This month's “The Month in Photos” is a special black and white photo essay on our time in Sapa with a Black Hmong family. Here you will see a completely different side to Vietnam – a place where two legs or four are the main modes of transportation, where the air is fresh and skies go on forever, and where there is scenery that has to be seen to be believed.
All we knew when we arrived in Sapa was that we were to meet our homestay, Ger, at the local church. During our short phone conversation from our guesthouse in Hội An, she said it was the only church in town so we couldn't miss it. Sitting on the steps in the early morning sunlight, we met countless friendly locals including many Black Hmong, one of the 54 official ethnic groups of Vietnam and easily recognizable in their traditional dress.
We had arrived earlier than expected, being able to hitch a ride from the train station in Lào Cai an hour away in a shuttle sent to pick up guests at some of the local hotels. As we waited, one lady came for a chat and asked where we were staying. Upon answering, she gave me a hearty slap on the thigh. “Get out! Ger is my neighbour. See you in the village!”
A little while later, an older woman with a huge smile beaming from ear to ear introduced herself as Ger's mother and told us that Ger was on her way and wouldn't be too much longer. In the meantime, Mama Chi took us to breakfast at the local market. She led us to a busy stall where locals were tucking in to huge bowls of steaming chicken noodle soup. Phở should be eaten quickly – the longer the noodles are left in the soup, the more they keep on expanding and re-filling your bowl in a battle you'll never win. Hence we averted the assured wastage of food by requesting half servings.
We joined the table and the circle of women and children all dressed the same with huge silver earrings dangling low on ears that had become accustomed to wearing the heavy jewellery over long periods of time. We exchanged smiles with the girls across the table who smirked at our astonishment at their speedy consumption of the mammoth bowl and our inability to do the same.
Ger had a warm face with wonderful lines of one who never stops smiling. For someone who stopped their schooling at 17, her English is astonishingly excellent. Mama Chi too a wonderful English communicator – a skill she must have passed down to her daughter.
It turns out the village was a four hour trek from Sapa town. It was a stunning hike through jaw-dropping scenery that was worth every step along the muddy paths.
Spending time with a local family and learning about their everyday lives is one of the special opportunities that a homestay brings and is why it is one of our preferred types of accommodation.
Let us take you to our time there in pictures.
The children of Sapa are truly amazing – independent and strong, they'll constantly astound you at what they do at such a young age.
One night after a few rounds of happy water, Mama Vang played us a traditional local instrument, the Jew's harp.
The final day brought torrential rain that made it virtually impossible to descend the mountain. We walked a little way down from the house to the point motorbikes can reach and Ger rounded up all the bikes in the village to get us down safely to make our train. As we left, Mama Chi thanked us for coming and said with a smile as big as her daughter's, “Next time you come, my face changed. I'll be very old!”
It was a special goodbye with Ger, a moment that needed few words to convey meaning.
Winding through the mountains on the back of bikes with waterfalls cascading over the roads and rain so heavy it hurt to open your eyes, it was an exhilarating ride that we'll never forget.
Many thanks to our friend Edward for introducing us to Ger! It was really one of the highlights of our trip in Vietnam and our travels so far.
If you'd like to do a homestay with Ger, Edward has set up a Facebook page on behalf of Ger and her friend Song. They don't have Internet but you can contact them directly by mobile phone to arrange your own stay with them. Their numbers can be found on the Facebook page. Be sure to give it a thumbs up and share it with any of your friends travelling in the area.
Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact Edward or ourselves via the Facebook page or leave a comment below.