Sapa – A beyond authentic experience

When I caught the night bus to Sapa, I had no clue where I would be staying the next day, however fellow backpackers from the hostel I was staying at assured me I would find a homestay easily.  The 6 hour ride to Sa Pa was my first taste of a “sleeper bus”, and was tremendously awkward to say the least.  When I jumped on the bus, they handed me a blanket, told me to put my shoes in a bag, and pointed to the very back of the bus where there were seats to accommodate taller people.  The bus was full of solo mini beds, except for where they put me of course.  I had to snuggle up next to a nice couple from Germany since the back of the bus was a combo of 3 mini beds side by side.  I shoved myself as close as I could to the corner and got some Z’s. 

woman from one of the 5 villages trying to offer homestay’s to tourists

Just as my fellow backpackers assured me, the second I got off of the bus woman dressed in pretty authentic clothes started rushing up to me “homestay?, homestay?, homestay?”  I declined all offers for a few minutes to try to scout out which lady seemed like she would be the best fit. After scouting for a bit I finally came across a woman with whom I accepted her offer. She started by saying that for trekking, lunch, dinner, “happy water”, a place to stay, breakfast the next day, more trekking, and then a bike ride back to town would run me $30. After a bit of negotiating I was able to get the number down to $20 (not bad considering all included), and off we went. 

Our first stop was to grab some coffee and water before the 8 mile trek to her house. There I met 2 girls from the Netherlands who were staying at the same house that night. We had our coffee and a small breakfast and off we went. 


Fem, with her son strapped to her back, taking in the view

The 8 mile trek back to Fem’s village was more challenging than I had anticipated. There were very steep areas, sketchy cliffs, and rocks that I thought were going to break off and take me with them at any moment. Thankfully, along the way we took several breaks, not only to catch our breath, but to also take in the amazing scenery. 




The mountains surrounding Sapa are endless rolling fields of rice terraces farther than the eye can see.  Being up there all you can here is whatever noise the wind may make, as well as the occasional woman or young child hauling something back to town. Sitting up on those mountains I sat there, closed my eyes, and thought about how similar it was to when my father and I trekked the mountains in Macedonia just a year and a half ago. 

My father and I in the mountains surrounding the village of Ladorisht, Macedonia. (This was after his first 5 month round of chemotherapy)

When we finally made it to Fem’s house I was shocked, there was no running water, no electricity, absolutely nothing.  Kids were playing outside, the men were drinking and singing songs to celebrate Tet (Vietnamese New Year), and the view… absolutely breathtaking. 

After making my rounds and introducing myself to everybody, they invited me to sit down and eat. After trekking 8 miles informed quite a big appetite, so the fact that the food looked like it wouldn’t come close to passing health standards didn’t phase me. 


Once lunch was done the woman got to work preparing for dinner. I walked around and just took in the amazing landscape for a few hours, and just took it all in.  It was so quite, so calm, so away from it all.  However the longer I was there the more I started to catch the gaze of the children from the village as I think they were starting to warm up to me. 

Smiling and laughing is the universal word for happiness, so after a few laughs and smiles we became best friends. We kicked around a makeshift soccer ball for a while, and played with different filters on my phone that changed their faces. It’s amazing how much joy they get from the smallest things. 


After observing and being enveloped in their culture for the day something dawned on me.  I kept asking myself how these people could be so happy without having much, and I came up with a conclusion that I hadn’t thought of before. My first thought was that they know nothing else, but they do. A walk down to the center of Sapa and they can see a completely different life. I believe what provides them with such contentedness is the mere fact that tasks like cooking, cleaning, and other necessities literally take all day.  Back home if I want to cook, clean my clothes, and shower I can have it done in 30 minutes, and then a sort of void sets in.  I have to look for the next task to do, or something to make the day seem as if it were productive. 

Fem uses a helmet flashlight so to help her cook


This sticky rice is the staple dessert of Tet (Vietnamese New Year)

Dinner was served later in the evening, and the “happy water” was flowing. I was lucky enough to be there during Tet, so the guys were really partying. They sang songs for hours on end, and even though I had no clue what they were saying I would mimick their verses and sing along. The whole family thought it was hysterical, and personally I thought my singing was spot on. 

Singing and eating, with POSSIBLY some liquor involved

After all was said and done I went to bed, which was in a shed style room next to a machine to help make rice.  The wind was howling at night, and dirt (plus God only knows how many insects, kept blowing in my face). Thankfully I survived the night and the next morning it was time to say goodbye. I tried my best at expressing my deepest gratitude and we made our way back to town. I saw some amazing waterfalls and scenery, but it was extremely hot so when an offer to take a bike the rest of the way presented itself I was all over it!


Arriving back in Hanoi was an interesting feeling.  There’s such freedom in knowing that I literally caught a bus last second and had  this amazing 2 day experience, and now I am back where I started with no clue what tomorrow will bring. My dorm that night was filled with new faces who had just arrived in Hanoi.  They asked me about my day and were enthralled by the experience I had just had.  They pulled out their phones and took notes so they too could experience Sapa for themselves.  I thought to myself “I am now the one giving advice on things to do in Southeast Asia”, and when I went to bed that night I really felt like a true backpacker.