After our amazing Halong Bay adventure, which was from start to finish all booked through and taken care of by a travel agent we felt that our next adventure, homestay in Sapa, should be done on our own.
We’d also read articles about unscrupulous tour operators who would often charge unsuspecting tourists a small fortune while the host family would receive just a fraction. On top of that, it seemed utterly useless to pay a middleman for stuff we believed we could take care of ourselves allowing us to be in better control of what we spend our hard-earned money on (and make sure these go directly to our host family).
It turns out that doing a homestay in Sapa is a lot easier than it looks.
How to get to Sapa?
The first thing we had to do was to get to Sapa. Here we had two options, night bus directly to Sapa or a night train to Lao Cai followed by a transfer to Sapa. Buses are generally cheaper than trains and will get you directly to Sapa. We decided to travel by train because we felt that this would be more comfortable and worth the extra expense.
Train tickets can be booked directly at the train station in Hanoi or online via 12go.asia (booking online is slightly more expensive than directly at the train station but it saves you the hassle of having to go to the train station just to buy the tickets as they are delivered to you online). Booking online, the train tickets to Lao Cai cost us $44 in a first class AC 4 berth sleeper train. The train departed Hanoi at 9.30pm and arrived in Lao Cai at 5.25am thought there was a slight hiccup at the beginning.
Our problem began shortly after we boarded the train. Although we had both booked lower berths, while I went to the bathroom Julia was basically forced to offer mine to a Vietnamese lady who was travelling with us and her son in our cabin. It turned that she had had a leg injury some time ago and it was now very difficult for her climb to the upper berth.
I only found out about this after I returned to the cabin and by then it was too late to say anything. Being the perfect gentleman I always am, I could just smile politely, nod and climb up to the upper berth.
Although the bed was comfortable enough the journey was surprisingly bumpy for a train ride, one of the bumpiest I have ever experienced, and while Julia slept like a baby on her bottom berth I did not get much sleep; I am very light sleeper so I just kept on waking up to the feeling of falling down from the berth. The upper berth did have some railing but I was afraid it would not be enough to catch me. So much for the extra comfort and extra money.
After getting to Lao Cai, we had to arrange local transfer to Sapa. This was actually very easy as the train station is full of minivan touts all competing for your business. We chose the first driver who started talking to us and negotiated a price of 150,000 Dong (around 6.5 US dollars) for both of us, which we now think was probably still too much. On top of that because we were the first people in the minivan we ended up waiting for nearly an hour for the minivan to gradually fill up watching all other minivans fill up and leave.
Instead, we should have just taken a regular public bus to Sapa, which departs from Lao Cai train station car park, costs 28,000 dong per person (around one dollar) and goes to Sapa all the same.
Securing a homestay in Sapa
After we had successfully arrived in Sapa, we were literally ambushed by several Hmong ladies dressed in their traditional clothes all shouting, “Homestay! Homestay!” I was dead tired because I did not get much sleep and Julia not feeling very well in general so we made an executive decision to find a hotel, get some sleep and sort out the homestay the next day.
After some searching we found a hotel called Golden Sun charging whopping $30 per night, which is way above our maximum daily accommodation budget, but we knew it would be money well spent as soon as we saw the room. The room was huge, had a massive bed with the most comfortable memory foam mattress, actual shower, and to top it all off that they were prepared to check us in at 7.45am without charging us extra and allowed us to have delicious buffet breakfast the same day as well as the next day. The only downside was the view, which was of a construction site of a next door hotel but the room was really quiet so we did not really mind.
After getting some well deserved sleep we decided to explore the town and see what’s there on offer. I can honestly say that while the views of the surrounding mountains are absolutely amazing, the town itself is not that extraordinary. The town resembled one massive construction site, dirty roads and dust just about everywhere, trucks driving around and honking incessantly. Needles to say, we had seen nicer or more interesting places.
As we walked down the street we were suddenly approached by one of the Hmong ladies who had ambushed us that very morning. She explained that she remembered us waving her (and about half a dozen other Hmong ladies) off with “maybe later,” and was now keen on resuming negotiations about a homestay. This is how we met ‘Mama Chu’, short lady in her late thirties with long black hair and wide smile on her wrinkled face dressed in a traditional embroidered dress worn by Black Hmong tribe.
