I’ve been really excited and looking forward to come to Sapa . Although it’s low season and the rice terraces are not all green, it means less people, less rain and a hell lot of hiking. So I booked the Muong Hoa 3 day homestay trek with Sapa O’Chau, the only travel operator in Vietnam that is officially registered as a social enterprise. Sapa O’Chau runs on the same social enterprise principles on which it was founded: working hard and giving back to Sapa and all ethnic minorities. (Have a look on their website above, it’s honestly worth it)
Day 1 – Meeting Mai
Got to the Sapa O’Chau office very tired after the night train from Hanoi. Had a shower, re-packed my bags so I could fit the essential for 3days in my small bag and waited to met Mai, my guide and companion for the next three days. I thought this would be a group tour but since it’s low season it ended up being just me.
Before I started my three day trek I promised myself I would be off the grid. No WiFi, no messaging, no checking social media. It sounds fairly basic and easy but trust me… at the time of writing this (on my notes on my phone) it’s been 30 hours and I thought about breaking that promise more times than I should have.
There’s something to be said about how awkward it can be when you go on a tour on your own with a guide. I felt pretty awkward for the majority of the first day but it’s quite interesting to see how we end up reacting to things when you feel out of place, stay with a family you don’t know and who don’t know your language (except for Mai) and walking for days with a person you’ve just met. It was definitely a very different experience.
We walked to Cat Cat village which is super cute but also super touristy and I was starting to feel it was going to be a very awkward three days just the two of us, but then… you walk and you talk and you get to know each other.
Mai lives in Lao Chai, one of the villages in Sapa. She’s got three children and two step children. Her father died last year but her mum is still alive.
Mai had a husband who’s passed away a few years ago. He went to pick up wood fell over when crossing the river. After that Mai said she didn’t want to get married again but has later changed her mind and is now married and has two step children.
Mai told me about dating in here and how you can start by meeting up for a few days in a row and then if you like each other you spend more time together. If not, you separate.
Depending on how much money you have you can just ask to marry a girl after dating a bit and hopefully she’ll agree. Boys can also “kidnap” girls and they will spend a few days (even a month) with the boy and if they get along they get married. If they don’t, they separate. All along, parents will know about this but won’t do anything.
Mai’s second husband did “kidnap” her for three days. May could have left but she didn’t know if she wanted to accept him so she stayed for three days to make that decision. She knew that a new husband would be good for her kids but also to help share the workload. Although her kids were left “alone” for 3 days she eventually decided to marry again.
Usually couples want to have boys since girls don’t get anything when the parents pass away (not even from her own family), only the boys. (This includes house, rice terraces etc.). Families want boys because they will be the ones looking their parents when they grow old (and keeping all the “family’s fortune”
Mai’s parents really wanted a boy but they only had Mai and her sister. Her sister then married and had a son but ended up divorcing. In cases like that the husband keeps the kids but because Mai’s parents wanted a son so badly they asked if they could “buy their grandson” and adopt him as a son. So now Mai has a sister and a brother … who happens to be her nephew.
It’s incredible how things are different in different places of this world.
I got to Mai’s house and started to feel very awkward. I simply didn’t know what to do. Her family was super nice but no one spoke English and I was totally on my own. I had shower and then went downstairs but I just looked around not doing much.
After a while I asked again if I could help with anything and they taught me how to do spring rolls. I was then able to speak with one of Mai’s cousins and after dinner I stayed near the fire… hearing all of them speak a language I simply could not understand.
Mai has 5 children in total (including stepchildren): Sinh, 15; Molly,13; Bich Dao, 11; Shane, 9; and Jung, 7. Their favourite food is french fries which Mai makes at home. Mai’s favourite food is boiled chicken.
I feel super privileged to have experienced something that a lot of people don’t get to experience when they do homestays, which is to actually be included in the day to day of the family. I know this because on my second night with Thom’s family it was all every different (when I was with other travellers). Usually you get to the place, you shower, you hang out with other travellers staying there (which is awesome as well), you have dinner together and that’s it. Usually the family will eat separately for dinner and breakfast or at least for breakfast and “you get to see them have a meal”. I was a part of that meal. I couldn’t understand what they talked about but I sat there with them and felt a part of it all… and I’m so thankful for being given that chance.
