Nick and I love our new life on the road. We are having a blast getting lost, eating among cockroaches, sleeping in $6 guesthouses, drinking tea, being vulnerable, haggling, trying new things and sharing smiles with strangers. However, Vietnam has been challenging for us in 2 unique ways, we are overwhelmed by the number of tourists and exhausted by the scams. Maybe because Nick and I came from desolate Mongolia and aren’t use to seeing so many Westerners or maybe because it is clear that some of the locals have been exposed to mass quantities of tourists, it has been hard to adjust. In addition, it’s tiring when we have to avoid being taken advantage of financially numerous times throughout a day. Okay, keep this in mind, put on your tourist blinders and let’s explore the wonders of Northern Vietnam (Sapa, Bac Ha and the Ha Giang Province).
Nick and I took the 6am “sleeper” bus from Hanoi to Sapa ($8.50 pp – 7 hours). Although, rather comfortable for anyone 5.3″ and under, we recommend taking it during the day as the view coming into Sapa is remarkable.
Sapa sits on top of tall karsts covered in lush green rice terraces, next to a plunging valley. The town itself is a tourist pit, built as a “trekking” base for tourists. After dropping off our bags at a guesthouse, Nick and I set out for a short hike to Cat Cat Village. The colorful traditional clothing and exquisite jewelry worn by woman from the surrounding hill tribes was unique and gorgeous. While in Sapa we splurged on delicious $4 honey lemongrass tofu at Nature’s View and enjoyed getting local at the late night bbq stands.
The true beauty of this area lays in the surrounding villages. Nick and I planned only to spend 1 night, however since we were ahead of schedule we decided to do the typical homestay. Within 5 minutes of making our decision, we were approached by Mama Kurr and began trekking to her village (Black Hmong People). It took us 4 hours to hike up and over the mountains to her home. Along the way, we stopped at a waterfall and were shown marijuana and indigo dye plants. Mama Kurr had me rub some green plant leaves and water together and within minutes my hands were stained dark blue. This plant is used to dye fabrics, although in the West we use a synthetic compound most commonly used in jeans, the black Hmong still use this organic option. It’s fascinating how removed Westerns are from our natural resources (using marijuana for hemp, organic dyes, and harvesting rice).
*Pause, side note: Tourism is interesting; on one hand I understand that I am part of the problem, a fortunate westerner who wants to see the unexplored. However, watching 7 year old village children approaching you like zombies rehearsing “1 for 5,000 – 2 for 10” and knowing that their parents are having them skip school to sell to tourists is heartbreaking. Sure, travel sustainable and give back to local communities, however is there anything else we can do to protect the beautiful people and places that are rapidly changing?
After hiking through through rice fields, we arrived at Mama Kurr’s house. The view from her “patio” was breath taking and we enjoyed drinking coffee and reading while taking it all in. The rice had recently been harvested (about 3 weeks prior) and the daily fog had settled in the valley. We played with her grandchildren and puppies and watched the pigs and chickens roam in the vacant terraces. The water buffalo observed us as we helped to prepare a delicious dinner over an open pit fire.
The next day we returned to Sapa and caught a bus to Lai Cai then another on to Bac Ha. Nick found a homestay on coachsurfing and we had a great time hanging out with a local family. We had dinner, attended the night market (traditional dance and song) and stopped for delicious chè trôi nuóc (rice flour balls in sweet ginger sesame seed tea) to end the evening.
The next morning Nick and I went to the Bac Ha market where local hill tribe people sold produce, water buffalo, puppies (meat?), handmade crafts, and buhn nem. The market was huge and by 10:00 packed with foreigners and locals alike. We headed 6 km out of town to the Lung Phin market where we were the only foreigners in site. This gave us a feel for what a local market actually looks like. Unfortunately, it was apparent that the local community was not thrilled by our presence.
After the markets, we headed to Ha Giang where Nick and I rented a motorcycle to explore the most northern part of Vietnam (we strongly recommend renting from QT Motorbikes & Tour). We had a blast exploring the Ha Giang area as the next day we would set off for a longer loop. We were able to see uncut rice fields that blew in the wind and spotted a waterfall. We made it our mission to swim under the waterfall and after an hour or so of wandering in rice terraces we were rewarded with refreshing water.
The next 3 days on the bike have been our favorite experience in Vietnam thus far. The first day was extremely cloudy and rainy. We drove up and over some (what we imagine) remarkable passes and Nick did a great job driving bumpy single lane mountain roads. We edged passed semi trucks, saw the aftermath of a bike accident and had to go around some nerve racking blind turns (don’t worry Mom and Dad we were safe!). However, we were rewarded by beautiful views, rice terraces and limestone mountains covered with vegetation. And greeted with hellos, waves and high fives from local kids.
We spent the night in Dong Van where we explored the old quarter, a cluster of tradition Hmong houses converted into small shops and restaurants. The next day we biked over beautiful mountain passes and spent the night in Coc Pang. This small village (don’t blink or you’ll miss it) was our absolute favorite stop. We felt extremely removed from the tourist loop and welcomed by the community. We were able to share smiles and laughs with locals while walking around town and were even invited to help a family harvest rice. The rice was cut, separated and cleaned while the family thought Nick and I were hilarious. This time in Coc Pang made the entire northern loop worth it. We know it is jealous to want an experience without foreigners, but it’s nice to get away from the crowds!
We headed back to Ha Giang, took a sleeper bus to Hanoi and now are off to Dong Ha and the DMZ. Stay tuned!