We were a bit surprised by her bold approach and her confident sales pitch so we started talking to her and before we knew it we somehow sealed the deal. 80 dollars for the both of us for two nights, to start the next day at 9.00am sharp. This included stay at her house, food and Mama Chu’s services as trekking guide. Mama Chu then marked us with colourful bracelets tied around our wrists and went away leaving us still slightly unsure as to what had just happened.
Meeting our tour guide
The next morning, precisely at 9.00am, we were greeted by our host in front of a local church. She was accompanied by a girl, probably 13 years old, dressed in Hmong dress and introduced her as Chi, her daughter. She explained that Chi would take us hiking to her village in her stead while she’d arrange for our big bags to be dropped to our new home for the next three days and also do some shopping for dinner. The situation became slightly awkward as suddenly we were supposed to be accompanied and guided by a 13-year old child.
We hesitantly agreed to the change of plans, I mean, we were now supposed to be led by a child! So we left our bags with Mama Chu and followed her daughter. It was a really strange situation and at times we felt more like her older siblings than her mother’s customers. Chi first took us to a local market where we bought some oranges and bananas for the hike and in no time we were following Chi’s footsteps climbing up the hiking trail leaving toward the mountains leaving the hustle and bustle of civilisation far behind.
The trek to Mama Chu’s house took around 6 hours and leading though absolutely stunning scenery and landscapes. From time to time we even had to remind ourselves that this was still Vietnam and that we had not been somehow transported to another country. On the way we met about a dozen or so of travellers who were too accompanied by girls in Chi’s age so it probably is not anything unusual.
The most interesting aspect of the journey, for me at least, was not the trek itself or the views and scenery but the fact that Chi and all the other girl guides were only wearing simple plastic bathroom slippers, the kind you sometimes see in hotels. It was in a stark comparison to all the ‘trekkers’ in their full trekking attire and trekking boots.
Upon our arrival at Mama Chu’s home, which looked more like a minifarm, we were greeted by the sound of various animals living on the farm. There were chickens, pigs, geese and two little puppies. The home was nestled in a small village, which was nothing more than a handful of houses scattered on the hillside. There was no access road to speak of, only a narrow dirt track which probably turned into a slippery mudbath the every time it started raining.
The farm itself consisted of a house, small pigsty, and an outhouse or latrine serving as both toilet and very rudimentary bathroom (I’ll get to that later).
The house where Mama Chu and her family lived was very simple, very much open plan space hugged by four walls. There was a dining area with table and chairs, couple of beds with curtains for privacy and kitchen area partly separated by a wall. The term “kitchen” is used very loosely here. It really was just a room with a few pots and various utensils with a hole in the middle of the concrete floor with an open fire serving as a stove and no chimney. The whole setup was very basic, more like going camping, but on the other hand this was as authentic as any homestay can get.
Our bags had been delivered as we arrived though Mama Chu was nowhere to be seen. Chi explained that she went to do some shopping and also had couple of other things to take off. Chi then showed to a guest room, separate from the main part of the house with its own door. There were three double beds with mosquito nets and curtains. The room was quite dark, had no windows and the only two sources of light were open door and small energy-saving bulb hanging from a ceiling beam.
We quickly changed into dry clothes, sat down on the porch and watched Mama Chu’s other two absolutely adorable daughters nicknamed Zaza and Nunu, aged 4 and 5, playing with their puppies. Soon enough, our presence caught their attention and before we knew it we were best pals teaching them high fives, low fives and fist bumps.
Mama Chu arrived back home in the meantime with her husband and two sons, the last two members of her family and shortly after started preparing the dinner. It was mesmerizing watching Mama Chu and her husband cooking the food with very basic amenities at hand, all of it virtually on the floor (with the help of chopping boards of course) with no kitchen worktop all cooked on an open fire. After much asking if they needed any help, we were invited to help out with making spring rolls, which we happily accepted.
The diner was absolutely delicious; three course meal including the spring rolls, lots of vegetables, pork, and almost endless supply of steamed rice.
We went to bed quite early just after 8.00pm, this was probably the earliest we went to bed ever. Mama Chu’s husband was not feeling very well, all children went to bed too so there was little point sitting in the house. We also felt rather tired after a very long day and wanted to get some sleep in anticipation of a long trek ahead of us the next morning.