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Trekking With Sapa Sisters

rice terraces of Sapa

All throughout Japan, Korea, and China, Vicky and I never really took a full on guided tour. I guess it just didn’t interest us. We were on a budget and for the most part felt secure and independent enough to go anywhere by ourselves. However, we threw all that out the window the minute we got to Sapa, Vietnam and heard about Sapa Sisters – a two day trekking tour run entirely by the local Hmong women.

Sapa rice terraces

In Sapa it’s extremely popular to take trekking tours through the rice fields as it would be nearly impossible to navigate them on your own, and to not do it defeats much of the purpose of going to Sapa to begin with. That said, as we understand it many of the tours that the hotels offer use local guides but the hotel takes most of the cut. Sapa Sisters is a company run entirely by the local minority, Hmong women, which really appealed to us. As locals who grow up in the area they really know the mountains inside and out. We really loved their story and we booked a tour for the following morning.

We met Lang in the lobby of our hotel and she explained the possible trekking options. Vicky and I had requested one of medium difficulty. That’s code word for, we don’t want to feel like major tourists but please take it easy on us as we’re not from around here. There was one decision left to make and that was whether or not we would take the more off the beaten, slippery path, or opt to follow the road straight on.

climbing through the mud

Naturally, we opted for the slippery path, but not without first renting some rain boots. Honestly, two months ago I probably would have economized on these, as with everything else, but for 4 dollars they were literally the best investment of the trek, which takes you through mud, mud, and more mud.

The tour was designed to be just Vicky, Lang, and myself, but not before long two young, Hmong women spotted us and decided to tag along. Frankly, I had no problem with this but I was a bit suspicious that afterwards they would probably try to sell us stuff (and they did).

water buffalo

We made our way through the rice fields of Sapa, only falling about half a dozen times. (Un)Luckily I only have one pair of pants…to be fair though, we had been warned. Besides, playing in the mud was kind of fun in a child like way.

Sapa local village

On our way we passed through several Vietnamese villages, hidden away in the mountains of Sapa. For much of the trek itself it was just the five of us (Vicky, Lang, and I as well as the two other Hmong women). I could tell that we were certainly off the tourist path, both in part because we didn’t see any for the longest time, and finally when we did, because of how clean they were! As chance would have it, we even ran into Lang’s mother, who greeted us warmly.

Lang was great in explaining the intricate details of the rice fields. Frankly, we’d seen these things several times before in China but this was the first time we had ever walked through them and thought deeply about them. For example, I had no idea how much rice a family had to grow just to cover their own yearly consumption. Trust me, it’s a lot.

As we got more comfortable with each other Vicky and I wanted to hear more about the Hmong culture, as that was half of the reason we went with Sapa Sisters to begin with. Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups and the Hmong are simply one that are popular in Northern Vietnam, mostly around Sapa. It was particularly  interesting to hear about some of the practices that still take place among today’s Hmong such as arranged marriages (though that appears to be slowly transitioning out).

homestay dinner

We hiked for about 5 hours the first day, making our way from village to village. Finally, we arrived at our homestay for the evening, which was actually Lang’s cousin’s house (later, we found out that Lang has over 100 first cousins). The meal, or should I say feast, they prepared for us was quite delicious. They also shared some homemade apple wine, which was very tasty (and strong). Overall, their hospitality was a terrific introduction to Vietnamese culture. Lang’s baby also made an appearance.

rice terraces

The next day involved some more intense hiking as Lang opted to take us a bit more off the beaten path and we hiked up an entire rice terrace. Quite fortunately both days had reasonable visibility, and the view of the rice terraces was nothing short of spectacular. On our way back we got to take a motorbike ride, which was our first (but not our last) - exhilarating.

Overall we were very pleased with our first ever guided tour (and as a result have already booked several more in Vietnam). I very rarely say something is a must do but I think IF you go to Sapa you SHOULD book a tour, and I strongly encourage you to take a look at Sapa Sisters as it is a wonderful cause and a fantastic tour.

us w lang_

If you would like to support these wonderful, young women, we encourage you to take a look at a fundraising campaign they are currently undergoing. Here is their message:

As you already know we are very proud to be one of the few Hmong owned
businesses that manages to exist in this region – and one that is
entirely run by women. However in order to keep our initiate alive we
began in September, the long and expensive process of legalizing both
our guides and business.  We are very fortunate to have almost the
completed the process but now we need your help with the final hurdle
- making a $12,000 deposit with the government for an International
Business License. While we are all putting in what we can towards this
amount, unfortunately we cannot meet the total on our own.

If you could be so kind as to take a moment to check out our campaign
on Indiegogo and also share it with your friends on facbook, twitter,
or however you can help us spread the word.  All the tools are there.
Get perks, make a contribution, or simply follow updates.  If enough
of us get behind it, we can ensure that Sapa Sisters Trekking can
continue offering Hmong women new opportunities to earn sustainable
incomes and help their families and communities prosper.

Sapa Sisters Indiegogo Campaign

Sapa Sisters On Facebook

Sapa Sisters

Note: In return for this review Sapa Sisters partially sponsored our tour, however, all views expressed are entirely our own.

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15 Responses to Trekking With Sapa Sisters

  1. Wow! What an inspiring story.. I figured you guys would take the mud and the beaten track over the cement- frankly I would have done the same

    Olga December 21, 2012 at 2:36 PM Reply
  2. Very cool! We haven’t done any guided tours either (save for some island hopping in the Philippines, but as neither of us can captain a boat, that hardly counts!), but it sounds like this one was well worth taking. I love the idea of doingg a homestay while in Vietnam, and it is always nice when you feel like your money is actually getting to the right people and is in support of a service you believe in. If we make it to Sapa, we’ll have to check this out!