Day 2 – the different tribes
We had breakfast at Mai’s place that morning. I was supposed to have pancakes but I arrived earlier for breakfast and Mai’s family was all having rice and some of the previous nights food so I just said I’d eat the same.
Afterwards Mai and I had a chat and I asked about her bracelets. I noticed that all of Mai’s family had the same one and she said that some people get them “blessed” to “scare the ghosts” but the ones they have are just for protection.
After our chat, Mai gave me one of the protective bracelets she had in one of her wrists. I’m not sure I can describe how much I valued her gesture. I’ll never be able to thank her enough for being so kind to me.
We left Lao Chai in the morning and walked via Ta Van to get to Giang Ta Chai where the Dzao people live. We had lunch and chatted about the different ethnic groups and their differences (H Mong, Dzao, Tay, Xa Pho and Dzay). A lot of information is available online but one random fact I found interesting was that apparently Dzao women shave their eyebrows when they get married because in the old times men would “inappropriately” approach them. This tradition is changing a bit nowadays but a lot of married women still shave off their eyebrows completely.
Mai is from the Hmong tribe and so was her previous husband. Mai didn’t know how to read or write until the age of 15 when she spent a year in school. She now knows how to read but finds writing a bit more tricky. There are a lot of small schools across the different villages now so kids from the different tribes go to school everyday.
Mai said that after dinner at her place her son told her he wanted to learn English after hearing me talking with his cousin. Mai will now send Sigh to SapaOChau to learn English and it makes me so happy to know that somehow I had a little bit of a role to play in this.
My second night was spent at Thom’s house and there were another three travellers there. It was a really interesting night and we had dinner together and did a bit of the walk together in day 3 as well, but it wasn’t the same feeling as when I was alone, feeling uncomfortable in the middle of someone else’s family. As I sat down near the fire after dinner, Thom’s 6 year old daughter joined me and practiced her reading. It was one of the most genuine moments of this trip.
That and when Mai tried to teach me how to sew patterns and I failed miserably. That was fairly genuine as well.
By the end of the hike on the second day I finally managed to get the courage to ask Mai what her dad had died from. After the first day when she mentioned he loved her and her sister very much and that he’d left them a house and a few rice terraces in a society where girls get nothing, I just felt like he must have been a good man. Mai said he passed away young at 73 from stomach problems. “He was a very nice man. He helped me a lot when my husband passed away. He helped me with the house and with the children” Mai said. “I miss him very much”. When I looked up she had tears in her eyes, and I couldn’t help but give her a very tight hug. I know too well what it is to miss a father that much.
Day 3 – morning hike and bracelets
On the third day we had a very relaxing morning. We went up the mountain with Pao (guide) and Lena and Florian from Germany and although it was quite an intense trek it was definitely a good way to finish the tour.
However, the best part about today was meeting a red Dzao woman on the side of the road and being able to buy some bracelets from her (thanks to Mai’s help). The woman was not a seller and her bracelets were 7years old and were bought from a village man who does not sell to tourists. I’ve been really struggling with the amount of people selling stuff (usually low quality) and I asked Mai for help to buy some good quality bracelets that actually mean something so it’s great I managed to get some with an actual story.
Getting back to Sapa was a bitter sweet feeling. I’ve learnt so much from Mai and can not be more thankful to her and everything she shared with me.
If I could give anyone a piece of advice is that you do a homestay at least once in your life. And do it alone. Make an effort to feel uncomfortable and awkward in an environment you don’t know. You might just surprise yourself.
To Mai…. O’Chau (thank you). Thank you for teaching me so much about yourself, about yours and other tribes and about Vietnam. I know you will continue to give tourists like me an amazing experience and will continue to teach others. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have experienced what I did in the past three days and I’ll carry your bracelet until I come back one day to give it back to you. You’ll forever be a part of my life.
Mai is slowly starting to do her own tours and experiences “Sights of Sapa – Trek with Hmong guide” via AirBnB. So yes… I am unashamedly promoting it to ensure she continues to thrive as a young entrepreneur woman in Vietnam.
*this post will keep being updated as I remember more stories from Mai