LOOKING FOR A HOMESTAY
When Nick and I decided that we were going to Vietnam last year, the first thing I looked into was where can we hike? And can we do a homestay with a local family? The first time I did a homestay was in Lake Titicaca in Peru back in February 2014, and the experience made such an impact on me that I try to do the same thing with each trip I take. Unfortunately, Vietnam was the next chance I got. I’ve had opportunities to hike some of the most stunning trails in the world, but the homestay part eluded me.
The best place to hike in Vietnam based on my initial research was a small mountain north of the capital Hanoi called Sa Pa. The images that popped up when I Googled the town were incredible vistas of lush green rice fields, complete with carabaos grazing and stunning waterfalls, and colorfully dressed locals. I was sold! Upon reading more about the town I realized that the best way to get there and the easiest way to handle the logistics was to sign up with a group tour. Normally I abhor tours and avoid them like the bubonic plague, but because I really wanted to stay with a local family and not a tourist lodge, so I had no choice but to find a good travel agency.
We decided to go with Lily’s Travel Agency, they have great reviews online and when I made my initial inquiry, they were very prompt and thorough in getting back to me. I sent them a long email detailing my preferences, budget, dates, questions, as well as concerns. They always got back to me within a few hours, and all my questions and concerns were addressed. They even went out of their way to provide me with alternative options based on the preferences I stated and the prices were already listed. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when you’re looking at multiple sites and sending inquiries to several agencies, having all the information upfront especially the cost saves you a lot of time and stress. Also, you’d be surprised how very few are actually upfront with the prices.
The tour that we selected was a 2D/1N small group tour with Mao’s sisters. Mao is a legend in the Sa Pa community and travelers that have had the chance to meet her and stay in her home sing their praises of her. The tour cost us $95/per person, and that included our roundtrip train tickets in a 4-berth sleeper car, all meals during the excursion, guide fee, and overnight accommodation at Mao’s house. The “Happy Water” we were plied with after our dinner there was a welcome bonus. Duong, the agent I was corresponding with, asked us for a $100 deposit to get the train tickets, and that was it. The balance was due two days before the hike and we could pay either at their office in Hanoi, or online like we did with the deposit. We chose to pay at their office, we figured it would be a fun adventure navigating Hanoi’s Old Town on our first day trying to look for their offices.
While we were at Lily’s paying the balance for our hike/homestay, Duong went through the final details of our excursion the following night. A representative from their office will come to our hotel and take us to the train station. She will have our tickets with her and will make sure we not only get on the right train, but the right car as well. The next night their rep picked us up a little past 8 PM, and herded us to a waiting taxi. We were quite surprised that the cab left without her. It turns out there were a couple more people that needed to be picked up after us. We later found out that our guide was following us on a moped.
It was a good thing we had someone assist us through this part of the journey, as it probably would have taken as a while to figure out that the trains to Sa Pa depart from a different part of the station. The Sa Pa trains have their own waiting area and entrance around the block and across from the main station. When we got to the station, she left the four of us at one of the benches in the waiting area and told us not to move or go anywhere until she came back. This gave Nick and myself a chance to meet and chat with the other travelers that we shared the cab with. They were two English women in their mid-twenties, university friends who traveled regularly together. They were sweet and really nice, and Nick and I both prayed that they will be our bunkmates on the train. Fifteen minutes later, our guide comes back and hands us our tickets. She then explains to us that when we get to the Lao Cai station, Sa Pa doesn’t have its own train station and Lao Cai which is an hour away is the closest one; we needed to go all the way out of the station and our guide should be waiting outside the building with a sign listing our names.
A few minutes later we got up and were escorted to our train and our guide deposited us outside our car. The English girls were in fact our bunk mates and were going to be in the same tour as us, basically the four of us will be attached to the hip for the next 48 hours. The train carriage was on the older side but it was clean and the room was quite pleasant. Each pair got a bottom and top bunk, and I opted for the top one. I made a quick trip to the bathroom to assess the situation. I was honestly scared it was going to be China all over again, but mercifully it was a clean and it was a well-appointed Western style toilet. The overwhelming majority of the people on the train with us were Western travelers, young white backpackers to be precise. It didn’t take long for a party atmosphere to develop down the corridors. The English girls came packed and ready to party, they’ve been chugging beers since we arrived at the station. They’ve offered us some but we graciously declined, unsure then of the train bathroom situation.