    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) December 23, 2012 at 3:15 AM Reply
    • Definitely. We’re actually doing a lot of tours in Vietnam (and it is adding up, we’ll admit), but under the right circumstances so worth it. We didn’t really notice many of these types of opportunities in the other asian countries we were in.

      Dave and Vicky December 24, 2012 at 5:58 AM Reply
  3. Hi, I’m planning to visit Vietnam on 26 Jan to 30 Jan. I would like to seek your advice whether sapa trekking & ha long bay tour are part of your recommendation?

    ~Merry Christmas~

    ccw December 25, 2012 at 2:14 AM Reply
  4. This is great! Really enjoyed the story. Love the pics.
    I am glad that Hmong women are doing some “real” business. Normally they only sell goods.

    memographer December 25, 2012 at 5:29 PM Reply
  5. I loved Sapa too! I didn’t take an organized trek there. The first day I wandered around on my own and walked down to the Cat Cat falls. The second day I hired a motorbike and driver to drop me off and pick me up at the various entrances and exits to trails. I found a couple of lovely Hmong girls who just walked the trails with me. It was so much fun to have someone to chat to and help me along the way. It was muddy and I only had flip flops! They did sell me some stuff I didn’t need at the end of the trek but I figured it was worth it for the price of the “tour”. Did I mention they had two little adorable babies on their backs the whole time they were trekking!!!??

    Bethaney - Flashpacker Family January 5, 2013 at 12:50 AM Reply
  6. Pingback: Easy Rider Tour In Dalat Vietnam

  7. Hi, as always a very inspiring post!
    Like to follow you on your trip and definitely am inspired by some of your experiences! I am about to plan my own trip through South East Asia, which will lead me from Kunming to Hanoi, probably also to Sapa. I was wondering if you took the bus from Yunnan to Vietnam, or did you go by train or plane? What are your recommendations? And by the way: I very much like your photos, what kind of camera are you carrying with you?
    Have a good time in Thailand! Looking forward to continue following you!

    David January 20, 2013 at 9:08 AM Reply
    • Hi David!
      Thanks for stopping by! When are you heading to Asia? Feel free to ask us any questions you have – we would love to help. We stayed at the Hump Hostel in Kunming – pretty central and very social and right at the hostel we were able to purchase tickets for the overnight bus from Kunming to the Vietnam border. We also got our Vietnam visas in Kunming (you need to get a visa ahead of time when crossing overland). The visa was around $60 and took 2-3 days – simple process and the hostel can help you get to the embassy (take a local bus from the hostel area to the embassy area). The overnight bus was $25 and we had to take a $6 taxi from the Hump hostel to the bus station. The bus is a sleeper bus with individual beds and the drive was fine. Sometime during the night Chinese officials came on board to check our passports but they returned them to us right away. When you get dropped off you are not at the actual border and need to take a taxi to the border itself – we just hopped in a cab and the driver knew exactly where we were headed – a few dollars. We got to the border around 6-7ish am but it didn’t open until 8am so we just had to wait around. While we were waiting a guy pulled up on a motorbike offering to change our Chinese money into Vietnamese dong which we agreed to since as it turns out you cannot get Vietnamese money outside of Vietnam and we wanted to have at least $15 worth when we entered the country. When the border opens you pass through passport control on the Chinese side, cross a bridge and pass through Vietnamese passport control (7am local time there) and you end up in Lao Cai – an hour outside of Sapa. From there we haggled with a guy about taking a minibus to Sapa which came to pick us up from the border. We each paid 100,000 Vietnamese dong for the ticket ($5) but I think if you get yourself to the train station in Lao Cai you can probably bargain down to 50,000 ($2.50) for the minibus though that does entail getting yourself to the train station. In Sapa we booked the Family Guesthouse and were able to figure out how to get there from where the minibus dropped us off. We had booked the Sapa Sisters trek in advance but I think you can book through the Family Guesthouse.
      If you are heading to Nanning you can take a bus from there to Hanoi, though if you plan on going to Sapa I think take the Kunming bus is better as it drops you off at the Lao Cai border which is only an hour away from Sapa.
      After our trek we took the minibus back to Lao Cai and took a night train to Hanoi (the guesthouse organized both minibus and train tickets for us which was a big help).
      Hope that helps! Thanks for the photo compliments – I am only a beginner but I use a Canon dslr XSi camera with a 50 mm prime lens (mainly for food photos) and a 18-135 lens for everything else.

      Vicky January 20, 2013 at 9:53 AM Reply
      • Thanks for your quick and detailed response, it’s amazing how you run this blog! Me and my girlfriend will try to make our way from Austria to Singapur overland, crossing Russia und China first. We’ll start in May, which will lead us into rainy Vietnam and neighbouring states in summer. Anyway – we hope to get a fair glimpse of those countries even at that time of the year. Your blog provides great information to us, and thanks for offering further help – quite possible that we ask for your advice again! ;-) David

        David January 20, 2013 at 3:14 PM Reply
  8. I love the idea of supporting local women. Women are often seen as second class citizens in these parts of the world so I am all for emancipating them. Great photos. The scenery looks stunning.

    TammyOnTheMove January 29, 2013 at 12:30 AM Reply

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