Sa Pa is known for its diverse ethnic groups, primarily the H’mong and the Red Dao, but it’s infamous for the luscious valleys dotted with rice paddies surrounding the city. While you can trek to nearby villages by yourself (with an entrance fee, of course), a traditional homestay in a tribal village is highly recommended. There are endless companies to choose from but I always prefer to pay a lil extra for ethical companies that ensure fair wages and benefits for their staff; so that being said, I chose a one night homestay with the Red Dao tribe, organised by Sapa O’Chau, as the tribe specialises in herbal medicine. Let’s get to it:
Trekking Sa Pa With A Red Dao Guide
How To Get There: via train or bus; I bought myself a bus ticket from Hà Nội (in the old quarter) for 12$
Currency: Vietnamese Dong – but tour agencies accept American Dollars
What To Expect: The entire experience was truly enriching, especially in terms of what I saw and learned from the tribe. Not to mention, the family I stayed with collected 12 types of herbs from their garden to boil so I could enjoy a steaming herbal bath – and trust me, I needed it because my Malaysian body was not used to the cold mountains of Vietnam.
The homestay amenities were simple because after all, the house, made of wood and concrete, is owned by villagers that live sans the modern Western amenities; so don’t expect wifi or even data (if you’re using a local sim, such as I did) but use that as an opportunity to fully immerse yourself in the local way of life. In case you’re wondering about the sleeping quarters, expect a thin mattress over a wooden, presumably bamboo, frame – regardless, I was comfortable and slept soundly. As for the toilets, it’s not a squatting toilet but it is, again, simple.
Additional Information: I’d like to share a few interesting facts I discovered during my homestay:
- One buffalo costs between 2-2,500 USD
- The Red Dao and H’mong have different dialects which can lead to communication issues
- The Red Dao have arranged marriages, with the female spouse being chosen by the mother of the male spouse
- The H’mong have an engagement ceremony whereby the wife-to-be is kidnapped for three days before a ritual is performed in order to know if the marriage will be auspicious
- Inter-tribe marriage is allowed
- A traditional headache cure, by the Red Dao: heat a hollowed buffalo horn then place it in the middle of your forehead for 20 minutes or more
- One hand-dyed and hand-sewn handicraft can take up to seven months to complete
Upon returning to the Sapa O’Chau office, you’ll be greeted with warm tea and friendly staff. I stored my backpack in the storeroom overnight during my trek and as I was catching a bus the same day I returned, I was grateful for the fact that I could charge my phone at the office and also shower (towel, soap, hair-dryer etc provided)!
Price: 40$ onwards, depending on which tour you choose
Other Recommendations: Sa Pa town itself was crowded with tourists and peddlers, which I did not enjoy hence why I departed earlier than planned. I also realised that the H’mong, mainly dressed in black, were more persistent with their handicrafts than the Red Dao, mainly seen with a red hat.
Furthermore, it is seriously upsetting to hear children pleading for people to purchase their goods – although cute in their traditional outfits, please do not entertain this behaviour as these children should be in school instead of on the streets.
“If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.” Thich Nhat Hanh