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The saving grace of our trip to Vietnam was the time spent in Sapa. We went from what we felt was a hostile Hanoi to a welcoming and friendly group of people who were intent on showing us the best of Vietnamese hospitality.
It began after a cramped overnight bus ride up into the hills which arrived into town at 3:00am. We were told that someone from Sapa O’Chau, the tour company we had booked with, would be there to pick us up at 6:00am. They were a no show. So the bus driver popped us into a taxi (which he paid for) and we were dropped off at Sapa O’Chau HQ. On the drive further and further out of town, warning bells had started sounding but surely he knew where he was going right? Well sort of. We had in fact been deposited at the Sapa O’Chau residence where the volunteers live rather than the cafe where all the treks leave from.
First let me explain about Sapa O’Chau. Thomas and I are big believers in supporting social enterprises and grass roots organisations. In our search for a tour company to hand over our dong to, Sapa O’Chau stood out. They’re the first ethnic minority owned and run tour operator in Vietnam and working on the social enterprise model, funds are channeled back into the community. Not only this but jobs have been created for members of its community as trekking guides, home-stay owners, craftsmen, administrative staff etc. It cost almost double what other tour operators were charging, but for us it was money well spent.
Back to us knocking on the door of the volunteers at 6:00am. The bleary eyed girls didn’t know what had hit them but they leapt into action and pretty soon we were where we needed to be. A shower and a re-pack of our gear later our guide San May showed up. From the Red Dao tribe, who migrated from China during the 12th and 13th centuries, San May was the most fun, knowledgeable and kind person we could have asked to show us around.
We opted for one of the less strenuous trekking packages and this proved perfect as it gave us time to stop and wander around villages and spend time eating locally. The weather was pretty dreary too so we avoided scrambling up muddy hills in the rain and instead were able to stop when we wanted and spend more time with our homestay families.
Booking the homestays with Red Dao families turned out to be a bonus because we got to soak in herbal baths after a day of walking. Large pots filled with water and medicinal herbs simmer over the fire for a few hours before being poured into giant wooden barrels. Soaking in the baths was heaven- we didn’t want to get out it was SO relaxing.
Was the homestay experience what we imagined it to be? It was better in fact. We felt like we had genuine experiences with the families. It wasn’t awkward that we didn’t speak the language, we made sure to involve ourselves by helping to make spring rolls for dinner, we helped with the rice wine making process and I gave sewing a go (hopeless, absolutely hopeless!) We watched TV with the families, laughing along when they did- more because they derived so much obvious joy from it, than from understanding what was going on, ate and drank with gusto, learnt some Vietnamese and just got into it. Every experience is what you make of it right?
We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Sapa O’Chau to other travellers. The guides are great and speak incredible English (San May never finished school and can speak English and French!), the homestays are clean, have Western toilets and you get to eat local food. I note this because as we sat down to a traditional lunch one afternoon at a village restaurant, all the other travellers (who hadn’t booked with Sapa O’Chau) were eating chicken fried rice- uh who wants to be eating boring chicken fried rice?
And on top of all this, for a couple of days you get to immerse yourself in another culture and see how other people live. It’s so easy to become lost in our own lives, to moan when things aren’t going our way, to become completely self obsessed at times. Our three days in Sapa afforded us some perspective- we can’t wait for more of these experiences on our ‘travelling…indefinitely’ adventure!
Good to know:
We booked a 3 day Red Dao Cultural Homestay at Sapa O’Chau’s Hanoi office. The tour cost in total $250USD which included everything except tips for our guide and the bus to and from Sapa ($15USD each way on the overnight bus).