A trek through the mountains leads to learning about local life.
By the time my husband, Alejandro, and I woke up from our early morning nap — after taking the overnight train from Hanoi to Sa Pa — it was late afternoon and we didn’t have enough time to experience any of the local tours that would take us through the valley.
Instead, we spent the remaining part of the day wandering about Sa Pa. We explored a small market before walking the length of the town. A mish-mash of hotels and hostels — many still in the midst of construction — slowly gave way to farmland and the muddy road narrowed until it was a dirt path cutting through the hillsides. The path led down into a tier of rice paddies. Not wanting to inadvertently trespass, we decided to head back into town for dinner and an early night.
The morning came swiftly. As our time in Sa Pa was brief, we opted out of climbing the famed Mount Fansipan to embark on a tour that would take us through the valley and into Ta Van village.
A group of around 10, our guide quickly led us away from the busy town. Joining our tour were a collection of H’Mông women — without whom, many of us wouldn’t have been able to finish the trek.
We were travelling during Vietnam’s rainy season. As such, the glowing, golden rice fields we had seen in travel guides before departing on our journey were replaced by misty, no less beautiful — but far wetter — hillsides.
The further we walked away from the town, the path turned into a sticky, clay-like mud that greedily sucked at our feet. Very quickly, one thing became clear to me: Ale and I were not — by any stretch of the imagination — dressed properly for this tour. Hailing from a city near mountains ourselves, you’d think we would know better. But when your entire life fits in a backpack that hardly leaves your shoulders, heavy hiking boots somehow just don’t make the cut.
By then end of the tour my white Adidas sneakers would be unrecognizably covered in mud. Yet, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Being out in the open air was an incredibly refreshing experience after spending so much of our time in Vietnam in busy, densely populated cities. Enjoying the freedom, my husband walked side-by-side with our guide, eager to be at the front of the group and excitedly awaiting what came next. Looking over at him, I saw he was cheerfully using his Leatherman tool set to help our guide cut bamboo walking sticks for the rest of the tour group.
I, however, lingered towards the back. By definition a straggler, I prefer being the caboose to a tour group as it offers me the best chance to take photos without the distraction of other tourists. Being the last person in tow — while arguably annoying for the guide who was eagerly ushering us along — also afforded me the opportunity to get to know some of the H’Mông women who were accompanying us on our journey.
In particular, I spent much of our hike chatting with a woman who called herself Mama Lilly. Over 50-years-old, Mama Lilly was more spry and agile than many of us in the tour group — who ranged in age from early twenties to mid-forties. She patiently held my hand to prevent me slipping as we scurried over rocks and stumbled down slick slopes while telling me about her large family. Roughly the same age as my parents, Mama Lilly was already a great-grandmother.
As we progressed further down into the valley, the neatly organized rice fields gave way to a thick underbrush. Bamboo trees climbed so high that the sky was blocked from view and a cheerful stream gushed next to the footpath. When we reached the bottom of the valley, we began to ascend back up into the hills.
After a time, the trails that had been so narrow we had to proceed single file began to broaden and we found ourselves walking along the road that had taken us into Sa Pa Town from the overnight train station. We paused at the summit of our trek — not only to catch our breath — but also to take in an impressive view of the valley below. Nestled at the lowest corner of our view was Ta Van, where we would be pausing for lunch.
The gentle rollercoaster of our hike continued and we once more found ourselves descending into the valley. While during the first part of our adventure we had experienced dense flora and winding paths through a staircase of rice paddies, the second descent brought us to an open field. Beyond, we could see Ta Van village.
In the village we were herded into a large building where, it seemed, a number of other tour groups were making a pit stop. Sitting at large banquet tables we shared a family-style meal of rice, vegetables and chicken and pork dishes. While lunch was not the final destination on the tour — we would also be walking through the village and visiting a traditional H’Mông indigo batik dye shop — it would be where the local women who had been accompanying us would say goodbye.
We thanked Mama Lilly for her help as she tied two colourful cloth bracelets around Ale and my wrists. My husband and I also bought a bright red wallet she offered as a memento of the trek. Upon leaving Sa Pa, the bracelets would become a good luck charm of sorts.
Upon finishing lunch, we were led through the village. A few small children were playing in the streets, while men and women went about their days. In the dye shop, we were shown how hemp and cotton fabrics are turned into an assortment of beautiful clothing and pillow cases.
By the time we had walked through Ta Van and found ourselves crossing a narrow suspension bridge to where a bus was waiting to take the tour group back to our respective hostels and hotels, my feet may have been tired but my curiosity was wide awake. While I was keen to stay in Ta Van longer and get to know the local people better, we had already booked our train ride back to Hanoi.
For the time being, our journey was meant to continue far from Sa Pa’s towering mountains and vibrant cultures.
Photos and text by Sarah Comber.