Sapa Valley - The Road Less Taken

Posted by Lisa Pagotto

Local hilltribe minorities
Local hilltribe minorities

The fog greeted us as we creaked our way into Lao Cai station. Bleary eyed but filled with excitement, we wound our way to the quaint hillside town of Sapa. After a hearty breakfast, we said goodbye to civilisation and warmly welcomed our transformation from Aussie tourist into hill tribe minority local.

Exploring the buzzing markets was fascinating. The colours, sounds of clicking tongues and aromas of fresh produce fused together with the cultural vibrancy of so many hill tribe groups working entwined together. The ladies - many with fluorescent scarves around their heads, others with firm black wraps, sun kissed skin with years of mountain life etched into their crinkled smiling faces.

Toothless grins greeted us as one lady latched onto my arm. She would show me everything I needed to be a true local. Gently, she wrapped my head in a bright pink knit to match her own as she smiled genuinely and squeezed my hand. She slid my feet into gum boots so I wouldn't be cold and wet. Almost lovingly, she pushed a pair of woollen socks into my hands and then ushered us off. It was like a mother sending her child off to school for their first day.

As the darkness slowly lifted and the sun attempted to peer through the fog, we descended into the valley and trekked through lush rice paddies with buffalo knee deep in water, ducks bobbing beside them. Sleek bamboo forests towered overhead as the fog swirled around us. The scenery as we trekked on was breath taking. The mountain air, crisp and fresh. With not a tourist in site, we explored remote local wooden villages with no electricity and scruffed the hair of local children who danced around us and excitedly chased baby piglets.

Thunderous waterfalls poured down with urgency as crystal clear rivers dotted with large boulders rushed alongside us. We heard a giggle seemingly right behind us. As we turned we realised that we had acquired the company of three ladies from the Red Dao Minority group. Their heads wrapped the same as ours in colourful knits, their scruffy clothes worn in multiple layers to keep them warm. Cane baskets were strapped firmly to their hunched shoulders, filled with heavy bamboo branches. They smiled coyly at us and waved shyly.

Our trekking group had expanded as these fascinating locals in their broken English attempted to communicate with us. How old are you and what is your name? They continued with us for about four hours. Running off into the forest like children at times with excited giggles and squeals, they would reemerge with small animals they had constructed from leaves and twigs as well as small wild flower bouquets. They presented these to us as gifts with proud smiles from ear to ear. Fascinated with our clothing and our cameras, these curious ladies held our hands as we continued and assisted us across gurgling streams and down steep and muddy trails.

They smiled in a way that melted your heart and tugged on your heart strings. They patted our backs and made sure the way was clear and safe for us before we trod on fresh ground. Their cheeky smiles never vanished from their creased faces and the language barrier between us, made our new found friendship seem somewhat genuine and exclusive.

As we reached the Red Dao Village, our friends and travelling companions had reached home and hugs and farewells were exchanged. It was time for us to continue to our stop for the evening - a Black Hmong village where we were spending the night with a local family.

We were greeted by a grinning elderly man outside his weather beaten wooden home. A barn like structure greeted us with a small room to the side which was to be the kitchen. With our beds on the floor of the loft level, the temperature began to drop as we crowded around a small fire that had been made on the concrete floor in the family kitchen. We watched in fascination as our host sat on the cold, stark floor preparing vegetables and hacking fresh meat and bones with a meat cleaver. A young girl arrived home and began to assist her father obediently.

A battered and dinged pot appeared in front of us and was placed directly onto the crackling fire. As the family did not speak English we were not sure what was inside the dull pot but the aroma encapsulated us. Several hours later, a feast was laid out in front of us. Asian greens fresh from the garden, rice, chicken, beef, duck and the ever elusive silver pot from the fire. We were poured a large bowl of dark liquid from the pot as our guests watched our reaction with great anticipation. 'Duck blood soup' the daughter said proudly as she poured. This was one of the two English sentences spoken all night. After the initial shock as to how something so ghastly could smell so unbelievable, I swallowed my pride a long with a mouthful of the duck blood soup. Hot, salty, rich and bursting with flavour - this soup was that of a professional chef. Simply delicious. Soon after, the host left the room only to return with a 'recycled' water bottle filled with a clear pale pink liquid. Home made plum wine. This went down a treat.

'No hangover!' He exclaimed. Sweet and absolutely divine, we drank with the local family until the early hours of the morning, laughing and communicating with anything but language, we had found a new family in the remote hilltops of the Sapa Valley.

Before we began our morning trek, we awoke to a fog filled valley and sharp, snappy air. As the fog slowly lifted, we were greeted with steep terraced paddies dotted with local minority groups working the fields and guiding their buffalo. There was no western civilisation to be seen. Breakfast was last nights left overs including the duck blood soup which had now coagulated and was able to be sliced into pieces. As if on queue, in came our host with his rice wine in hand and gave us a glass each to wash down our duck. Is this the secret to a long healthy life in the mountains?

As we say our goodbyes to our new Black Hmong family, we begin our eight hour trek back to Sapa town and reflected on the amazing authentic experiences we had over the past 24hrs. So warmly welcomed by these remote and exotic hilltribe groups as we explored their fields, villages and their traditional lifestyles. Truly a heart warming experience for anyone visiting Northern Vietnam who wishes to indulge in the rich culture and step off the beaten track.

Walking with our newfound friends
Walking with our newfound friends

Want to experience the lesser known side of Vietnam? Check out Vietnam small group tours