Sa Pa, Vietnam: surrounded by luscious terrain, dipping valleys and endless rice fields, this city set in the mountains leaves an impression. Due to its location in the highlands, several ethnic groups are located in and around Sa Pa, predominantly the H’mong and Red Dao. As more tourists flock to the city, more tribes-women are opening their doors to welcome guests.
Just the tribes-women? Well, Vietnam has always been a matriarchal society, with the women having fought in combat during the war. Even today, there’s a heavy emphasis on Women’s Day – females are greeted in the office with a rose from their male colleagues during the event. So while the men in and around Sa Pa do work, the women just work harder; learning English to host guests and generate an extra income while the men stick to Vietnamese – so don’t be surprised if the husband of your guide doesn’t speak English!
What better way to become totally immersed in the local culture than to hire a local tour guide? You can either book a tour prior to arriving in Sa Pa or you can randomly select a female guide upon arrival at the bus station, but note that mainly H’mong women wait around the station for guests.
Staying in a homestay is a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture of Sa Pa, and learn from the locals.
While you can trek to several villages (each with an entrance fee) by yourself from Sa Pa, a homestay is highly recommended in order to immerse yourself in the local culture; the H’mong women are known for their handicrafts whereas the Red Dao women are known for their knowledge of herbal medicine.
Sapa O’Chau, a social enterprise based around females, is highly recommended not only because of their work ethics but also because their office provides a store-room for luggage, shower facilities (with hot water, towels, soap, a hair-dryer etc.), charging facilities, wifi, and free tea! The Red Dao homestay, for one night, is genuinely eye-opening in terms of what you can learn from your guide about nature and its medicinal benefits. Moreover, your homestay family will brew a herbal bath for you, made with 12 types of plants collected from their garden – the perfect end to a long trek.
However, it’s important to remember that when you’re at a homestay, you’re in the house of a villager who does not have modern Western amenities so if you don’t think you can handle that, maybe a homestay isn’t for you after all – but the city definitely is!
Speaking of the city, scattered around the centre are mainly H’mong women selling handicrafts. One hand-woven item can take up to seven months to complete, and so deserves appreciation. One important note to remember is to please not buy items from children; there are many, too many, traditionally dressed children roaming around trying to sell items and while yes, it’s a striking sight to behold, those children should be in school and not on the streets.
Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out our last installation of Travel Tales to find out how you can cruise through Ha Long Bay, Vietnam for under RM50 – especially useful if you’re travelling on a budget!