I have one word to describe Sa Pa: remarkable.
I had high expectations for Sa Pa since all the other travelers I spoke to had nothing but good things to say about this mountainous city with its breathtaking views and tribal peoples. Wow, were they right.
As all my travel stories begin, two New Yorkers and I stepped off the bus in Sa pa at 5:00 am. It was dark, cold, and we were all groggy from an uncomfortable ride. We were immediately approached by multiple women, dressed in similar tribal gear who asked if we needed a place to stay. Thankfully we were warned of this before arriving so we knew what to expect. We ended up saying yes to the first women we saw, each of who had “claimed” one of us (which we later found out). We were shuffled onto motorbikes and then brought to the middle of the city, where we shared a cab with 2 other travelers. There was definitely not enough room for all of us and our luggage but that seems to bean underlying theme here in Asia – pack as many people into a car or bus as you can no matter how uncomfortable it might be. (Side note: there were 18 people in an 11 person van on our way to the bus stop in Hanoi….)
We arrived at Mama Mao’s house about 45 minutes later where we were greeted by 5 Italians and 3 other American travelers. We sat down for a delicious feast prepared by Mama Mao and her mother-in-law, Mama Xi (pronounced Thai). They wouldn’t let us stop eating so we ate banana pancakes, eggs and noodles, until we were stuffed to the brim. The banana pancakes specifically were to die for.
Mama Mao and her family live about 10km outside of Sa Pa in the Hau Thao region and belong to the H.Mong tribe. Their house is quite large (mostly due to the fact that they accommodate so many travelers on the reg) however it is very minimal. They have a kitchen with a stove, a “living room” in which they sit on bags of rice, 10 beds, and a small plastic table with plastic chairs where meals are served. They are proof of what it means to live a simple life.
After breakfast, Mama Mao led us on a trek throughout her village and into the neighboring villages. We passed water buffalos grazing in the rice paddies, and chickens, roosters, ducks, goats and dogs roaming free. We saw the local village people working in the fields, some carrying crops on their backs as they headed to the market. We saw toddlers playing with one another, and many who were carrying their baby brothers and sisters on their backs. The view of the mountains and rice paddies was incredible – probably the best I’ve seen since traveling through Vietnam. And on that trek, the only thing I could think about was how fortunate I was to be experiencing Sa Pa in the most authentic and beautiful way.
Mama Mu and her younger sister joined us on our trek and afterwards, they invited us over to their home to meet their mother, father, husband and babies. Mama Mu is 21 years old and has 2 baby boys and her younger sister (whose name I forget) is 19 and has a one year old baby boy. In the H.mong tribe, you can tell if a woman is married by the way her hair is styled. A married women puts her hair up with 2-3 clips and then use a silver-etched comb to hold it all in place.
Then something really disturbing happened….something I’m still trying to wrap my head around. Mama Mu’s family had a couple of pigs which were running around when we first arrived. They had two piglets which I just wanted to hold and squeeze in my arms. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me get anywhere near them but I was able to capture these cute pictures.
All of a sudden, Mama Mu’s mother, father and husband went over to one of the pigs and together, they grabbed her by feet. She was dangling in the air while 2 of them pinned her upper body down. The pig was squealing at the top of her lungs; I couldn’t handle the piercing screams so I excused myself and went into the house where I plugged my ears and hummed loudly to block out the cruelty that was happening on the other side of the cement wall. Mama Mu’s younger sister came to check in on me and I asked her what they were doing. She explained to me that they were piercing the pig’s nose so that she wouldn’t eat their crops. The squealing went on for what felt like forever and just as I thought it was over, they grabbed another pig and repeated the same thing. What started out as a great visit at Mama Mu’s house turned into a horrifying afternoon but none of the other people I was with seemed to be bothered by it.
[Insert pictures of adorable puppies here]
We headed back to Mama Mao’s house where she and Mama Xi cooked us up another feast. Dinner was broccoli, green beans, mushrooms, potatoes, fried spring rolls, and rice. It was the best and most fresh meal I’ve had in Vietnam. The sight of broccoli alone was enough to have all 6 of us salivating. Sometimes, it’s the little things (like steamed broccoli) that can make your day. We called it an early night (7:30 early) and headed to bed, since Mama Mao wakes up at 4am each morning to go to the bus station to get some “fresh fish” (her words, not mine).
The next morning, we went on another trek and then said our goodbyes to Mama Mao and her family. Even though we only spent 2 days with them, they truly made us feel like we were a part of their family. I haven’t had a goodbye that hard since I left for Vietnam, almost 5 weeks ago. She gave each of us two beautiful bracelets to remember her by. If you are traveling to Sa Pa, I can’t recommend staying with Mama Mao enough!!
I’m so glad I saved Sa Pa for last because it was the most remarkable way to end my 5 weeks in Vietnam. It’s not until you’re in the mountains, with no running water, no wifi and just the sounds of roosters waking you up every hour, that you realize how fortunate you truly are.
Vietnam – you’ll be tough to top, there’s no doubt about that. Next stop: Laos!
Catch ya on the other side (of the border),