Hearty laughter punctures the still of the late afternoon. The sound is even more startling given its context. We are trekking high up into the Tonkinese Alps—the so-called “roof of Indochina”—near the border between Vietnam and China.
Since leaving our digs at the Victoria Sapa Resort this morning, we’ve encountered the mighty total of two other people, a wizened old Hmong gentleman and a lone Red Dzao entrepreneur touting handmade jewelry at the crown of a lonely pass.
After a long day on the narrow tracks that crisscross the valleys and mountains, we are descending towards the village of Ban Ho where we will spend the night. Although tiny, the settlement is a veritable metropolis compared to the handful of scattered dwellings we’ve been passing. Nevertheless, it is still a shock to hear what sounds to be the makings of a full-fledged hoedown.
“Mot, hai, ba, dzo” (one, two, three, cheers), goes the cry from inside the homestay in which we’ll be bedding down for the night. Having lived in Vietnam for three years and visited on numerous more occasions, I’m acutely aware that alcohol is never far away whenever this clarion call is sounded.
Sure enough, as soon as we enter the home, our host for the night is proffering a bottle of the hard stuff. “I think you need some of this after a long day on your feet,” he says with a wide grin as he pours out healthy shots of ruou (Vietnamese rice wine) from a plastic Coke bottle.
Even if the potent firewater is not to your taste, a visit to a homestay during a trekking expedition in northwest Vietnam still represents a heady swig of unadulterated Asia.
To legally provide homestay accommodation, hosts must be registered. And to be registered, a home must have a flush toilet, be clean and tidy, have bedding with a mosquito net and be hygienic. Don’t expect the Ritz, however. The digs are basic and you need a good pair of earplugs to prevent the sleep deprivation that’s brought on by the twin evils of an impromptu drinking session and the roosters’ crack-of-dawn crowing. But the hardships are worth it for a brush with authenticity you just won’t find in a hotel.
The small room I am shown to contains nothing but a slither of a mattress perched atop a wooden platform beneath a mosquito net. The bathroom facilities aren’t all that plush either, although the fact that it has a Western-style throne is cause for some celebration. It’s a bit of a shock after the relative comfort of the Victoria, but everything is spotlessly
clean and the Hmong family I am staying with compensate for their lack of English with a plethora of toothy grins. Anyway, I was hardly expecting five-star finery.
After a simple meal of fried pork, spring rolls and stir-fried vegetables washed down with a few more glasses of rice wine, I retire to bed to be lulled to sleep by the night sounds encroaching through the thin corrugated roof.
The next day dawns fair and, after bidding farewell to Ky and his family, we prepare to haul it back towards Sapa. Last time I was here, back in 2010, a thick fog descended on the first morning and I spent three frigid days playing cards and drinking games with local Hmong before catching the overnight train back to Hanoi. It makes a bracing change, therefore, to witness the landscapes in their full autumnal glory.
With our guide, Cao, providing expert local insight, we plot a course along obscure trails that link the villages, extend through the valleys and wind up over the mountains. Over the course of the day, we skirt verdant rice fields, spear through cool bamboo forests and traverse surging rivers on rickety rope bridges.
Back in Sapa, but keen to persist with the theme of the trek, we head to dinner at the Hill Station Signature Restaurant, which specializes in imaginative spins on hill-tribe cuisine. Due to the Hmong tradition of slaughtering whole animals and wasting nothing, smoked and cured meats are prominent on the menu. So too is local rainbow trout, farmed in Sapa and served up sashimi style with mountain herbs.
After dinner, the dishes are cleared away and replaced with bottles of ruou. As the night progresses, the nuances of the liquor are lost and the prospect of another pounding headache looms. When you are high up on the roof of Indochina, intoxication is never too far away.
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Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa: https://www.victoriahotels.asia/en/overview-sapa