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A Girls Day Out in Sapa, Vietnam

Lisa and I meet Mee and Lisa as we walk the back roads of SaPa in Northern Vietnam and find out what life is like for women here.

"Where are you from?" It will become a familiar intro from the street vendors peddling their handicraft in every village around SaPa.

"Australia, where are you from?"

"My house is there," she points to the hill behind our homestay.

Mee is one of the lucky ones who doesn't have to go far from home to find tourists. Many of these women come from neighbouring villages, or further, but Mee wanders about three houses down to the end of the trekkers' trail with its bars and homestays. She sometimes wanders onto our homestay verandah with her guide friend Lisa for a more direct attack.

Mee is 30, her eldest of 3 children is 15 and the younger two go to the local school. A few years ago children were often the ones out selling handicrafts but now most kids are in school and it's the mothers who sell. Lisa also lives nearby. Her face is more serious than the ever-smiling Mee. Lisa carries a bag of handicraft but she prefers working as a guide and is the one recommended by our host - if the weather ever clears.

Now the expressway is finished dozens of buses make the journey to the highlands only 4hrs from Hanoi. So after a short fast and perilous ride in the back of a scooter through Hanoi's morning traffic I boarded the bus for SaPa.

Buses have a pretty bad reputation here as they fly along on the wrong side of the road leaning on the horn and playing chicken with buses and trucks. But our driver was pretty sedate and we got there with no other problem than a 10 year old girl being sick the whole way. Maybe she shouldn't have eaten those pancakes before the windy road.

I was picked up by my homestay host and we waited at the market for Lisa, another solo traveller whose bus was running late because the overloaded and unregistered minibus that was to transfer them to the coach got impounded by the cops in Hanoi.

Back at the house, huddled around a metal bowl full of coals - the house's only heater - we found two more solo girl travellers, Helene from France and Nabida from Spain.

The next day our little international girl gang sets off. Thinking we've outnumbered Mee and Lisa and can fend off the handicraft attack we find they've rounded up reinforcements. Us girls can be suckers for some bling and a scarf so this time we actually buy something as we chat to them, before getting underway.

There hasn't been much point in trekking off road. It has been pouring freezing rain since I got here and all tracks are now shin deep red mud. The few trekkers still bravely out are covered in it as they slide down the steep terraced hills. So we stick to the back roads between villages and are pretty much ignored by the hawker ladies who know our faces by now.

In the next village, we find Dee, a Hmong woman who teaches indigo dying workshops. The older woman's bent fingers are dyed deep blue from the indigo. Her face is serious, her eyes watching with concern at our progress. She patiently shows us how it's done, brainstorming design ideas with us and correcting our mistakes then bursting into a big laughing smile, her gold teeth flashing.

After Nabida leaves us, we hook up with Barbara, an Aussie medical worker living in Hanoi, and we grab some 'pho' (Vietnam's famed noodle soup) at a roadside establishment. My new mates spend a lot of time trying to explain the concept of vegetarian to the cook. We manage that but what you can't explain to Vietnamese is the concept of "no MSG" as sachets of the chemical get poured into every bowl.

Most women wear the costume of their ethnic group, whether that is by choice or to keep the tourists coming, I'm not really sure. In Ta Van the colourful textiles of Hmong dominate, with the red and white Dao hats from other villages running a close second. But the pho lady bucks the trend in a snazzy hot pink beret and matching wool jumper.

Some people ask what it's like being a solo woman traveller. In SaPa it's really interesting because most of the locals you contact will be women. The street vendors are women; the guides are often women; women run the restaurants, stores and handicraft shops; and it's mostly women in their colourful outfits you want to take photos of. Stop and chat to them and they'll talk about their children, their aspirations and family life so it's not so different a conversation to women everywhere.

But their lives are harsher than ours, and that's etched in their skin. They marry at 15 have grandchildren in their 30s and are still expected to raise them, keep house, cook, tend the garden and pigs and earn a living chasing after western tourists.

Nothing comes easy in the house for women. If there is running water it is only what was collected from the rain. If there is electricity it is solar power and doesn't extend to heating, cooking or refrigerators. If there is food it is, for the most part, what they grow themselves. Rice needs to be cultivated, harvested, thrashed, de-husked, sifted. If there is clothing it is because they made it themselves - from spinning and weaving the fabric through to embellishing it with the embroidery patterns that have been handed down generation to generation.

Despite the lions share being done by women only a small number of ethnic groups are matriarchal societies. Most don't acknowledge their contribution much at all.

SaPa is one of those "must-do" places for tourists, foreign and, increasingly, local. And why wouldn't you go? Around every corner is another National Geographic shot. The green rice terraces, the colourful, costumed people, rustic farms. Yet some don't think that much beyond the image.

I met tourists uninterested in going to SaPa because the rice harvest had already been cut. The idyllic vision of green was the only reason for them to come. But there is so much more to the highlands regions than that and though much of it is less than our idea of idyllic, its a valuable life experience to connect with people whose lives are, in many ways, so much different to yours but whose aspirations, troubles and experiences are also familiar.

On my last morning in Ta Van, Mee is aghast I've bought a scarf not from her. But I assail her fears by showing her it's my own attempt at indigo handicraft. She's impressed but points out where I've made mistakes. Her work is clearly better. She shows me her handiwork: this one dyed yellow instead of plain white, that one has flowers and bees. She caresses the materials with her indigo stained fingers.

Women of SaPa: (L) Dee; (Centre) Lisa; The Pho Lady (R) Mee; May and a 47 year old woman from Ta Phin village who's name, sadly I don't recall


Thinking about going to SaPa?

GETTING THERE: took the bus to SaPa from Hanoi. Old information may suggest the train but the expressway is much faster and avoids overnight trains and 5am arrivals. Watch out for bus ticket scams, by direct from the company in person not a 'tour operator' or you may find yourself stranded with a fake ticket and no seat. From the city of SaPa I was picked up and taken to my home stays, in different villages.

STAY IN ONE SPOT: The villages around SaPa cater to a massive tourist influx. Pretty much every other home has homestay accommodation. Be aware that this can be pretty rustic, living just like the locals do. Many villages are walking distance apart so staying a few days in one doesn't mean you can't get out an explore others. You'll also be less pestered by hawkers as they tend to chase the trekkers. I stayed in 2 very different villages. TaVan is mostly Hmong and is a popular stop on treks and homestays so there are plenty of tourist things to do including workshops and cafes/bars. TaPhin, which is mostly Dao people is a bit more rural. I didn't see another tourist there, but the locals are friendly.

TREK: Sapa O'Chau I've heard many first hand good reports of O'Chau as a reliable, socially responsible community based business.

GO IN THE OFF SEASON: Many people go to see the beautiful green rice paddies. It does look stunning, but this is only a small part of an entire year you can visit. If you are more into people and culture than rice paddies try going another time of year.

TIPS FOR THE TRAVELLERS: SaPa is in the North, it gets very cold and very wet. Take changes of clothes. Homestay often don't have hot water or great heating and can be pretty cold and damp inside. This is rural life in a third world country.




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