I first met Lan in Sapa, a hill station established by the French in the 1920s, set in a remote corner of northwestern Vietnam. An overnight train ride from the bustling sprawl of Hanoi, this colonial outpost is home to misty coniferous forests, lush rice paddies, and a wide group of ethnic minorities. Above it, like a god, looms the Fansipan mountain, the easternmost peak of the Himalayas.
My hope to discover the traditional way of life of the region’s minorities leads me to Sapa Sisters, a social enterprise run by Hmong women, offering treks and homestays. I set up an early morning appointment with Lan, the smallest and sturdiest of the sisters. She is dressed in the traditional dark blue indigo skirt of the Hmong, and carries a bright pink umbrella. Together, we head to the local villages north of Sapa.
As we set out, the sun peeks through the fog settled on the hill town. Lan takes a sharp left turn, leading to a hillside trail. Our first obstacle appears — a mudslide which had engulfed the path the night before, half-burying a tree. As we start down the meandering path, we encounter a small waterfall. Lan simply giggles as she dips her feet in the water, encouraging me to do the same. She pulls out a small plastic bag to celebrate our little victory — it’s filled with red, yellow and purple sticky rice. She explains that sticky rice is a wedding staple of the neighbouring Tay minority. Each colour, obtained by boiling the rice with local roots, is auspicious, symbolising the different elements.
Within an hour, we arrive in Xa Sa Pa village, nestled in the highlands. Here, rice husk lies scattered across the village fields after the rains, to give some traction to the wet ground. As we begin our descent through terraced rice paddies, leaving the village behind, I wonder how these were carved hundreds of years ago.
Lan explains that the key to this complex agricultural system is bamboo: hollowed out, it becomes a pipe to carry water; grouped together, it can be an impromptu bridge over a stream; arranged in a crisscross pattern, it creates a raised platform to grow squash and watermelon, high above any wandering animals.
As we continue our journey, we come across a local handicraft workshop. A Hmong woman pauses her work to greet us. She is fermenting the leaves of the native indigo plant to extract its pigment. Her palms are permanently dyed blue, like many older women in the area.
We venture further. The tiny streams that had daintily intersected the rice paddies, have now become much more violent, turning the road into a riverbed. Lan and I pass by the ruins of Ta Phin Abbey. Built in the 1942, the Abbey had only functioned for a couple of years, before Ho Chi Minh’s troops swept through the area in the late 1940s. The building stands vacant today, its arches framing the mountain mist, a monument of a colonial influence long extinct in the region.
Our trek ends here, in Ta Phin village, less than 20 km from the Chinese border. Reflecting on the sights and stories that Lan shared with me, I wondered what the future has in store for the hills surrounding Sapa. These villages had weathered direct rule by the French military, years of guerrilla warfare, and a brief Chinese occupation. Today, their diverse cultures and traditions have become a resource for the region, attracting tourism and economic development.
As for Lan, she is proud to be a Sapa sister, earning enough to support herself and her family. “I now have friends all over the world and many of them keep coming back, wanting to discover more and more of the region,” she says.
Sara Sudetic is a Netherlands-based writer focusing on current affairs and culture across Europe and Asia.