About an hour after the train left Hanoi, the corridors got quiet as people prepared to turn in for the night. The bunks were narrow and on the hard side, but there was a fairly thick comforter and pillow waiting. We could lock the door and turn off all the lights in our room, so a good night’s sleep wasn’t out of the question. I think all four of us were fast asleep as soon as we turned off the light. What none of us expected however was the rude and extremely loud awakening waiting for us at the crack of dawn the next day. The sun was barely up when the loudspeakers started blaring this really tinny sounding and pitchy Vietnamese disco track. It’s a good thing the ceiling was pretty high, otherwise there’d be a lot of heads banging on it when they were bolted awake.
When we got outside the station in Lao Cai the entire train was hanging around outside, all milling by the doors looking for their respective guides. Little by little, local guides found their their charges and ferried them into waiting vans. The four of us easily found our guide and driver and it wasn’t long before we were crammed in a van and speeding up the side of a mountain with sheer cliffs right next to us. The valley that lay below us was beyond breathtaking, and we were starting to catch more and more glimpses of the famous rice terraces as the sun went up. We all got really excited seeing all the colorfully dressed women selling wares on the side of the road.
A little over an hour later, the van pulls up in front on this decent sized hotel. We were told that Mao will be picking us from there to take us on the hike, but we needed to have some breakfast first. The menu for the day was any rice or bread dish and you get either coffee or tea. Nick picked the breakfast bahn mi, and I chose fried rice. We both chose egg coffee for our drink, having developed an addiction for them while we were in Hanoi. The fried rice was pretty standard, the bahn mi filling was strange to say the least, but good god, that egg coffee was amazing! We weren’t the only hikers in the restaurant. In fact it seems to be the de facto meeting point for various tour groups and their local guides.
An hour later, a petite and giggly woman came over to our table and introduced herself as the famous Mao. She was every bit the firecracker that we read about online. She settled the bill, told the English girls where to leave their massive backpacks, and walked us out. She explained that the backpacks will actually be taken by truck to the home stay and it’ll be there waiting for the girls when we arrive later. Mao then introduced us to another woman, petite and giggly like her but a little shyer. Her name was Zee and she was going to be our guide instead. We were initially confused as we thought we signed up for the tour that Mao will lead. It turns out business has been very good that Mao has hired other women to lead the tours. She had a burgeoning empire and was more focused on the logistics of running her business, and this way she was able to provide jobs for the women in her village.
I liked Zee, she was a bright ray of sunshine and she was very mindful im making sure we were comfortable and having fun. There was a Thai girl that joined our group from out of nowhere, and she loved to complain. Apparently she’d just ran a marathon the day before and is exhausted. When we asked her why she signed up for a two day mountain hike when she should be recovering, she said she saw people hiking the day before while she was completing the marathon and just had to do it. Needless to say, we had mixed feelings about her. She was nice enough, but she was relentless in making sure all he attention was on her.
When we got up the first hill, Zee asked us which route we wanted to take. Do we want to take the easier route that will get us to lunch quicker and with minimal uphill hike? Or do we want to expend all our energy and climb about 3 more mountains before lunch? I guess we were masochists for pain and punishment because we chose the hard route. When making the decision as a group, the only thing we asked Zee was which one had the better view. So off we went to climb more mountains than we can count, and of course since we were masochists, this was in the middle of the day when the sun was at its strongest, and there was barely any shade. I actually really enjoyed the hike, burning calves and all. I barely even noticed the sun beating down my neck and arms. What I did notice was the hundreds of tiny little stingers on the plants that we walked by. I was wearing running shorts because it was very hot and humid, but my legs were being ripped into shreds. The icing on the cake however, was when I fell off the little log we were using to cross a small ditch and plunged my left leg into an icky mixture of mud and weeds.
