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.
Want to experience the lesser known side of Vietnam? Check out Vietnam small group tours!
This category of tours involves light trekking, walking, cycling, rafting or kayaking for a few hours each day with a small amount of inclines and declines. You will require a reasonable level of fitness and good health to participate. It is important to note that due to the nature of some of our trips, they may take place in remote areas (with basic facilities) and can involve long travelling days on various modes of transport.
Suggested preparation : At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake aerobic exercise (this may include jogging, cycling or fast walking) for 30 minutes, three times a week. It is also advised to walk on variable terrain and in variable weather conditions. For a cycling adventure, road cycling twice a week is recommended and for adventures which involve paddling and kayaking, it is important to gain confidence and rhythm rather than speed prior to departure.
This category of tours involve trekking, kayaking and cycling for period of 6 to 8 hours a day at a fairly consistent pace. Ideal for people looking to slightly increase the heart rate. For our moderately rated tours, you must have a good level of fitness and also be in good health. It is also important to be prepared for variable weather conditions. Altitude may also come into play. This category of tours may involve visiting remote areas where facilities can be quite basic. Accommodation may also involve camping, homestays or basic accommodation where facilities may not be considered of western standards. To enjoy this style of travel, it is suggested for travellers to have a reasonable level of fitness and health, a positive attitude, as well as a fairly active lifestyle. An open mind is also required.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 months prior to departure, it is recommended that you undertake 45mins – 1 hour of aerobic exercise, three to four times a week. Some potential exercises that could be beneficial include hill walking with a backpack on over variable terrain and weather conditions, as well as running and cycling dependent on the activity you plan on undertaking.
This category of tours involves trekking, kayaking, cycling or other adventure activities in remote areas for up to 8 to 10 hours a day. It is important to note that with the remoteness of some regions comes a variety of other challenges such as variable weather conditions, accommodation as well as facilities. You must have an excellent level of fitness and good health to be able to partake in this category of tour. You must have confidence in your own ability and be in good physical condition. Includes extended periods of endurance.
Suggested preparation: At least 3 to 4 months of strenuous exercise, four times a week. When preparing for treks it would be beneficial to participate in hill walks with a weighted day pack (approximately 5-8 kg) once a week for aerobic fitness and strengthening of leg muscles. It is also important to do this on variable terrain to prepare for challenging adventures. When preparing for cycling adventures, regular bike riding (at least 4 to 5 times a week for 1-4 hours is essential). It is also important to cycle on uneven surfaces or even participate in other aerobic exercises such as running or swimming to build up strength and stamina. Altitude may also be a factor in these tours.
This category of tour often involves extreme trekking, cycling or other extreme adventure activities. It is important to expect remote and poorly defined tracks and to be prepared for variable weather conditions for 10 to 12 hours per day (may sometimes be more depending on weather and altitude). These adventures are suitable for travellers who have prior experience in strenuous travel and activities, are extremely fit and have excellent health. It is also important to note that some of the terrain on these adventures will involve trekking in snow, at high attitude levels and may require technical equipment.
Suggested preparation: It is important to note that physical fitness should be an ongoing activity, commencing around 5-6 months prior to departure, or even before if you have no prior fitness. Exercise should focus on building maximum endurance and stamina. Four to five hard sessions of 40-60 mins per week should be completed and can include exercises such as going to the gym, running, swimming or cycling to focus on building aerobic stamina. It could also be beneficial to prepare by hiking on rough terrain, in extreme weather conditions or partake in altitude training.