My Homestay in Sapa: Happy Water and Happy Times

Lake in Sapa, Vietnam

Wiping off the grime from my five day ride in Ha Giang, my homestay in Sapa was a nice way to interact with some of the Hmong people I just spent so many hours passing by on the roads. When I got to Sapa, it took only a few moments to see that the town is booming with tourism and growing rapidly. Construction is everywhere. It still has a nice, small-town charm about it, though.

The town square is pleasant and the main food area was tasty; but it is all geared towards tourists. The area by Gia Nhu Guesthouse (where I stayed) and the surrounding blocks by the lake actually had the best local food and cheap bia hoi spots. So, I hung out there mostly. Gia Nhu Guesthouse is a great little spot for $5/bed/night.

Finding a Homestay Family in Sapa

It is pretty simple to find a homestay family in Sapa. As soon as each bus load of tourists stops, dozens of women dressed in traditional Hmong clothing swarm the area, offering places to stay in their respective villages. Unless you have been given a specific name or phone number as a reference from another traveler, it is luck of the draw when it comes to selecting a good host family.

I got lucky and ended up having a really authentic experience with our family. My host was a 34 year-old woman from the Hau Thao village named Mama Sua Sua. Her phone number is +84 166 412 7815 and her Facebook you can message her on is here. It should be around $30/person for 2 days and one night. Please give her a call if you are looking to spend the night in a Hmong village in Sapa.

Getting to Hau Thao Village

Following Our Hmong Guide up the Mountain

Following Our Hmong Guide up the Mountain

Standing around one of the main intersections in Sapa, I waited for somebody to approach us about a homestay. Within 10 minutes, four Hmong women walk up to me. They are wearing all black, dress-like tunics with brightly colored embroidery full of greens, yellows, reds, and oranges. Most of them are sporting colorful leg guards, headbands, and large earrings, and all of their dark hair is nearly all the way down their backs. The eldest woman, Sua Sua, has a sleeping baby (I would later come to know as Hoa) tied to her back and a kind smile. 

She asks if we are looking to stay in a village and shows me where Hau Thao is on a map. It is exactly what I want; so, I leave my big backpack with Sua Sua and two of the girls and start walking up the mountain at the edge of town with another girl, Sua (confusing, I know). Sua Sua’s husband will pick up my bag with his motorbike and take it to the village.

Following Sua, I climb above the heights of the city and look down on the cloudy paradise in the mountains. Huffing and puffing and carefully selecting each of my steps through the muddy, uphill terrain with my New Balance sneakers, I glance down and see Sua’s pink Hello Kitty flip flops that she is easily outpacing me in with no slips or falls. Her strong, well-balanced legs put me to shame. She is 23 with three children and has been married since she was 15. She laughs when I tell her that I am still single at 26 and she acknowledges how different our cultures are. We pass through misty farms of tea, potatoes, hemp, corn, and more as we wind our way up the mountain.

Hemp Farm in Sapa, Vietnam

Hemp Farm in Sapa, Vietnam

 

As we stop for lunch, a pack of young girls, maybe ages five to ten, surround me and push woven bracelets in front of me. They start a low, sad chant in unison that they repeat endlessly, lulling my friend into a purchase, “One for five, two for ten, you buy from me”. After a few hours, we make it to Hau Thao and wander into the terraced rice paddies and winding farm houses.

Stuart Surrounded by Hmong Girls

Stuart Surrounded by Hmong Girls selling bracelets

Our Night at the Homestay

Sua walks me to Mama Sua Sua’s house and bids me farewell. It is a small, wooden house with a cement floor and lofted second story above. It is surrounded by a farm, fully-stocked with pigs, chickens, buffalo, ducks, dogs, and terraced rice fields down the mountain.

Rice Paddies in Sapa, Vietnam

Around 5 PM, Sua Sua tells Stu and I to go inside while she cooks dinner. We find her husband and two of his brothers at the dinner table, beckoning us with shot glasses. Here we go, baby. None of them speak a word of English. We only know how to say “Hi” and “Thanks” in their native tongue. Over the next 45 minutes, we proceed to drink an entire 1.5 liter pitcher of homemade rice wine, or as they call it, happy water, without really exchanging anything more than gestures, laughs, and words lost on one another.

Sua Sua’s husband, the youngest brother, is the instigator. Every two minutes he makes sure all the glasses are empty and pours another round. He would ask us questions in Hmong, we would attempt to understand, they would all laugh, and then we would take another drink.

Drinking Rice Wine with our Host

Drinking Rice Wine with our Host

 

Soon after, Sua Sua brings in several bowls and plates with chicken, fried beans, bamboo, veggies, and rice. Once she joins us, we can actually communicate, kind of, with the rest of the group through her translations. The food tastes fresh and delicious. Partway through dinner, her husband’s parents, a brother’s wife, her friend, a daughter, and some other children join us around the table. It is really cool to have 3-4 generations around for dinner on a nightly basis.

By 7:30 PM, all of us (adults) are wasted and the sun is down. We resign to our mosquito-netted beds in the loft and are fast asleep by 8 PM.

View from our Sapa Homestay Backyard

View from our Sapa Homestay Backyard at Dusk

Back to Sapa and Off to Laos

Roosters and a crying baby. That’s all I can focus on at 4:30 AM in the morning. Most of the kids (who are really young adults and married age 14-18) are awake or already off to work, while Sua Sua tends to baby Hoa in the kitchen. Three roosters crow endlessly from 15 feet away, making it impossible to go back to sleep, not to mention the horrible hangover from the happy water. Sua Sua asks if I have a headache and says at night it is called happy water, but in the morning it is called angry water.

She makes me some delicious rolls with fried eggs before we begin the descent down the mountain. It had rained all night and the paths were muddy and slick. Once again, I marvel at how Sua Sua leads me in flip flops with a baby on her back down the slippery mountain. Stu and I slip and skid a handful of times through the farms and rice paddies. She never comes close.

Mama Sua Sua and Baby Hoa

Mama Sua Sua and Baby Hoa

 

After a few miles, motorbikes come to take us the rest of the way back to Sapa. We say our goodbyes to Sua Sua part ways. It was a great experience to wrap up our time in Vietnam. Overall, I still think the Ha Giang Loop was the most authentic part of our Vietnam experience. If you could somehow set up a homestay along the loop, I bet it would be amazing. However, Sapa is definitely the tried and true area to do a Hmong village homestay in a safe and more practiced environment.

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2 Comments

  1. Doug July 24, 2016
    • pvrouvas July 25, 2016

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