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When we were planning our honeymoon, I talked with a few of my friends who traveled around Southeast Asia to get their insight into what we needed to see and do as well as what we could go without seeing. My friend Amanda raved about her homestay that she had in Sapa.
After doing some digging, I found that getting to Sapa is quite the process. In order to get there you need to take a night train or very long bus ride. She promised me that it would be worth the hassle of getting there.
Andy and I talked and decided that we wanted to do a homestay. Although it isn’t the most romantic thing that we could have selected for our honeymoon, it was something that was outside of our comfort zone and would immerse us into a different culture. It was important to both of us to get some traditional Asian culture when we were so far from home.
Finding Our Homestay Family
Homestays are a very common thing in the Sapa area with many families offering their homes for this purpose.
My first thought was to go with the family that my friend Amanda recommended since she raved about them. She didn’t have the contact information so I went online to find another option. I stumbled upon a website for Pham, a member of the Red Dao tribe. The fact that someone that stayed with Pham created a website to promote her business made me think that there was something special about this woman.
Andy and I also liked that we weren’t just paying a company that was organizing the home stays, but rather giving our money directly to the people that we would be staying with.
Booking Our Homestay
I booked our homestay with Pham directly through the gmail address found on her website. I requested the dates that we desired and inquired about pricing. She got back to me with all of the information that I needed. The pricing was a little higher than we expected but we justified it since it was our lodging, food and entertainment for the leg of our Sapa trip.
Pham emailed me back and forth several times to finalize everything. The correspondence wasn’t always super fast, but you have to realize that she does not have a computer with wifi in her home, instead she is only able to get online when she goes to Lao Cai which is a hike from her village.
Everything was set up for us. Her driver would pick us up in Lao Cai and drive us to Sapa where we would hike to her village in Sapa.
Getting from Lao Cai to Sapa
The driver met us at the train station holding a sign with our name. We hopped into his SUV and he drove us about an hour to the town of Sapa.
Once we arrived in Sapa he told us to go to the restaurant and wait. Since his English wasn’t great we were a little confused. The server asked us if we wanted anything but we had no clue what was going on – were we supposed to eat here or not?
Shortly after, a woman arrived and told us she would be our guide since Pham was busy. She told us to order breakfast as it was included in our tour price. We got some traditional Vietnamese soup which was delicious – ever since I was a kid, soup for breakfast has been a love of mine.
During breakfast we couldn’t help listening to a guy who was also in the restaurant. He did something that I hate – speaking really loudly as if speaking louder would help with the language barrier between him and his guide. Obviously he was lacking some sensitivity telling his guide that her “costume” was beautiful and acting surprised that it would be cold in the hillside village (he hadn’t brought a jacket). Obviously the “costume” is not a costume at all, rather the traditional dress that the tribes wear. The weather thing threw me off as well. Who travels somewhere so far from home without looking at the general temperature that a place would be?
Hiking through Sapa
After breakfast we headed off with our guide, also named Pham, to hike to the Red Dao village. It had been raining quite a bit the days before we arrived, the day of our hike being the first day in many that it wasn’t raining. We were relieved that we didn’t have to hike in the rain but we were facing quite a very muddy walk to Pham’s house.
Knowing that we would likely get our shoes dirty, we had the foresight to bring old sneakers with us. This way we could toss our shoes after the Sapa portion of the trip and not worry about wrecking our shoes.
Andy being an outdoors kid growing up was like a fish in water walking through the muddy terrain. Me on the other hand, I was like a baby colt that was learning how to walk. Luckily our guide and one of the women from the Red Dao tribe that was hiking back to the village from town helped me out. Had those women not been with me, I would have fallen in the mud more times than I could have counted! Fortunately, Pham had a pair of rubber boots that I was able to borrow during our second day of trekking which made the hike so much easier.
As we got closer to Pham’s house, our guide dropped us off at an herbal bath house. We left our overnight bags with our guide and headed to take our bath. As we got into the room we got big grins on our face. It wasn’t a bath as a westerner imagines it, we would essentially be bathing in a wine barrel. The water was a dark brown color as there were a lot of herbs in the bath. And the water was HOT! In order to even get in, we had to scoop out some of the water and started filling it with cold water from the tap on the wall. Once we got in, it was quite nice, just really warm. Several times during our soak we had to stand up to cool off a little bit.
After we had enough of a bath we dried off and headed back to trek the rest of the way. In hindsight we realized that the herbs had dyed our skin slightly yellow which rubbed off on our clothes. The stains came off once we were home and able to wash our clothes ourselves.