I would have given my left arm for a shower, or the very least, running water at that point. I was hot, sweaty, sticky, and my legs were covered in welts and scratches. Under normal circumstances, I would have been whining and bitching from there to Timbuktu, but strangely nothing bothered me at that point. Yes, I was hoping for some water to clean my legs, but I didn’t feel an overwhelming urge to have it right there and then.
It was another couple of hours before we reached the little roadside hut we were having lunch in. The bathroom there was mercifully clean, and best of all, it had running water. Our meal was simple but hearty, it was a choice of either noodle soup or fried noodles. By this point, we were only on our third day in Vietnam, and I was starting to get tired of noodles. At the restaurant, we met up with the other groups that were hiking that day. It felt weird seeing all the other hikers and their guides because we have not seen anybody outside our little unit since we began the hike. What was suppose to be an hour long lunch ended up lasting more than 2 hours. Our guide Zee got a call from Mao letting her know that a few more people are joining our group and that they would be driven to the restaurant to meet us, and we will all hike with the rest of they way to the home stay.
While all the other groups left and continued with their hike, we stayed behind to wait for the stragglers. We took advantage of the lull to just sit down, hang out, and watch the children play outside. When the rest of the groups were still there, those same kids pestered each and every single person to buy the bracelets that they were selling. If you decide to buy something from one kid, you better brace yourself for the barrage of a dozen or more kids all trying to sell you the exact same bracelet you just bought. These kids were determined and relentless and knew exactly how to milk the bleeding heart tourists. But in the absence of potential customers, these kids acted like the kids that they are. No aggressiveness, no obnoxious sales pitch, just a bunch of kids with a jump rope, and nary a care in the world.
THE CHICKEN BEAUTY PAGEANT
The afternoon hike took us to both narrow dirt tracks in and around rice paddies as well as paved roads linking the numerous tribal villages in the area. Almost everywhere we turned we could see chickens perched on fences and carabaos leisurely grazing on the many rice fields. Occasionally we would run into kids playing in the fields or running up and down the hill with their makeshift sleds. It seemed like the hardest part of the trek was the trail before lunch, so it was now mostly even ground and we were able to take a little bit more time to pause and enjoy the scenery.
What really got out our attention though, especially Nick’s, was the endless chickens on display like contestants in a beauty pageant. Turn after turn, house after house, chickens are out on display on the fences. Some of them docile and pretty hens, some of them cocky cocks, all of them extremely adorable. And while there was no shortage of carabaos on our hike, we didn’t have a chance to get up close and personal with them at this point. We instead saw more ducks than we can count and petted more dogs than we’d like to admit. Seeing as we were the last ones to leave the restaurant after lunch, we did not see any other hikers on our trek to Mao’s house. I was glad that our travel agent Lily’s promise that we would be off the beaten path is true. I’ve heard about the massive crowds that descend on Sa Pa everyday, and it was really nice to have the entire place to ourselves.
OVERNIGHT AT MAO’S
At a little past 4pm, we arrive at Mao’s house. I was not sure what to expect, but the fastest internet connection in all of Vietnam was definitely not it. The house was big and set up like a loft. The main level is one big open room with a huge table and bunch of chairs in the middle, and a little bit off to the side was the kitchen and the family’s living quarters. We were sleeping in the lofted space surrounding the perimeter of the house. Each person was given their own mattress and mosquito net. Since the mattresses were a lot bigger than we expected, Nick and I decided to share one and use the spare as our buffer from everybody else. We also made it a point to pick the mattresses furthest from the stairs to have a little bit more privacy and space. Going up to the loft was quite tricky as it was dark and the overhead lights were not turned on and there were large beams crisscrossing all throughout the loft. Around the corner from the house was a separate bathroom and shower with hot water! There was a long line of people waiting for their turn for a much needed shower by the time we arrived.
