December 5-6, 2015

When I started researching Northern Vietnam, Sa Pa immediately caught my eye: the dramatic rolling mountains, the layers upon layers of rice fields, the lush green scenery.  Sa Pa became the main reason I wanted to explore Northern Vietnam and why I sacrificed spending less time in the south.  Fortunately, Sa Pa lived up to the hype and ended up being one of the most memorable experiences I had in Vietnam. It was also my last stop on my Vietnam journey.

Sa Pa is a small town high up in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwest Vietnam and feels similar to a ski-resort town: hilly streets, fireplaces tucked away in cozy restaurants and coffee shops, Christmas lights strung in trees.  The area surrounding Sa Pa offers trekking, motorbiking on winding mountainous roads, and hiking to the tallest point in Vietnam, Mt. Fansipan.

The main draw, besides the majestic scenery, is doing a homestay with a local hill tribe family. Various hill tribe members meet you in town and offer to take you on a day-long trek to their village in the mountains. They cook you meals, provide a place to sleep, and give you a snapshot of life in a tiny mountain village.  

A local hill tribe woman

I met up with my friend Anjes from Holland who I had met previously.  Anjes and another solo backpacker, Sara from Switzerland, had already arranged a hike with a local named Lees from the nearby Hau Toch village. Lees spoke excellent English, learning just by talking to tourists throughout her life. At the start of our hike, Lees showed up with her smiley 10-month old daughter, Zi.  Anjes, Sara and I were both shocked and impressed that for the next 5-6 hours, Lees would be hiking in rain boots through slippery terrain with Zi wrapped up on her back. But it was clear she had done this before.  

Lees and her daughter, Zi

In the beginning, the air was thick with fog.  Sometimes we could barely see 10 yards in front of us.  We started working our way across muddy rocks and up slippery slopes, ascending higher and higher.  We all hoped the sky would clear so we could admire the views, but the weather wasn’t looking promising.  

Start of our hike, ascending into the fog

Another hill tribe woman, who also accompanied us on the trek

Eventually we made our way to the highest point of the day: 1,000 meters high with what would be stellar views of the valley below.  We could just hardly make out Mt. Fansipan in the distance. The clouds teased us, blowing around our heads with pockets of blue above.  

Mt Fansipan in the distance

Baby Zi's first selfie

Anjes, Lees' friend, Lees, Baby Zi, Sara

Sun peaking through

We thought maybe the fog would burn off soon.  But as we worked our way down towards Hau Thao village, the sky grew thick with fog again.

Lees and another hill tribe woman, descending into the fog

During our trek, we’d often slip on a rock or lose our balance but the hill tribe ladies, just shy of 5” tall, would always catch us. Their arms would shoot out and latch on to our wrists the second they caught a glimpse of one of us going down, saving us from potential bruises, pulled ankles, and muddy bums. I was astounded by how strong they are, pulling us up the rocks when we struggled to reach, even with our long legs; all of this while Lees carried Zi on her back. Baby Zi- our hike wouldn’t have been the same without her. When she wasn’t fast asleep on her mother’s back, she constantly giggled and smiled as her mom handed her various plants or treats to hold, completely clueless to our laborious efforts not to slip.  

Happy Zi holding a snack

Amid the bamboo

Stir fried rice for lunch

Local girls selling bracelets

Midday snooze

An hour or so after lunch, about 5 hours into our hike, the clouds started to dissolve and we grew excited as the panoramic views began to appear. We paused for a break just as the sun burst through the clouds, illuminating the valley before us. 

Shortly after our break we arrived at Lees’s home, which had the looks and feel of a barn. The floors were made of hardened mud, the house made of wooden planks and bamboo. Our toilet was a hole in the ground. Water from the mountain flowed out of a hose into a giant bucked used for washing. Hogs, chickens and dogs ran around our feet. We met other members of her family who all lived under the same roof. Lees showed us to our sleeping quarters: a layer of blankets on the floor up in the rafters with a pillow each and mosquito nets to cover us.  

View from Lees' home

Lees' home

Main room

Fire pit and cooking area


Grandma with Zi

We layered up as the fog rolled in again, chilling the air and blocking the views. Sitting on a wooden bench, we watched as Lees’s daughter chopped bamboo for soup, chickens and dogs scurrying around her. Lees went to the market and returned with eggs and vegetables to make fried spring rolls to accompany our pork and rice dinner.  

Lees' older daughter chopping bamboo for soup

She was fast

We sat by the fire used for cooking, trying to stay warm, watching the rice boil and the spring rolls sizzle.  Once dinner was ready, we ate mostly in silence, relishing Lees’ home-cooked meal.  

Lees boiling rice

Best friend spring rolls I've had

By 9pm we were exhausted and climbed up the ladder to the rafters to retire for the night. Among the dogs barking and the roosters crowing, we could hear the grandfather (who apparently had too much rice wine) rambling something in Vietnamese. I put in my ear plugs and tightly wrapped the blanket around me, trying to stay warm.


Despite going to bed around 9pm, we didn’t crawl out from the warm blankets until 8 in the morning. The ear plugs drowned out most of the animal noises but I tossed and turned throughout the night, my back constantly sore from sleeping on the ground. Lees made us coffee and cooked us a delicious breakfast sandwich accompanied by leftover springs rolls from dinner. 

After breakfast, we said goodbye to Lees’s home and, with baby Zi strapped to her back, Lees led us through the villages, pointing out the various tribe members who can be identified by their dress. We crossed bridges and through small towns, working our way back up the mountain where we hopped on the back of motorbikes and returned to Sa Pa.

Lees does the same trek about 2-3 times a week, trying to find other visitors who will do a homestay with her so that she can provide for her husband and 3 children. I left Sa Pa feeling incredibly grateful for what I have and how I am able to live. Lees and her family don’t have much and live far below the comfort zone for Western standards. But they seem happy and reside in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. 

What more does one really need.

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