After initially being underwhelmed by Hanoi after our 2000 mile and 6 week journey from Saigon we knew we needed to get back on the bikes. Riding through some of the most isolated and authentic areas of Vietnam had spoilt us in many ways, leaving us craving that adventure once again. Heading up to the amazing region of Sapa we had an unexpected highlight of our entire trip as we pulled into a tiny village and stayed with a hill tribe family in the middle of nowhere. Staying in a homestay in Vietnam is one experience that really allowed us to see so much more!
Heading into the unknown for a two day ride up to Sapa
Riding up to Sapa we could not wait to get out of the city and back into the welcoming arms of the countryside, the friendly people and fascinating ways of life. By this point we were full of confidence and ready to head into the unknown. With nowhere booked and just a rough idea of distance, time and a few city names in our heads we started up the bikes, twisted the throttles and headed towards the city limits in the north of Hanoi. Yet another unforgettable adventure was to begin.
Riding through villages and ride paddies toward the tiny city of Yen Bai
Heading out of the city was chaotic and the air filled with fumes. Finding the right highways was a task in itself that took much longer than anticipated in a now humorous re-run of our first day on the bikes attempting to leave the swarm of Saigon. Darting down lanes in the wrong direction, ferociously beeping and performing u-turn that in England would be enough to get your licence revokes we were in full Vietnam style riding by this point…and it meant we actually found our way out into the rural countryside surrounding the city with “relative ease”.
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A few hours passed of monotonous roads, industrial sites and desolate landscapes before we began the unrelenting climb. Before we knew it we were back in the lush green surroundings we had craved since we arrived into the concrete jungle of Hanoi. The swarm of bikes had petered out and been replaced by buffalos carrying along craggy faced locals, children once again ran alongside our bikes and waved at us like we were celebrities. People working in the fields tipped their triangular bamboo hats to catch a glimpse of a westerner in person and shouted hello enthusiastically at us! This was the dream that had kept us going during our down time in Hanoi, and here it was!
Knowing this was one of our last great adventures on the bikes in Vietnam we took our time, allowed ourselves to soak in just how amazing these scenes were and how lucky we were to be experiencing this culture and these people. Tiny villages came and went as the landscape became increasingly isolated and rural. Women wore traditional clothing and bamboo became the preferred building material over brick, this was once again the real Vietnam we craved and Staying in a homestay in Vietnam was part of this.
Calling in at a little village and staying in a bamboo homestay in Vietnam
The air became cooler and the sun sat lower in the sky as we began to approach the small city of Yen Bai, merely a street full of shops and places to eat this dusty town was to be our home for the evening. However a sign caught our eye on the way in, a homestay in a village a few km along the road was being advertised. This felt like a strike of luck which would turn our solemn evening in a damp and creepy motel (as has been the case in these small cities in Vietnam) into the unforgettable cultural experience of Staying in a homestay in Vietnam.
We didn’t even know the name of the place, or the village, but we took the turning at the last moment and hoped for the best, we knew staying in a homestay in Vietnam would be worth the effort. Now deep in rural life we were turning heads at every small settlement we passed, continuing until we found another sign, cutting into a village and following a dirt path weaving passed chickens, dogs and buffalo before seeing what we thought might be the place.
Of course, we were the only visitors and enquired as to their availability. One of the sons showed us around the amazing stint house made entirely of bamboo, leaves and wood. We would be sleeping in the main room on a partitioned mattress in the same room as them, the true homestay in Vietnam experience.
A coal fire burned its last remaining embers and filled the room with a mysterious fog as a gang of children merrily ran passed, pausing to giggle and say hello before carrying on with their games. The matriarch of the family wandered out of the adjoining kitchen and smiled at us before enquiring as to whether we would be joining them for their evening meal through broken English. Of course we would, what an evening we were expecting!
Having the most perfect family experience on the last night of Tet
Before evening set in one of the many sons of the family (son in laws once married are just referred to also as sons and the same with daughters in law) pointed us in the direction of the stunning Thác Bà Lake on which the village of Vu Linh sits.
Passing buffalos out for an evening stroll, traditional houses and amazing rice fields we were stopped several times by the teenagers of the village for selfies! The short walk offered us a stunning insight into the basic but happy lives the people in this village have, all sharing as a community everything they have. The lake itself was beautiful, floating houses and fishermen’s boats made for an unforgettable foreground to a wonderful sunset over the peaceful lake.
Heading back to the family house it was almost time for our evening meal, by this time the place was beginning to fill up with friendly faces all smiling back at us. The family had put together an impressive feast for us, even making us a whole tables worth of vegetarian options. We sat on ornate handmade mats on the floor around a low table and all tucked in, sharing what was on offer between around 13 of us.
We tucked into the meal, discussing traditions of the tribe such as dress, social status and how the village shared everything from produce to child rearing responsibilities and despite their poverty no one family was ever allowed to go without. We were also interrogated by the intrigued locals about where we were from, our home, families and traditions. It was really quite an eye opening and wonderful discussion.
One of the sons spoke good English and explained to us that everyone here was family, his parents sat at the head of table and were surrounded by mostly their sons, each only a year difference in age. Their one daughter who lived here, who cooked this amazing meal alongside her husband, the youngest son, was by marriage. In Vietnam daughters go to live with their husbands families and perform all the household duties whilst their husbands work in the fields and farms. Its still very traditional in these parts, the other women would eat in a different part of the house. It’s hard sometimes when in the west we have such a different culture, especially as a woman, but travelling is all about experiencing how others live and respecting their cultures.
As the night wore on so did the amount of rice wine consumed. Not only was this the last day of Tet (Vietnamese New Year) but also many of the villages came around to greet us as visitors, as is tradition. This meant for every visitor we had to drink twice to toast both the new year and as a greeting, and this stuff is some strong homemade moonshine! I reverted at this point to taking a sip for every toast rather than full shots! One of the most special moments was when the head of the house gave us a New year gift of 1000 Dong, a note worth hardly anything in monetary terms, but for us now a precious souvenir, his wish was to grant us good luck, which can only be done by giving a gift.
Those that didn’t began playing traditional instruments, a pair of symbols used to perform religious ceremonies that each family has in their house, of course, the father of the family was an expert, us, not so much!! With cheers of “Chuc mung Na Moi”, “How Mi Do” and “Bas Ap”… I have no idea what the last two actually were or how they are spelt, but they were said an awful lot before and after drinking and are local tribal words! The first means Happy New Year in Vietnamese! Staying in a homestay in Vietnam has to be some of the most memorable and special times in this country.
An unforgettable day of village life made possible by our bikes
Heading off again in the morning after a breakfast of traditional pancakes and tea we were back on our bikes and heading into the mountains that loomed in the background. I couldn’t help but consider just how enriching these bikes have been to our time in Vietnam, allowing us to delve so much deeper into the varied culture of this vast land. Staying in a homestay in Vietnam is a must do if you really want to see this country first hand as more than a tourist.
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