While there were only 8 of us in the group, we found out when we got to Mao’s that people from other groups will be staying there for the night as well. There would be about twenty of us staying there. Her house can comfortably hold only about 15 people, so some of us had to stay next door in a different house, but this too was owned and ran by Mao.
While waiting for their turn to shower, people milled about in the little patio outside the house and spent time getting to know one another. Mao sold cold beer and soda, and it was very nice and relaxing to finally take off our shoes and sit down. She also had a bunch of really sweet puppies running up and down the hill the house was perched on. We found out over dinner that the other big group staying with us were actually signed up for the 3D/2N excursion. They were staying at Mao’s house and village for the first night, but will make their way to another village over the next mountain and will stay there for their second night.
We were lucky with the group we ended up with. Everyone was nice and very considerate of each other, and that is much appreciated in situations like this. Space was tight, we were in a foreign land and staying at a stranger’s house, none of us spoke the language, and quite honestly, none of us really knew what to expect. We were in this adventure together and all of us were just really excited to be there.
Around a couple of hours after we arrived at Mao’s, most of us have showered already and called dibs on which mattresses we were sleeping on. Mao’s family started serving dinner shortly, and the food just seem to keep on coming. While not much to look at or photograph, everything was really good. The food was freshly prepared and you can tell it was made from the ingredients that were just harvested or butchered that day. They initially served us massive plates of food and when a plate got a little low, more food came out. It didn’t take long for us to start refusing their offers of additional helpings. Most of us have already had seconds and even thirds, but the food just kept on coming. At some point over dinner, Mao herself came in and helped serve the food. She was relentless and would not take no for an answer, and it was almost impossible to say no to her.
Before dinner was even cleared away, Mao and Zee started passing around tiny ceramic cups and opened a big bottle of “happy water”. Happy water is homemade rice wine, akin to moonshine, and the alcohol content was rumored to be as high as 80 proof. There was a bit of peer pressure to try it out, and while most of us were game to try it, there was trepidation on how safe it is. There are always stories you hear in the backpacker circuit about people who got sick from drinking homemade brews so an abundance of caution is never a bad idea. Almost all of us took a least one sip to see how it tastes like, but most of us went back to the beers and sodas we’ve been enjoying since arriving. Mao and Zee were genuinely disappointed that we were not as excited as they are about drinking the happy water. I’m pretty sure our group was an anomaly in that we were not the happy go lucky partiers that that they were probably used to. I imagine most hikers that they’ve hosted have been more than happy to partake in the happy water festivities. In our group only the English girls seem to be enjoying the happy water and kept up with Mao and Zee.
After they were done working for the night, the other women in Mao’s home joined us for a nightcap of even more happy water, and they were equally disappointed at how few people were drinking. The happy water is a source of pride for them as they make it themselves, and sharing it with their guests is one way they welcome you into their community and their homes. The rest of us were very grateful to the English girls for taking one for the team and drinking what would have been our share.
GOOD NIGHT SA PA
At around 9 or so, we wrapped up the night’s festivities and made our way to our beds upstairs. Trying to get up there and making our way to our mattress without incurring a concussion from the many wooden beams was nothing short of a miracle. Nick and I weren’t sure how cold it would get overnight so we wore all the heavy clothing we had packed for the hike; pants, sweaters, and even hoodies. There was a thick blanket provided with each mattress, and that would have actually been more than enough. It got cooler later on the night, but it was never to a point that you felt uncomfortable. The mattresses seemed thin at first, but they were actually very comfortable. We made sure to tuck our mosquito net snugly under the mattress to protect us from mosquitoes, but the downside of this is that it took forever to get out. Midnight bathroom runs was going to be difficult, and while neither of us had the need to go back downstairs after we got into bed, we did hear people going up and down the steep and rickety stairs throughout the night.
We didn’t have high hopes of getting a proper sleep that night, but we slept soundly and better than we did on the train. There was a severe thunderstorm later on that night and while it did wake us up for a few moments, we fell right back to sleep lulled by the now gentle patter of the rain.