Authored by Paula Martinelli
When I decided to visit Vietnam, trekking and homestay with a local H’mong hill tribe was at the top of my list.
Have you ever traveled to a destination where you felt transformed by the experience? A place so distant from your reality, but at the same time, so connected and simple?
My time with a Black H’mong family in Sapa allowed for total immersion into a tribal culture, while having the opportunity to appreciate little things that we take for granted like a comfortable bed, and a daily hot shower.
My experiences in Sapa are up there with some of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had; while sharing a house with a hill tribe in the mysterious misty mountains of north-western Vietnam.
5 Reasons to Trek and Homestay with the Black H’mong Hill Tribe
The Black H’Mong People
The Black H’Mong People are a Southeast Asian ethnic group who immigrated to Vietnam from China around 300 years ago. They are a hill tribe who live in the mountains of Sapa and practice farming, while still having strong cultural roots as a hunter gather society.
The women are famous for making cloth from hemp and dying it a deep indigo blue, as well as sewing intricate hand embroidery. The H’mong are famous for their etiquette and hospitality, and travelers have the opportunity to stay in their homes.
I felt so welcomed among the Black H’mong tribe. The people were so kind, open, and willing to share everything they had. My host was so curious about my life and culture. It was incredible to exchange our life experiences.
When we were done trekking for the day, we just sat around the fire interacting, entertaining, and learning from our host family. We simply talked, shared ourselves, and appreciated the little things more than ever.
Her kids were so curious about us and they paid close attention to our cultural behavior. They want to interact with you and they are extremely happy to share their house and playtime.
Nature in Sapa
Located in the very northern region of Vietnam, while trekking in Sapa you will be treated to views of steeply terraced rice fields, towering verdant ridgelines, primitive mud-thatched villages, raging rivers, and astounding waterfalls.
The trekking can be challenging and involve strenuous hiking in the mountains, but the opportunity to be among the misty rice fields and the highland villages of the hill tribes in Sapa was just epic.
“Surrounded by the magnificent Hoang Lien Son range, 5,500 feet above sea level, you will literally walk in the clouds when visiting this hill station. And there is also the Fansipan Peak, a 10,000-foot giant, for you to conquer.” – Phuc Nguyen
Yes, be prepared to see amazing scenery, but you’ll also be learning about the world of the H’mong inhabits, from plants to animals, food, and culture, how kids are raised, how they make their clothes, etc.
Life Lessons – Back to Basics
I really appreciated the opportunity to be close to nature while at the same time being in contact with people who make you feel so welcome. It was amazing to hike amongst the gorgeous misty mountains in Sapa.
At the end of a long day of hiking and learning everything Bau (my host) had to teach us about Sapa and the Black H’mong, we stopped to buy fresh ingredients in a village market. When we arrived back at the house, Bau cooked the most delicious meal in the fire pit in the middle of the kitchen floor.
While she cooked, I just spent time playing with the kids. I am surrounded by smartphones, tablets, TV’s, and computers in my day-to-day life, and it was refreshing to see kids play together without the modern devices we so often cling to.
The Community and Culture of the Hill Tribe
If you choose to trek and homestay with a local family, be prepared to have a very authentic experience and to be invited to be part of their daily activities, such as helping in the rice fields, shopping for fresh ingredients and helping to prepare the meals or play with the kids and animals on their properties.
I was invited to a wedding party of my host’s cousin. I joined in on celebratory shots of rice wine, dancing, and sitting and eating with the villagers. I truly felt like an honored guest of the tribe, rather than an interloper intruding on a private event.
The wedding in Sapa was one of the most fascinating and intimate cultural experiences of my life and this is another example that when you travel without any plans, and you are open to exploring, it can turn out even better than expected.
Being welcomed by so many people and having the opportunity to share in the special occasion and festivities was unforgettable. I truly felt like an honored guest at their party.
I had to dress in Black H’mong clothes in order to go to the wedding, it is part of the tradition. The handmade black clothes dyed with indigo, were colored with beautiful embroidery, all handmade by the women of the tribe.
Supporting Ethical Travel
Hiring a guide directly, and staying with a local family means you can see exactly where your money is going – directly to the community without a third party taking commissions or cuts. The community gets 100% of the profits.
By going direct, the families and community benefit from the money you spend, rather than a small percent coming from a tour company. You can also find ways to contribute to the tribes financially or through spreading the word of your experience to attract more ethical travelers to visit this beautiful region and experience the amazing culture.
By truly being there, living and experiencing such a different life, you will create memories that are so vivid and deep. This was not something that I saw through a car window, passed by on the street, or watched on TV.
The abstract became real and I could see, touch, feel, smell, and taste.
How to Get to Sapa
Sapa is in a remote place in Vietnam located about 350 km northwest of Hanoi, close to the Chinese border. It is located beyond the clouds in the mountain town in Lao Cai Province, which includes Vietnam’s highest peak, Fan Si Pan.
You can get to Sapa by motorcycle (takes about 10 hours), by bus or an overnight train (9 hours). I chose the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. But tickets need to be booked in advance from the Hanoi Train Station.
Overnight trains are a popular means of covering long distances in Vietnam because they’re usually friendlier to the budget and more comfortable than taking long road trips being cramped in a small car or bus.
I had a good night’s sleep in my private berth. The car had a shared bathroom available and it was quiet at night. Upon my arrival in Lao Cai train station, I took the mini-bus up into the mountains to Sapa Town, which takes approximately an hour.
Mini-bus tickets can be purchased in the train station when you arrive (just get in line with other people catching the mini-buses).
Photo credit: Explore With Erin
Hiring a Local Tour Guide
You have the option to book a tour in advance with a local lady, but if you don’t have the chance to book in advance you can still book upon your arrival in Sapa. Members of the tribe will be waiting for guests at the bus stop in Sapa Town (your first stop).
I highly recommend booking directly, as the experience you’ll have is the most authentic. They are very knowledgeable about the mountains and villages in Sapa, can cook very well, will take excellent care of you, speak good English, and most importantly, you will be giving back to the community.
Read this post for details on what to expect from a homestay experience, whether it’s for you, and how to organize an authentic experience like mine.
Read this post for everything you need to know about trekking and homestay in Sapa experience if you’re inspired to make it happen and read more!
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