Homestaying in Sapa, Vietnam: Touching Base w/ the Locals
It was always raining this time of year. The big storms came in every evening, like clockwork. The only thing that was unpredictable about them was the amount of damage they could cause to an individual, village or family as the water washed away the lands.
As I began filling my backpack in the same organizational method that I use every time I ready for my trips, news reached me of a few deaths in the valley. All caused from the annual floods as the rainwater washed away the rice fields.
Sure, I was starting to become a bit wary of the dangers this time of year from the constant landslides caused from the rains and over-cultivation of the land but I wasn’t about to let that stop me from a full, authentic experience of living with the locals. After all, once I saw some of the major landslides that occurred along the river in Laos on my way up to Kuang Si Falls, I knew to keep a wary eye out for unstable land.
But once I finished packing my bag, I hit the road and began hiking towards the beautiful rice fields that Vietnam is known for all too well.
Hitting that dusty…err…muddy trail…
When hiking in Vietnam, you learn one thing and you learn that one thing very quickly: the animals always have the right of way. That is, until they get eaten. Come to think of it, this is true for most of Southeast Asia.
The road leading out of Sapa was rough and once I hit the small, single lane tracks that went into the villages, they got even rougher. It was as if I was hiking along the Appalachian Trail; in short, this was the sort of trail I would be looking for in the backcountry on my way to a campsite…not the house. But the villagers, they made this trek every day…twice a day!
Inspirational compared to our modern day technology and ease of passage. The one thing they could look forward to, however, was the scenery.
While hiking along the trail, I couldn’t help but notice a few of the locals doing manual labor in the fields. That’s when I realized exactly how much each person must do to keep ends meet in each household. As it turns out, most of the children do receive somewhat of an education, however, are otherwise convinced to stay in the villages they were raised in to continue working the lands.
The women and children worked the lands cultivating rice fields and completing household chores. The men, on the other hand, worked the forest cutting down timber and carried it for miles on their backs…one at a time back to the villages.
It’s very strenuous work that I find almost hard to believe they do without modern tractors and other technology.
While trekking through the backcountry, I happened upon a small group of locals that seemed to be bringing passing backpackers into the villages. After talking with them for a short time and asking for directions on my map, they explained to me where their village was located and I ended up joining them for a home stay in a nearby village called Cat Cat.
The village itself was very humbling and sat right off the river right in the midst of a large rice field. In the core you could find all sorts of livestock roaming around as well as children playing until they saw the group of us in which they stopped and smiled.
The locals were extremely hospitable; offering me a place to rest my head, food as well as a little alcohol to help me sleep at night. The food was surprisingly delicious and filled with local herbs grown in their gardens.
Despite the limited cooking conditions, they certainly knew how to fill up a hungry backpacker!
After scarfing down the main course, we sat around the table outside and began passing around the bottle of snake wine. I remembered the first time I tried this sort of thing and it through me off quite a bit. Basically, it’s a type of alcohol made here in the local villages by the elders.
In short, they infuse whole venomous snakes into rice wine or grain alcohol. After time, the venom becomes denatured by ethanol creating one hell of a stiff drink. Needless to say, this was rougher than any moonshine I’ve sampled and it left you with an extremely sore throat.
When I woke the following morning, the villagers had created a healthy breakfast of egg fried rice to help cure my hangover along the way back to Sapa. I even managed to convince them to let me take a few self portraits before I left…
The hike back was just as beautiful as the day before; offering a plethora of scenic views in the rice fields and rain forests. I even stopped by a massive waterfall where I could find more locals hanging about and selling their handmade items to those passing by.
Toward the end of the hike back, I passed by one more small village, tiny school and a few children just hanging about near a rickety old bridge. I felt nervous about them jumping up and down as it didn’t seem stable at all but, low and behold, it held every bit of their wait including mine.
My experience home staying with the local villages outside Sapa was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The people extremely friendly and always welcoming. But being I was getting back to town, I couldn’t wait to hit up the local market and try cooking some of my own, authentic Vietnamese cuisine!
Have you ever done a home stay in an unknown territory?