When I was trying to decide which Southeast Asian country to make my new home for a year while I taught English abroad, I thought I’d be lured in by Thailand—turquoise beaches, tourist-friendly cities, endless golden buddhas, and one-dollar green curries. So many ESL teachers end up in Thailand, and I thought I’d be one of them.
Then I discovered Vietnam.
The little I knew of the country was tinged with my even-lesser knowledge of the Vietnam War, envisioning war-torn cities and landmines at every step. Once I started doing some research, I learned how very mistaken I was about the rich history and culture of Vietnam.
What clinched my decision to choose Vietnam was when I stumbled upon a travel article about Sa Pa, the quiet mountain town near the Chinese border famous for its lush green rice terraces and mind-blowing trekking opportunities. I soaked up image after image of rolling emerald hills, beautiful tribespeople, misty mountaintops—and a few months later, found myself with a crowd of tourists spilling out of a night bus in that very mountain town.
I had landed in Hanoi for my teaching job a week earlier and before it began, I started exploring earnestly. With a few new friends I met on a hostel walking tour, I took an overnight bus from Hanoi, which seemed fine until we got to our last leg, the steepest part of the drive. A thunderstorm raged outside, and while it seemed that all of the other people on the bus were somehow sleeping soundly and oblivious to our surroundings, I was wide awake. Lightning temporarily lit up the landscape outside my dark window, illuminating craggy summits and muddy hillsides. The bus wound its way higher and higher, climbing a series of switchbacks that had me fearing for my life. Between the sheets of rain, the blindingly bright lightning, and the incredibly foreign landscape, I felt as if I must still be asleep. 4AM finally arrived, and we piled out.
After a breakfast of instant coffee and fried noodles at a nearby restaurant that must have been accustomed to serving half-asleep tourists fresh off the night bus, we assembled at the hotel to meet with our guide. I looked out bleary-eyed over the mountains shrouded in early-morning fog and, for the first time since arriving in Vietnam, took a deep breath of fresh, clean air. It was a chilly Monday morning, and I was acutely aware of the fact that this was not my daily office scene.
Quickly, we were surrounded by local women in colorful head scarves and wraps, carrying their wares in woven baskets strapped to their backs, asking us questions like where we came from and how old we were. (Almost always followed with a “So young!” no matter what age we told them.) We soon realized they’d be hiking with us, accompanying us and offering their help, asking us to buy souvenirs from them at the end of our trip in return.
I couldn’t help but notice how wet and muddy everything around us was, on account of the night’s epic thunderstorm and it being rainy season in general. We’d travel for two days on vertical inclines and declines while mucking about in…sludge? We’d climb these mountains that looked like literal mudslides?
Oh yes. Yes, we would.
Our trek began in Sa Pa’s downtown and seemed easy enough at first. We slid our way down a series of hills and when they finally leveled out, it seemed like we were in another world. In the valley, the sun was shining and the verdant fields were glistening. Everything was coming to life: water buffalo grazed, birds sang, children’s calls rang out. I wanted to just sit and take it all in, but we continued on.
Eventually the trek would become more difficult. After a few hours, layers of clothing had been peeled off and we were covered in mud. At every decline, one or two of us would inevitably slip and fall flat on our bottoms, which we initially found funny before it started to feel actually painful. We wore sneakers and hiking gear and made sure we carried enough water—meanwhile, the women guiding us were wearing traditional dresses and plastic sandals, their breathing hardly labored. I stared at them incredulously while we stopped for a drink in the shade.
I’d later learn that these women did this every single day. They met tour groups in Sa Pa and then trekked with them for the whole day, showcasing their products when we stopped at the end of the day for dinner in a remote village. Often, a woman would offer help to one or two tourists specifically, and then target them for sales using their unwavering support as evidence that they deserve the business. Shopping in Vietnam can be quite a pushy business, and this was no exception. If you wanted to eat in peace, you’d better buy something. I came away with a few bracelets and the thought that the income from a few measly trinkets (however beautifully made) could not possibly be worth an entire day’s work.
As it turns out, it can. While we would continue on, the women would turn around and go straight back the way we came, along the steep path that had my knees aching and lungs feeling like they were giving out. And then they’d do it all over again the next day. Unbelievable.
Our group continued on again after our meal, heading towards the tiny remote village where we’d sleep for the night. I dreamed of finally lying down, not asking how much further we had to go out of fear that it’d be longer than I expected. I was admittedly very out of shape, and I was ready to be done hiking and arrive at our homestay.
I’d read amazing things about homestays in Sa Pa, warm families inviting you in and sitting around the table with you over homemade rice wine (that tastes like rubbing alcohol) and broken conversation bridging cultural divides. It sounded like an incredible exchange and the opportunity of a lifetime.
Unfortunately, my experience didn’t quite go like this.
Our group was about 13 people, already large, and the arrival of a second group needing a last-minute place to stay had put our host family over capacity. They seemed understandably upset about this influx of visitors, and once they showed us where to sleep and put out a very small dinner for us, they sequestered themselves away and didn’t see us till morning. We sat by ourselves squished around an outdoor table with a couple fluorescent lanterns, swatting away mosquitoes and spraying insect repellant religiously. There was no cultural exchange and no attempting to understand each other’s languages (tribal languages are spoken in the villages, so even those of us with a basic understanding of Vietnamese would be lost).
This led me to question the very idea of a homestay in a remote village with the hill tribes of Vietnam. I wondered how much this family was paid, if they were paid more for this extra group of tourists, if it was enough to cover their costs, if they did it out of necessity or a genuine interest. (I assumed it was the former.) Did any homestay families host foreigners out of sheer desire? Or was it purely economical? I suddenly felt acutely aware of my privilege and uncomfortably imposing.
We slept in the loft above the family’s home, shoulder-to-shoulder on bed mats that my very sore muscles did not appreciate. We woke to a meager breakfast of thin banana pancakes and after a quick hello to some neighborhood children, we set off again.
In the early morning light, the mountains before us looked ethereal and other-worldly. Soon enough we were traipsing up and down them, across valleys and waterfalls, past children playing on the side of the road and litters of piglets playing in streams. We were deep in the Vietnamese countryside now, and I don’t think any of us could stop smiling. The landscape felt removed and untouched as if you could exist there without the strife of world wars, heartbreak and cringe-worthy politics. It felt like a magical realm where nothing existed but fresh air and sunshine and smiling babies. By the time we reached our endpoint, I was glad to be done trekking but devastated to be heading back to the busy-ness and chaos of the city.
We had pho for lunch at a little roadside cafe before being picked up and taken back to the town. I marveled at the speed of the van, taking us back along dirt roads built into the mountainside, a one hour drive covering the distance of a two-day trek. Entering downtown Sa Pa again felt like popping the bubble, and I immediately mourned for the misty mountains and quiet green countryside we’d left behind.
Sa Pa will always occupy a corner of my heart, and will forever be the mystical place that lured me into the hill tribes of Vietnam — a trip to this Southeast Asian country would not be complete without it.
The mountains are waiting for you.
Suggested next reading: Going To Vietnam? Don’t Miss This Essential Travel Hack