Find out if homestay in Sapa experience is for you
While trek and homestay with the Black H'mong in Sapa was one of the best experiences of my life, I understand it is not for everyone. In this guide you can find what to expect from the amazing experience of an authentic homestay with the Black H'mong in Sapa.
I would highly recommend to hire a local guide directly, stay with the family and see where your money is going. This is a great way to help the local community, and to benefit the families and community directly from the money you spend, rather than a small portion coming from a tour company, who take advantage of the local community in order for them to make the big bucks.
You can pre-book with a local guide from a tribe, or make arrangements upon your arrival to Sapa Town. There are many ladies that meet the bus as it arrives, looking for tourists to guide.
When traveling to Sapa, Vietnam you will need to decide with an array of Trekking to chose from, and if your visit to Sapa will also include homestay. While Trekking and Homestay in Sapa you will have the most authentic experience of the real life in this beautiful region of Vietnam.
When planning my 2 weeks itinerary to Vietnam, I invested plenty of time researching, studying and creating an itinerary that would include the best things to do and see in Vietnam, and at the top of my list was to experience a homestay in Sapa.
I knew it would be challenging. It would involve strenuous hiking in the mountains, and I would need to figure out how to communicate and eat whatever I would be served. But the opportunity to trek among the misty rice fields and the highland villages of the hill tribes in Sapa was going to be epic.
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First of all...What to expect from hiking and homestay in Sapa
Sapa is located beyond the clouds in the mountains town in Lao Cai Province in the North of Vietnam, which includes Vietnam's highest peak, Fan Si Pan. It is in a remote place in Vietnam located about 350 km northwest of Hanoi, close to the Chinese border.
Tourism in this part of the country has increased in the past few years due to the beautiful trek and also the opportunities to live like a local at a homestay with one of the hill tribes.
The itineraries will vary, depending on the length of time you choose, the guide and the weather conditions, but each experience is remarkable and unique. After I search and find this amazing article of Living with the Black H'mong , I chose a lady named Bau to be my guide and to share her home, family and lifestyle.
Red more: The best 3 days itinerary to trek and homestay in Sapa
How to find a Homestay in Sapa
You have an option to book a tour in advance with a travel agency or directly with a local lady, but if you don’t have the chance to book in advance don’t worry, you still can book a tour with one of the trustworthy local ladies upon your arrival in Sapa.
They’ll be waiting for guests at the bus stop in Sapa Town (your first stop). I highly recommend booking directly because of the experience you will have with them is the most authentic, they are very knowledgeable about the mountains and villages in Sapa, they can cook very well, they will take good care of you, they speak good English and the most importantly, you will be giving back to the community.
Is Homestay in Sapa for me?
Before you go any further, it is important to find out if homestay in Sapa is really for you. I have listed a few things I have experienced during my 3 days hiking and homestay in Sapa. Keep in mind that this is very authentic way to explore and learn about the local culture, and you will be treated as a local:
What is Homestay: as the name suggests, is an overnight stay in someone's else house.
The house: They are very simple and you will emerge inside their lifestyle, sharing not only the house, but also the culture, the food and lifestyle with your hosts. The accommodation is very basic but very clean, and the houses are similar to hunts, without much natural lighting. There is no refrigerator and they cook using a fire pit in the middle of the kitchen - therefore, expect to have some smoke inside the house and all over your clothes and luggage.
Your accommodation: It will be inside the house, and you may have a separate room - at least you will have a bed for you. The mattresses are very thin, but the bedding was very neat and clean.
Toilet: Most likely will be not attached to the house and it may or may not have running water as well as gas hot shower.
Food: Will be prepared by the host and their family. They will cook delicious food for you, using fresh ingredients and it is a combination of vegetables, spices, noodles and maybe some meat. If you are picky with your food, consider that you will be eating whatever they will serve you...and everything is delicious! Below I have a full session about the food.
Special guests: You may see and even have to share some space with some bugs and spiders. You will wake up about 5:00 AM with the rooster crowing, and you will be sharing the house with puppies and kitties - Black H'mong people love animals, and I do too!
Trekking in any weather condition: When you decide to trek in Sapa, consider that it may be humid, or it may rain...heavy! You will trek from 4-6 hours straight in some hills, but it is not a difficult level.
My homestay in Sapa
My guide Bau and her family live in a simple, and very welcoming home. The house is made of wood boards (barn boards) with a living room and 2 bedrooms – one is for the couple and the other for the grandma and the kids, where they all share the same bed.
In the loft of the house is an area where they used to stock all the rice they harvest for the year, and now offer as a cozy bedroom for visitors.
The kitchen is the highlight of the house where everyone gathers together around the small fire pit in the middle of the floor. It is used to cook meals, warm the house in the winter and to hang our clothes and shoes to dry after trekking on a rainy day.
There’s no refrigerator and no running water inside the house. Spring water that comes directly from the mountain through a series of PVC pipes to the back of the house is used to cook and wash dishes.
Adjacent to the house is a western bathroom with a hot shower that Bau’s family was able to build with the help of the money she makes from trekking. It is encouraging to see them investing in their homestay and making it into their business.
"We hang out by the fire to watch Bau and momma Lyli cooking, we also used the fire to dry our wet clothes and shoes from trekking in the rain"
My family in Sapa
Bau shares the house with her husband, her mom (momma Lyli) who helps with trekking and also take care of the house, and her 3 beautiful young children.
I got the chance to spend a lot of time interacting and playing with the kids. They do not speak English, but it didn't limited our interaction, as we played games, colored books together, and also shared some songs. They love to have guests, and they show it by their curiosity and warm welcoming the guests in their home.
