It was a 40-minute taxi ride from Hanoi’s airport into the city, but my nose stayed pressed against the window throughout. In Vietnam’s clamorous capital, rickety food stall owners served steaming bowls of phở while construction workers scaled bamboo scaffolding erected against crumbling buildings. Upon arrival at the city’s central train station, I headed towards the Chapa Express, an overnight train that shuttles between Vietnam’s capital and the historic French-colonial town of Sapa.
Although a more circuitous route, at a little over 10 hours to the 5.5 hours it takes by bus, there’s a satisfying nostalgia found in exploring Vietnam through the historic railways that crisscross the country. Our train, launched in 2013, felt true to this legacy with wood-paneled first-class cabins kitted out with four narrow berths (reconfigured into two upon request), comfortable bed linens, and reading lights.
At 10 pm, the train slowly eased out of the station and began to rock its way northward to the dramatic landscapes and chartreuse-hued rice terraces of Lao Cai province. Daybreak brought with it spectacular scenery and a screeching 6:15 am arrival at Lao Cai train station. From there, minivans shepherded dazed travelers an hour southwest to Sapa.
In this mountainous corner of the country, occupied by the French military until Vietnam’s independence in 1945, life has remained sleepy even as the nation emerged as one of Asia’s most sought-after destinations. Occasionally, our van passed a local H’mong tribe woman trudging slowly uphill, wearing an indigo-dyed tunic elaborately embroidered with vibrant patterns, heavy silver hoops hanging from her ears.
I came to this remote region to embark on a trek with Sapa O’Chau, a travel service that organizes treks into the heartland of Vietnam’s hill tribes. Ranging from multi-day trips that sleep in homestays run by local families, to a one-day hike through the Muong Hoa Valley (an ideal solution if you prefer the neoclassical luxury of Hanoi’s Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel to a mat in the rafters), the company caters to any itinerary.
As my small group hiked through serene bamboo forests and across rice terraces etched into steep hillsides, our 26-year-old guide Pay—a H’mong tribe member—enthusiastically shared the customs of his tribe, one of four of the region’s ethnic groups that also include the Giay, Tay, and Red Dao. Isolated from mainstream Vietnamese culture by the geographical seclusion of the spectacular hills and valleys that surround them, these rural communities have managed to hold on to their own tribal dialects, animist beliefs, and strikingly traditional clothing. Their villages are almost entirely self-sufficient: residents live off the land, brew rice wine, and stitch their own clothes in an existence that has altered little in centuries.
Deliberate segregation from modern Vietnamese society allows their lives to remain centered around a fierce loyalty to family and community. Married adults move into the husband’s family home; the entire village is expected to attend a member’s funeral, regardless of any personal feuds. “People are always friendly to each other,” said Pay, who cheerfully shouted out a greeting to a farmer sowing rice with the help of a water buffalo.
But Shu Tan, the founder of Sapa O’Chau and a fellow H’mong, is concerned by the hill tribes’ vulnerability. Faced with encroaching development, she sees their survival as dependent on their ability to navigate the modern world, too. In response, her sustainable business model promotes education and local entrepreneurship as key tenets—Pay is one of many who learned English at Sapa O’Chau’s English language school before he registered as a tour guide.
His work allows him to remain enclosed within his community while also providing much-needed income that’s funneled towards purchasing fertilizer, electricity, and medicine for his family. “We are proud that we help the community’s youth to have better education and better jobs,” Shu Tan says. “They can support their families through what we are doing and improve the quality of life here."
Eight miles and some aching legs later, the trek was done with a couple hours to kill before the 9:40 pm train back to Hanoi. Over a bowl of noodles, I asked Pay what he liked most about his culture. Despite daily contact with travelers armed with flashy gadgets and tales from far away, he’d expressed no interest in a life outside of his village. So what’s the appeal? “I really like my tribe,” he said. “Even if you go somewhere where you don’t know them, they still welcome you like family.” Hikers on a Sapa O’Chau tour get the same treatment—and this heartfelt hospitality resonated long after the hike was over.
One-day treks from $20 per person; sapaochau.org.
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