Find out how we travelled around the beautiful and remote mountainous area of Northern Vietnam by motorbike, four days and nights with a total budget of 40$ p/p. This region remains unexplored with untold off the beaten path places.
We love exploring around independently, as we love the intercultural exchange that happens when you interact with locals. If you add the fact that locals live in areas largely untouched by modern ways of life, it is even more special.
Sa Pa was our base town, where we could find some more information about the places we wanted to visit and find a motorbike we could hire. It didn’t take us long to find a good deal, Honda wave, 80000 Dongs (3.6$) per day (24 h) in Van Son Hotel. We packed a small rucksack with sleeping bags, tent, some clothes, food and off we went in search of new adventures.
Sa Pa and the tribe people
Sa Pa is a hill station in Northern Vietnam where different and varied hill tribe minorities live. It’s also well known for trekking and for rice terraces turning into the most amazing scenic region. Travellers who venture this far do it to admire the amazing landscape and to have a close encounter with hill tribe minorities in their daily lives.
As soon as you get off your bus, tribe people with their embroidered traditional clothing will approach you and follow you offering their help to guide your trekking, feed you and accommodate you in their own houses. Yes may be you were expecting to go and find them, instead fo being found and followed by them, but it is now a business. You want to have an experience, and tribe people are there so they can get an extra income, so everybody wins!
Tribe people are kind and polite, just remember they can be very persistent, so if you are not interested tell them you have already a guide and they will leave. Never be rude to them, they are just trying to make their austere way of living a bit easier.
If you decide to collaborate with this wonderful way of helping tribe people, our personal advice is to do it directly with them. Avoiding intermediaries you can negotiate the final price directly with them, so you will save money, and on the plus side, you know that the money goes straight to the people that need it.
Our adventure in Sa Pa
We were on route to Cat- Cat, one of the villages popular on trekking routes, so popular that they charge a toll of 15.000 Dongs for using the road. We decided to skip it, ‘anything too touristic is missing some authentic essence’. We turned around and took the first road up on our right. We didn’t know where this road was heading to, but as it was taking us higher, we could enjoy incredible scenery of terraced rice fields along steep mountainsides. We guessed villages were all around, as in our way we found tribe people from all ages walking with heavy rattan baskets. I must admit I felt a bit bad, whilst we were comfortably riding our motorbike and greeting this people that probably had to walk for a few more km with that load in their backs. That’s when we though: We can’t help them all, but certainly we can help a few!!
So we decided to help as many people as possible in our way, giving them a lift to their villages. We couldn’t believe how far these people had to walk and as you can imagine this was a great experience as they were taking us to their villages and it felt so good to be helping them.
Even though we were not far from Sa Pa town, we were now off the beaten path so the only way of communicating with locals was by gestures and signs.
Night was falling and it was time to look for a space where to pitch our tent. Just by the road there was a wooden house and we asked (in sing language) if we could camp in front of their house, the Hmong family accepted, so the young couple and their seven children were now our neighbours ! As soon as we put the tent up they were fascinated; they had never seen a tent before! And soon more families from the nearby houses came to see the ‘strange little portable bedroom’ that two travellers brought to their neighbourhood.
You don’t have to speak the same language to communicate and have a good time, especially with the children, with whom we spent most of the night playing games. It was remarkable to see how the eldest daughter was in charged of her siblings, even though she was only 10 years old, she acted like a mother, responsible and even reluctant to play . I guess she knows a big responsibility relies on her and didn’t want to be distracted. Yet she is a child and ended up playing with us like the rest.
In the morning when we woke up the seven children were waiting impatiently for us. We were invited to have breakfast with them in their humble house. Built with pieces of wood, the kitchen was a simple room, with no running water (apart from the river beside the house) and no electricity at all. The fire is on and we are sat in wooden stools in a circle around a rustic pot full of sticky rice that we combine with some herbs sauce.
We can’t describe with words how special this moment was for us, we were invited to their private lives, they shared the very few food they had and treat us like family asking nothing in return. Poor people are often the most generous.
Travel is always a poignant reminder of the complexity of life
To keep reading the adventures of our multiday motorbike route through North Vietnam go to Off the Beaten Path: Sapa to Sin Ho