trekking with Sapa Sisters

when my two friends and I started researching things to do in Vietnam, trekking through Sapa was high on our list. there are a lot of options out there. different lengths and difficulties of hikes, with or without homestay. and they all vary in price. but once we discovered the Sapa Sisters company and read their story, we knew that we couldn't book with anyone else.

life for women living in the tribes of this area is not easy. it is a male-centric culture where girls are discouraged from education, pressured to stay in abusive or unhappy marriages, and sometimes even sold into human trafficking. Sapa Sisters is a company owned and operated by all women from the H'mong tribe, and not only pays their guides fair wages but offers benefits like parental leave and health care. they have empowered these women to better their lives and enabled many of them to buy property, build homes, and save for their children's futures. you can read more about their company and guides on their website. [our guide, Zao, has one of the more incredible stories.]

this post is going to be lengthy. but for me, the experience was about more than just the actual trek.

we decided to do a 2 day journey with an overnight homestay. we arrived at the office and were introduced to Zao, who would be our guide. she explained that the longer trek option might be a bit slippery due to recent rains, but gave us the choice of which trail to take. my attitude for this adventure was that if we were here to trek then we would trek. so we took the long route.

our trail wrapped around and down the side of a valley. and it was definitely slippery. by the time we reached the bottom and had to walk through a knee-deep river, we were glad to just wash the mud away. we passed rice paddies and small wooden homes, crossed streams by hopping on rocks and detoured around grazing buffalo. eventually we came to a small village for lunch.

after we ate and chugged about 3 liters of water each, Zao asked again which way we wanted to take: the short path along the road, or the long way over the mountain? we chose the long route again. along our climb, we stopped to rest by sitting on the porch of a village house. suddenly Zao looked at us and said "I was born in this house. do you want to come inside?" we went in, not knowing what to expect.

the walls were wooden planks and the floor was hard-packed earth. we entered a large room and Zao pulled out some tiny plastic stools for us to rest on. she switched on a dim overhead light and turned on a small fan. in the corner was an old television, maybe from the 1960's. through the doorway to the next room we could see a cookfire dug into the floor, and corn was hanging from the rafters above to dry. a stray puppy from outside trotted towards us for a minute, then decided we weren't worth the effort and curled back up to sleep on the porch.

I don't know how else to explain what it was like to sit in that house with Zao: those were some of the most special and humbling five minutes of my life.

we continued on and arrived at our homestay for the evening. our host welcomed us with fresh cut fries covered in chunks of garlic and chili powder. we showered and met the other Sapa Sisters patrons who were staying the night with us - one French woman who was studying medicine in Saigon, and an American working for the Atlanta CDC. our host cooked us an incredible spread [complete with allergy-friendly dishes for me] and despite the howls from the cantankerous old cat that lived in the house, we all went to bed early. it might have had something to do with hiking 20 kilometers that day.

the next morning there was breakfast and another choice of trails: the short way, or up and over the mountain? we chose the mountain again. after climbing almost straight up for an hour, we were rewarded with the best views of our entire trek.

by the time we made it back down, we were starving, sweating, and exhausted. for a change: we chose the shorter route to get to our lunch. after a wild motorbike ride back to Sapa [during which my driver had to stop due to a buffalo crossing] we arrived at our hotel and said goodbye to Zao. a few hours and, thankfully,  a shower later we left Sapa and boarded the night train back to Hanoi.

so often when we travel, it feels like we are just passing though. I'd love to be a more conscious traveler who gives back directly to the people of the communities I visit. have you found any other companies like this around the world, or given back in another way on your travels? if you make your way to Vietnam I would highly, highly recommend an experience with the Sapa Sisters - and not just for the views.

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