Bau just amazes me - she is very young, and extremely hard worker. During the rice harvest she works at the family's land, and she also works hard as a "trekking lady".
Bau doesn't only work hard, but she is a entrepreneur. She shared with me that she is working hard as a trek guide and saving money so she can build a larger house to accommodate her guests better. She also learned how to speak English from doing trek and talking to her guests. During my stay with Bau, she couldn't write in English, and I gave her a book on how to learn basic English. A few months later I started to receive text messages from Bau and also see her excellent posts on her social media in English...WOW! She is a fast learner and very smart young lady.
I am still friend with Bau and her family, and I often get messages from Bau and the kids. It is gold!
Here is what you may expect for a traditional Homestay in Sapa
Upon your arrival at the house, you will already feel you are emerged with the lifestyle of the Black H'mong family. They will offer you some of theirs sandals so you can rest your feet after a long day of trekking and will offer you a cup of hot tea prepared at the fire pit in the middle of the kitchen.
You will share the common area with the family, while your host and the family will cook dinner, and if they have kids or pets at the house, it is a great time to connect. Your guide will most likely speak English, and the rest of the family may or may not speak...your guide will help you to communicate and translate, if you have any questions or want to play with the kids.
Dinner is served and everybody will seat around the table and share the food - after dinner it is time to crash, and you will be taken to your accommodation by your guest. Don't expect them to offer you a shower, but you can ask for one if they have one at the house.
In the morning breakfast will be served around 7:00 AM and there is a high chance you will be served yummy fresh pancakes and fresh fruits. Then it is time to go for your trek with your guide. The guide will show you the villages, the rice paddies, you will get the chance to meet other hill tribes and learn more about the real life in the mountains of Sapa.
In case you are staying a second night at a homestay, at the end of the trek you may stop at a local market and shop for fresh ingredients that will be used to cook dinner.
The Black H'Mong Culture
The Black H’Mong people dress in black and they make their own clothes. The fabric is made of hemp and they use indigo to dye the fabric, and everything is handmade. In many houses you can see a big vat of indigo and big wooden looms that they use to dye their clothes. I was invited for a local wedding and I had to dress like the locals.
They plant and harvest rice to sell and eat.
Each tribe speaks their own languages. My guide Bau could speak H’mong, Vietnamese and English, but could not communicate with other hill tribes.
The women are very hard workers, and they work even when they are pregnant or carrying their young babies with them during the trekking tour or planting rice. They learn how to speak English so that they can work with trekking and tourism. They dress in traditional clothes, have long, beautiful hair and like to wear silver jewelry, which they also make themselves.
I also learned that the men are the property owners. The girls are expected to marry at a young age, have kids, serve their husbands and work hard to provide for the family. My guide asked me a lot of questions about my culture, and I found her curiosity intriguing. We learned a lot from each other.
The (yummy) Food
The food was just amazing; among the best meals I ate in Vietnam!
I am a big fan of healthy food and preparing my meals from raw ingredients. They buy fresh ingredients at a village markets. We were also treated to the delicious rice that Bau and her family grow on their own land.
Animal protein is not very common for our host’s family, but they do serve it when they have special guests. They have good options if you like chicken or pork, and they also have many vegetable options. They use pork fat to cook and it makes the food taste amazing.
My guide Bau and her family cooked dinner for us, using the fire pit in the middle of the house and the spices smells was just amazing. They really put their heart while they are cooking a meal, and they are so proud of their gift to cook for their guests.
We all sat at a very small table in the house and shared the small dishes, which made it more special.
As Anthony Bourdain said “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together”.
During our meal, I asked Bau what her favorite food was, and she answered “rice”. Then I asked her if she could choose any food in the world what would she want, and her answer was “Rice, I like rice”. If you ask me what my favorite food is, I could create a list. We have so many options to choose from.
Noodles are a winner - noodles with vegetables, noddles with chicken, noodles with pork, noodles with noddles.
Vegetable spring rolls with homemade sweet chili sauce, steamed rice, veggie soup, noodles (have I've said noddles before?), steamed pumpkin, broccoli or any other vegetable and pan fried chicken or pork.
For breakfast Bau would make some amazing pancakes (crepes) with fresh eggs and fruit, honey and the best Vietnamese black coffee.
My Overall Experience of Homestay in Sapa
I really recommend including the homestay experience if you are trekking in Sapa.
Book direct with a local lady: As a strong supporter of Ethical Travel I recommend you to book directly with a local lady instead of a tour company. During my research prior to trek in Sapa, I read that some of the local tour companies do not do a fair business with the ladies they hire to take tourists on the tour. While I was there, I confirmed that they charge the tourists full price, and only pay a very small commission (much less than half) to the ladies who do the work guiding tourist groups. If you hire the guides directly, the money will help clothe the children, buy supplies for their school, invest in their houses and go back into the community.
Cultural experience - Homestay is much more than only a bed for the night, it is an enlightening and enjoyable experience. You will have the chance to step away from the Sapa district and be able to explore the mountains and to learn how the hill tribes live in the remote areas of the mountains. I was even invited as a special guest to a local wedding and had the most memorable experience.
Support the locals - Homestay is a great way to support the locals, and to help the income to be with the locals, improving dramatically the hosts lives and village overall.
Lessons for a lifetime: Bau lives a simple life, with limited options compared to my life. It was very profound for me to ponder this, and to wonder if simple is better. It is really a life changer experience. Bau and I became friends and we communicate very often, and even in a very stressful and busy day, she can help me to slow down for a few minutes and to put a big smile on my face anytime when I get the message "Paula, I miss you...when am I going to see you again?"
Until next time my friend...until next time 🙂
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