Sapa-Lao Chai-Ta Van
[H’mong Hilltribe Woman in the Rice Fields]
We met our guide Jong and started our 14 km hike for the day. It had been raining in Sapa for the last couple of days, which meant the roads through the rice terraces were quite wet and slippery. We also couldn’t see much due to the fog until we finally hit a clear break near Lao Chai. This is the village where we stopped for lunch.
The fog started to clear up near the village of Lao Chai
The food served at lunch was delicious! The atmosphere..not so much. We had a trail of H’mong women trekking with us the entire way to their village of Lao Chai. They weren’t in your face shouting “Shopping! Shopping! You buy from me later?” like in town, but they would strike up conversation and basically try to earn your loyalty. Then once we got to the village for lunch, they are all over you from all different directions, trying to get you to buy handicrafts from them. I’m usually pretty okay with this, but trying to eat in peace with our group was proven to be quite difficult. I had been warned of this, but it was different experiencing it first hand.
Joon attacked by young hilltribe girls selling bracelets
Our guide explained to us how women will come out to make money while the men stay in the villages. Young girls sell handicrafts to tourists instead of going to school. As much as I wanted to support the local villages, I didn’t want to enforce what was detering them away from basic education. Many of the villages either do not see the importance of school, especially for girls, or they simply cannot afford it. However, it is quite different amongst the Dzays, who are from the the village of Ta Van. This is where we stopped for the day and spent the night in a local homestay.
The main floor of our homestay in Ta Van
Ta Van was way more developed than I had expected. Apparently it had changed a lot in the last couple of years due to tourism. The Dzays are apparently more educated and know how to make money by opening up homestays and restaurants in their village. This allows tourists to come and support their community. The roads are no longer trails of dirt and you start walking on evenly laid concrete. There is even a bar playing reggae music with shisha, a pool table, happy hour and wifi! Can you believe that?! We are in a rural village in the mountains and we have wifi?! They say that in a couple of years, the village will be full of guesthouse and hotels. This is sad, but it’s the truth.
Cooking in the kitchen. This is also a great source of heat to keep warm!
While hiking through the valleys and rice terraces, you begin to differentiate the ethnic minority groups and their respective villages based on their clothing and appearance. The Dzays dress in very simple apparel. The traditional outfit is a simple colourful top and plain bottoms. However, most people we have seen in the village were dressed in modern clothing. On the other hand, H’mong women dress in very distinct colourful outfits. Each outfit takes about 4 months to make by hand and is extremely detailed. They wear a lot of metal hoop earrings, heavy silverware around their necks, and colourful scarves wrapped around their heads. They are the ones you usually see around the town, obnoxiously trying to sell handicrafts to anyone and everyone.
H’mong hilltribe woman in the rice fields
One consistent tradition between the villages is the importance of marriage. Back in the day, most people marry within their village, but nowadays it’s common to marry someone from another village. The average age for a girl to get married is between 18-20. After the wedding, the wife will move to her husbands village. Lee told me that the Red Dzao men will pay a lot of money to the girls family if he wants to marry her. In most villages, a buffalo horn filled with rice wine is a common gift that is brought to the family instead.
When looking for a partner, young men and women head to the Love Market where men will try to woo the women and end up taking one home. However, if love doesn’t prevail, then kidnapping is a common tradition amongst the Red Dzao people. A man basically kidnaps a woman, keep her locked up for 3 days while bringing her food and water. After 3 days, if the woman wants to marry her male kidnapper, the parents talk and a wedding is arranged. If after 3 days and the woman does not want to marry the man, then she is set free to return to her home.
A modern day bride in front of the church
After taking in all this new information and the beautiful scenery, we shared a delicious homecooked meal with our homestay family, two other guides, and four other tourists. Yen, the mother, was an amazing chef! This also involved ALOT of rice wine, aka “happy water.” The locals know how to drink!
A nice traditional home cooked meal
The night ended with many shots of homemade rice wine, an intense conversation on relationships, and a Vietnamese card game.
Drinking shots of rice wine with Yen, the mother and chef
We sat around the table joking and laughing like old friends. We learned a lot about different customs and traditions from both the guides and the family. What better way to learn about ones culture than to be fully immersed in the environment!
Playing the Vietnamese version of President with Khu, a H’mong guide
We were very lucky to stay with a very hospitable and welcoming family. What a great end to an amazing day!
“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” –Bill Bryson