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Adventures in Vietnam’s Sapa & how to visit a Hmong family home independently

hmong tribe woman spa vietnam rolling hills
Ma and her baby

While in Hanoi I met a crazy American hippy travelling with his wife and her sister, who were part an ethnic group known as Hmong. After getting into a conversation about Vietnam they told me I should make a detour to Sapa, further north, right by the Chinese border, a stunning area for trekking but also home to many Hmong hill tribes. Martin, the American, told me to visit Sapa independently, and explained how I could easily find someone to take me trekking when I arrived and pay them directly, this way my money would go back to the Hmong villages without anyone else taking a cut. Apparently you can book organised Hmong tours and homestays in many cities outside of Sapa, but the Vietnamese government will take most of the money, with hardly any going to the Hmong people (I don’t know how true this is but I’d rather my money went directly to the people providing a service, so took his advice). Fascinated to learn more about Hmong minority groups living in Vietnam I took an eight-hour sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Travelling on a limited backpacking budget I took the cheapest class ticket but there are swanky options too if you want a more luxurious ride. From Lao Cai, you can make the hour-long journey to Sapa by public bus, mini bus or taxi depending on your budget.
Once in misty Sapa, I found a hotel and set out to explore. There are a few markets around town and you can head out into the countryside in almost any direction, the scenery everywhere is stunning, with tiered rice fields and bright green jungle as far as the eye can see. As well as farming the land surrounding Sapa, many Hmong groups make money from tourism, selling amazing embroidered hats and clothing and hand-cut jewellery or through homestays and tours. During a walk to nearby Cat Cat Village one day I met Ma, a 22-year-old who was part of the Black Hmong subgroup, groups are often named after the colours or patterns of their clothing. Ma was roughly the same age as me and I was drawn to her elaborate outfit and incredible hairstyle, created by twisting her ponytail around her head and securing it at the front with a beautiful silver comb, shaped like a fish. The jewellery she was selling was some of the prettiest I’ve ever seen and I still to this day wear the silver bangle I bought from her. The rest of her outfit was incredible, everything from her hand-embroidered smock and belt, to her stacks of bangles, velvet loose shorts and huge silver looped earrings, I was in awe of her and her clothing from the minute we started chatting.

hmong woman wearing colourful clothing with umbrella

After talking for some time, we agreed to meet the next day and rather than a homestay, we decided I’d pay her to take me walking through the countryside to her home, where we’d stop for lunch. I was keen to talk to her about her day-to-day life and to find out more about what it was like to be part of the Hmong tribe. 

rice fields and jungle sapa vietnam
Sapa's stunning views

For three hours on a foggy, rainy morning we walked along rice paddies and through corn fields to Ma’s house, she told me she makes this journey a couple of times a day and always with her five-month-old baby girl swaddled to her back in blankets. Her home was made entirely of wood, a single shed-like structure divided into a few areas, with no electricity so it was very dark inside. The kitchen area had an open space for a fire and it was here that Ma would cook each day, water was collected in a stone trough, running off from a nearby stream and underfoot was just a simple dirt floor. Ma shared this house with her husband, her baby girl, her two-and-a-half-year-old boy, her four-year-old girl and her husband’s parents, yet the space was no bigger than 250 square feet.

inside wooden house of hmong family spa vietnam
The kitchen area of Ma's house

For lunch Ma made us rice and noodles with fresh tomatoes cooked over the open fire in a wok with homemade rice wine to drink. She told me about her clothing and about her day-to-day life and explained how she was saving up to build a house before introducing me to a few people that lived nearby. After a few hours of playing with the children and chatting to Ma and her family I walked back to Sapa past women grinding corn by hand, children carrying huge bundles of grass to feed cows, pumpkin fields and an albino water buffalo family.

rare albino water buffalo with babies in sapa vietnam
Albino water buffalos in Sapa

I met Ma again the next day and bought some more jewellery from her, hoping to add (in a very small way) to the funds for building her new home. Four months later, when I was back in the UK I got an email from her, telling me she’d been busy building her new house, proof enough that if you avoid big tour agencies, and book independently you can really make a difference to someone’s life. I’m so glad that crazy American hippy gave me the heads up.

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