Our journey to Sapa began with a 2 hour cramped non-air conditioned minibus ride back into Lao Cai. While Giulia was fortunate enough to fall asleep for a majority of the ride, the young Vietnamese girl that she was resting her head on was less lucky, throwing up several times during the trip without even waking Giulia. Meanwhile, Eric’s seat mate lacked any concept of personal space. When we finally arrived in Lao Cai, they lowered our backpacks off the roof of the van and we set off to find another minibus to take us the one hour to Sapa. We wouldn’t be so lucky. Our second minibus stopped to pick up panes of glass that were attached to the bus and later the driver stopped for sugarcane juice. Having 2 sheets of glass attached to your minivan tends to slow it down when driving up winding mountain roads. The hotel we booked was so concerned that they called multiple times to check up on us. The ride took twice as long as it should have, but on the plus side, we paid 40% less than the local rate thanks to some savvy haggling. 40% less was the equivalent of $1.
When we finally arrived, it was too foggy to make out much of the landscape. We found some disappointing roast suckling pig to compliment an altogether underwhelming dinner. Ting also fell victim to the trip’s first full-scale mosquito attack, accumulating over 30 bites over the course of the evening. Sapa wasn’t living up to our high hopes. We decided to call it an early night and get some rest for a strenuous next few days.
The following morning, Zaazaa (our guide from the Can Cau Market) met us at our hotel at 9AM. She would lead us on a 2 day trek to visit her village and take in the scenery of Sapa. It was a cool overcast morning that seemed perfect for hiking. We were accompanied by three other Black Hmong women who said very little but handed us animals and hearts they wove out of ferns along the way. They were just buttering us up to attempt to sell us things at our lunch stop.
After a very brief walk we reached a point where we were about to leave the touristy part of town and enter the area filled with rice terraces and scattered villages. Zaazaa explaned that the government does not allow her to take guests to her village unless she pays for a special license. Instead, we had to act like we weren’t with Zaazaa and pay a small entrance fee, none of which is ever kicked back to the local villagers.
As we walked further, it started to get hot…really hot. We told Zaazaa we wanted to find a place to swim. She was very concerned about us drowning but eventually agreed. She led us to a swimming hole where dozens of 6-12 year old kids were swimming, some in their street clothes, some in nothing at all. We immediately hopped into the refreshing water and joined the kids in jumping off the rocks.
Famished from the hot trek and the swimming, we headed off to our lunch stop. After a quick meal of fried rice, vegetables, and stir-fried pork, the three other Hmong women who accompanied us all day started in on their sales pitch. That first day, we bought more coin purses and embroidered knick-knacks than we would ever need but eventually found an effective way to avoid buying even more (read more about this in our second Polaroid Project post coming soon. If you want to be sure you don’t miss it, now is a great time to sign up to follow us!! Enter your e-mail at the top right).
From lunch, we headed to Ta Van Village where Zaazaa grew up. For the most part, her neighbors engage in subsistence agriculture, growing rice, corn, hemp, and indigo. She showed us how they ground rice using an ingenious water-powered grinder to remove the shells and how green indigo leaves are processed into the dye they use to color their woven hemp fabric a deep, dark blue.
At this point, Zaazaa led us up a steep, rock-riddled, muddy path to her parent’s house. Their home was very simple; a single story wooden-walled house with hardened dirt floors. There was a loft area where they stored sacks of rice and empty plastic bottles presumably to be recycled later. When we arrived the house was completely dark but they graciously turned on the single light bulb that dangled from the ceiling and her brother blasted a floor fan to ensure we were comfortable. What the home lacked in comfort and Western luxuries it easily made up for with spectacular views of the terraced valley below.
We met Zaazaa’s mother, father, two younger brothers, and adorable little sister. She introduced us to the family’s collection goats, pigs, chickens, and dogs. We sat in their house and chatted with Zaazaa serving as our interpreter as she gave her parents tips on how to turn their home into a homestay as an additional source of income. Her father was worried that the family couldn’t afford the beds and blankets needed for this transformation. He thought that no tourists would want to experience truly authentic village life. We assured he him was wrong. He also thought that Ting was a local Hmong (her indiscernible ethnicity is becoming a theme of our trip as everyone tries to claim her as their own: “You…same same me?”). Altogether, we spent only about an hour with Zaazaa’s family but it was easily one of the most memorable and enjoyable portions of our trip so far (many more details and photos in an upcoming post).
Next we headed through a series of rice paddies and a bamboo forest to the homestay where we’d spend the night. We were the only three staying that night. We ate a feast with the owners and explored the surrounding village a bit. After dinner, Zaazaa broke out the locally-brewed corn liquor and we taught her some American drinking games. Giulia braided her incredibly long hair and eventually we headed to bed.
The night was a cacophony of dogs barking, roosters crowing and a torrential downpour hitting our metal roof. None of us slept particularly well. The following day we hiked for about five more hours through an endless sea of rice and mountains, though the previous night’s rain made the going a little tougher the second day. All three of us fell into rice paddies while the 8 year old girl who walked with us stood and silently judged. Zaazaa’s husband and his friend’s met us about 10km from town and drove us back on motorbikes. Hanoi Three Seater came to life for Ting as she won the draw to ride sandwiched between Zaazaa and Mr. Zaazaa. Once back, we all enjoyed a much deserved smoothie. We sent Giulia on her way back to Shanghai and spent the night getting multiple foot massages.
Zaazaa was an unbelievable tour guide. She had amazing English, incredible (if sometimes disturbing) stories, and could always answer whatever questions we had. She was always willing to pause to let Ting take pictures (catch her breath), poked fun at Eric for being too quiet, and gave Giulia all the hugs a self-respecting Sicilian woman requires. Despite never having traveled a few hours from her village, Zaazaa was incredibly relatable and her humor, candidness, and overall coolness made our time in Sapa unforgettable. If you or anyone you know is planning a trip to this part of Vietnam, get in touch with us via the Contact Us link above and we can let you know how to contact Zaazaa.
For more images from Sapa, check out our Sapa Gallery. Follow our trip on Instagram #wanderingtable2013 or instagram.com/ttl1111