Traditional Homes in Sapa
Since we were making pretty good time, our guide invited us to see her home. We were intrigued to see the inside of a traditional home as we had been curious what the inside of the homes we were hiking by looked like.
The homes in the villages are very spartan and similar I imagine to what they were like many years ago. There is a fire in the middle of the home and the floor is actual earth, not a traditional western floor. The fire really is the heart of the house – not only is it where the family spends their time, it is also used for heating the home and cooking meals.
Our guide took us to Pham’s house where we relaxed for a bit before Pham arrived. We checked out the home, including our room. The accommodations for guests was located on the 2nd floor which you got to by climbing a ladder. Our room had wooden floors, lights and electrical plugs – we had a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net, 2 pillows and a thick blanket. That was pretty much all that we needed as we were just sleeping there. The door was able to lock from both the inside and outside. When we came back from hiking after our first night, we were pleased to see that our door was locked with a padlock, a security measure to ensure that everything was safe when we were gone.
We were fortunate that the restrooms were very western. We had a western toilet that flushed and a hot shower. This is not something that is common across homestays in Sapa so we were very fortunate. I for one was happy that although we were roughing it, that we had some of the luxuries of home.
Dinner – Homestay Style
Once Pham arrived back home, we spent time with her and her family sitting by the fire. We were just talking about life, mostly about what would possess us to come stay with them when we were on our honeymoon.
We heard a rustling sound coming from behind us and turned to see what it was. We noticed a chicken in a plastic bag with his head sticking out a hole. We looked at Pham in slight confusion. She asked us if we liked chicken because we were going to kill it for dinner. It was a slightly surreal thing because while I do like chicken, I am also a lover of animals and had a hard time realizing that I would witness the killing of an animal to eat. I slowly nodded my head yes and it was done, we would have chicken for dinner.
Andy, growing up in the country had witnessed an animal killing before. The closest that I had experienced was stories of my dad watching his grandma kill chickens for dinner when he spent summers at his family farm in his childhood. I hung back as the chicken was killed inside the house. Fortunately, all of the chicken was use with nothing going to waste – even the tail feathers were used to baste the chicken with a honey mixture.
After the chicken was cooked over coals, Pham’s family split the chicken into two piles, one of the piles included more western pieces with the other being more adventurous including the cooked chicken’s blood, feet and organ meat. They offered us to take chicken from either pile but knew that we would likely stick with what we knew which was accurate.
In addition to the chicken, there were several other dishes with everything being very fresh and delicious. If there is one thing that I can say about our homestay, it is that the food is amazing and you will certainly not go hungry.
We capped off our homestay with some homemade rice wine. Pham and her husband toasted us as we downed shots of rice wine. While it isn’t the smoothest drink that I have ever had, it was fun to get into the culture and kick back a little bit.
One of Pham’s relatives helped out around the house throughout our stay, setting up everything for our meals. She didn’t speak much English but embraced that she was able to make decent money by Sapa standards by helping out her family host westerners at her home.
Spending the Night in Sapa
To say that it was the most comfortable night of sleep that we had on our trip would be a lie, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it may be.
While it is true when we were there in November we could see our breath as we laid down to sleep, the blankets and each other’s body heat kept us warm throughout the night.
We were awoken in the morning by a neighbor’s rooster – we knew it was the neighbors since Pham said that the rooster that they had was too loud so they decided to eat it. We noticed that the light was coming into the room but were somewhat confused as there was no window. It was then that we realized that there were slight gaps between the boards and with no insulation we had the light streaming in.
In hindsight I came to realize that Pham was a very non-traditional woman who was able to create a business by herself. Most of the women in the Red Dao tribe create handicrafts to sell to tourists. While it is something that makes decent money by Sapa standards, it is something that we believe that Pham decided she did not want to do. She wanted more in her life so she learned English and decided that she would become one of the top guides in the area. She really is inspiring in being able to fulfill her dreams and show her daughter what can be done.
Many of the people that live in Spa have never left the village or have never gone further than Lao Cai. Being a trailblazer type of woman, Pham had journeyed all the way to Hanoi which in Sapa standards is extremely far.
While the upfront cost seemed slightly expensive it included everything – round trip transportation to/from Lao Cai, all of our food, our lodging, trekking and our accommodations. When it came time to part with Pham, we left her a nice tip for her incredible generosity and welcoming us into her home.
I would highly recommend anyone looking at a homestay in Sapa to consider Pham. She is a strong woman who speaks good English and will welcome you into her home with open arms. I hope that at some point we return to Sapa to see her. The next time we will go when the hillside is lush and green. I would love to see what is new with Pham years after we first met her as newlyweds.