A Homestay in the mountains of Sa Pa, Vietnam
Travelled by Cam, Jenna and Tonya
On January 13th 2016, we arrived via night bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa. At 6:30 am, a taxi had been arranged by our homestay to deliver us into the country side through a narrow and windy dirt road. After 30 mins we reached a small village hidden away in the valley of this mountainous region: Ta Phin Village. Other homestays are near the city and require long hikes into the mountains, while this one is 12 kms into the rich and brilliant terrain of Vietnam’s north western hills.
Welcomed to Heavenly Homestay! – Day One
We scheduled two days and one night in this remote part of Vietnam. The first day started with breakfast at 8:30 am the day we arrived in Sa Pa. We ate local bananas and more crêpes than we care to admit along with some delicious coffee brewed thick and strong. We ate it up because after breakfast we met our tour guide and started the first hike of the day. Our tour guide was a local named Ta May from the Red Zau tribe that live deep inside the mountains of Northern Vietnam, Loas and Southern China. She is so small, pleasant and very hard working. After hiking all day she goes to the local junior high school for night classes of the Vietnamese language. Her native language is a local dialect native to her tribe.
The first hike presented beautiful scenery and the happy smiles of local children running around over recess at their elementary school up the mountain side. The kids were so adorable, we played a little hopscotch and took photos before leaving them to their mid morning nap. It was misty in the morning so our views were obscured, however the view, farm animals and overall exposure to the lifestyle was humbling and eye opening.
After 2.5 hours, we were back at the homestay for lunch. A mix of fried spring roles, egg, pork dishes and spicy tofu. Again we ate until we were bursting at the waist, all really lean food for lots of energy. Before our second hike we had some downtime to nap, write and socialize.
On the second hike we walked around the lower valley and through the village. Our guide Ta May called her sister, whom we met shortly after with her beautiful son Pyun who jingled his way through the rice fields. The sun broke through in the mid-afternoon revealing some wonderful mountains peaking out above the misty valley.
Handycrafts, support the community!
Seasoned travelers know very well of the handy crafts sold by the locals: Bags, scarves, trinkets etc… All made in China, but it doesn’t matter. These remote places are so far removed from modern society, think of handy crafts as a token for supporting the local community. That being said, I was thankful as first time young travelers on a budget our guide kept most of them away. We walked by other tourists surrounded by locals peddling wares. It looked uncomfortable and we appreciated the peace and solidarity.
For myself, my sister and friend, our trip to Sa Pa was to experience the environment, the people and hear the stories and history of the region. Although we didn’t get a perfectly clear sunny day, we learned a lot and really recommend the experience. You can’t control the weather, keep that in mind on all journeys and outdoor adventures.
Day two – Picnic at the Waterfall
Day two starts at 8:30 am, the rooster across the street will make sure you are up and ready to go far earlier. Our second day rained very hard in the morning, but it didn’t keep us from our 5 hours of trekking the mountainside. At lunch we had a picnic at the base of a small waterfall. The dry season lowers the water level so I strutted knee deep in the river, it was freezing cold. The waterfall was the perfect location to slow things down and relax, take a moment and take in the surrounding mountains towering above. After two more hours of trekking, we arrived back at the homestay with enough time to make our way down to the herbal bath house before dinner.
Like much of Vietnam historically, this homestay has a humble and inspiring story. It’s as much a story of a man with a dream as it is about the village of Ta Phin, and the local tribes living deep in the mountains.
Dat and his wife Ly, his brother in law Huy and Tram handle the day to day operations of Heavenly Homestay. Dat is the proprietor of the business and welcomed us into his beautiful home that he built with his own two hands. He is a self taught wood sculptor and carpenter who ties in cultural artwork and Buddhism into the natural beauty present In each piece of raw lumber.
Dat and his wife have two beautiful children that live with their grandparents and go to a local school where they learn Vietnamese, and English beginning in junior high. Dat works very hard, when he was 17 he walked over the boarder into the remote mountains of China to visit his uncle that runs a restaurant. There he learned how to cook. After a few months, he returned to Vietnam and got the opportunity to fill in as a chef at his former place of employment. Not long after, he decided to self teach English, pouring all his savings into languages tapes. We got to hear his amazing story over diner, rice liquor shots and karaoke. The Vietnamese LOVE kareoke, Dat and Ly are no exception!
Interested in booking a homestay?
Homestays are a great opportunity to leave a gift behind from your native country for someone whom you’ve had the chance to befriend. The children like toys, games and are always in need of school supplies. I discovered that most of the locals never leave Vietnam and never get the opportunity to travel.
I learned that it was these remote mountainous people that were the backbone to the French colonial resistance so many years ago. Today, over these steep hillsides, several tribes live peaceful lives relying on small scale rice fields, the husbandry of pigs, chickens and goats and within the last two decades, tourism. They have a strength of character and a happy spirit that is difficult to describe.
I really recommend booking a homestay. It was a one of a kind experience I will always cherish. If you are interested in Heavenly Homestay, you can visit Dat’s website or find it on tripadvisor. Heavenly Homestay was very comfortable, cheaper options with families that live in huts in the mountains offer a more authentic and rugged experience!