Next to a river in Northern Vietnam, a tribal woman is teaching her young daughter how to catch dragonflies. The little girl holds a stick with a needle-sharp point and tries to spear an insect on a rock. She struggles to master the move, but it doesn’t matter. Her mother has already speared a dozen dragonflies to be barbecued for dinner that evening.
We are on a five-day trek in the district of Sapa in far north Vietnam when I witness this domestic interaction, and it’s one of many moments that remind me just how far I am from home. The trek was as difficult as any gym workout I’ve ever experienced – but the scenery was vastly different from anything I’ve seen from a treadmill.
Trekking is a great way to add some exercise to a holiday. It gets you off the tourist trail, while offsetting the intake of all the tempting local delicacies (dragonflies, anyone?). My partner and I decided to do this trek mainly to see more of the beautiful Sapa region, but it also proved to be serious exercise. We walked for three to seven hours a day, often in difficult terrain that sorely tested my stamina. At the end of each day, I typically collapsed exhausted into bed.
Sometimes called the Alps of Vietnam, Sapa is an area of incredible natural beauty. It’s also home to many ethnic hill tribes who live in remote locations and continue to uphold traditions such as wearing tribal clothes and following marriage customs they have practised for generations. We chose a trek with Green Sapa Tour that included several overnight homestays with tribal families. We were keen to meet people whose lives are very different from our own.
After an overnight train ride from Hanoi, our trek began in the town of Sapa, which is also the capital of the Sapa district. At five days, our trek was one of the longer options available, but was also relatively luxurious. We had an English-speaking guide, Thao, and a porter, Su, from the Black Hmong tribe, to carry all our food and water. Our belongings were taken by motorbike to each overnight stop, and every night we were treated to a delicious Vietnamese feast prepared by Su, Thao and our homestay families.
The trek was a lot tougher than I was expecting. I pictured myself strolling through rice paddies, perhaps with a fresh spring roll in hand. The reality saw me skidding down steep muddy slopes, often on my backside. We bushbashed through overgrown jungle, teetered on the edge of terraced rice paddies and clambered up sheer, rocky paths. I wore sturdy hiking boots, but still stumbled along, trying in vain to channel my inner mountain goat. The heat and humidity were intense, and my heart pounded with exertion while sweat stung my eyes and drenched my clothes.
Luckily, the trek got easier and there were countless distractions from the physical challenges. Thao was very knowledgeable about the local culture and natural environment, sharing his stories with a healthy dose of Vietnamese humour. “There are two very common names for dogs in Vietnam: lunch and dinner,” laughed Thao, explaining that dog meat in this poor rural area is considered as unremarkable as chicken.
With one eye out for water buffalo cowpats, we took in the breathtaking scenery: sheer rocky peaks framed the sky and lush rice paddies carpeted the mountains in green. The rice harvest was just beginning, and some plants had turned yellow, bending under the weight of the husks, ready for gathering. Much of the land was farmed with crops like corn, indigo for dye making, and cardamom.