, they are living off the land, wearing flimsy plastic flip flops and are happy as clams. Oh when will I be willing to give up my Frye boots? Probably never (just being honest).
Key tips: Make sure you do some research on the vaccinations you need for this part of the world. The CDC has some recommendations on this topic. Make sure you also stock up on Cipro and you should be good to go. We didn’t get sick on this trip, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Obviously do a weather check – we were hotter than a pig on a spit because we packed for cooler temps. Have an amazing time exploring Vietnam – it is an incredible country with some fascinating history. Please go in with an open mind and be patient – things don’t operate like they do in Amarillo, TX or Pueblo, CO.