Trekking with the H’mong in Sapa, Vietnam


Hiking with the H'MongAdventure rating 1

“Chukka!”. We clinked our glasses of rice wine and swallowed the potent liquid, for the fourth time in the last 10 minutes. Or was it the fifth? I was losing count already.

It was nearing 10pm and our guide Mao’s children were sleeping silently in their part of the almost open-plan house. They could surely hear every word of our ‘happy water’ infused chatter, but they never stirred.

I blinked through the alcohol and took in my surroundings. A hand-made wooden house belonging to Mao, her husband, her three young boys and one extremely friendly pig. We were in the heart of the H’mong tribal area near Sapa, a mountain town in the north west of Vietnam.

hmong house

We had first heard about Mao when we had bumped into a lovely Dutch couple over lunch. We had arrived in Sapa early afternoon (via the new Sapa Express bus from Hanoi, which only took an impressive 5 hours!) and were greeted by dozens of pint-sized women from the H’mong tribe. All of them making up for their lack of stature with huge personalities.

‘Come hiking with me!’, ‘No, choose me!’ were the cries of the crowd, and it was all a little overwhelming. We had already made plans with Ha, a H’mong lady offering trekking tours into her village, but as we arrived, she gave us the ol’ switcheroo, trying to send us with her sister in law and charge us a lot more for the privilege.

Sapa at Sunset

Sapa at Sunset

Tired from our journey, and with some previously-made plans falling through, we contemplated our next move over a feast of clear vegetable-infused soup and pork with piles of rice. The couple at the table next to us chatted happily about the ‘best guide ever’, and our ears pricked with interest.

‘The best guide ever, you say?’ I leaned over to them. ‘Any chance she would be free to take us trekking tomorrow?’

So the decision was made, we called Mao and I knew when I heard her cheery voice that she would be one of the good people.

Me and Mao - Little and Large!!

Me and Mao – Little and Large!!

She picked us up at 10a.m. the next morning, full of beans and ready to take on the day. Her enthusiasm was infectious and pretty soon we were bouncing along beside her, first through town and then straight up into the mountains

And the views were incredible…

valley view

sapa rice fields

sapa valley

sapa mountains

En route, we bumped into two of Mao’s friends who didn’t have much to do for the day, so they decided to walk with us. They spoke no English and we spoke no H’mong, so it was an interesting afternoon of pointing and things and laughing at each other’s attempts to master the other’s Mother Tongue, all the time relying on Mao’s translation skills of course.

hmong ladies walking

hmong in sapa

A quick guide to the H’mong language

Hello: Conya Hey

Thank you: O Chau

Cheers: Chukka

My name is Hayley: Coom Bay Hoo Hayley

Goodbye: Conya Coomoo

Please: Shanti Eh

I want to speak H’mong: Coosa Hey Loo Mong Ah

Lovely Mao

Lovely Mao

The walk was relatively easy-going, and passed several small villages en route, with farm animals scattered around the path… Ducks, chickens, buffalo… Mao said that buffalo are the most stupid animals she’s ever known. Completely vacant in the head. I’ll let you make your own mind up.

sapa buffalo

sapa ducks

As we passed, the village children came out to say ‘Conya Hey’, and walk with us for a while. Some of the kids were gorging on a special kind of blue berry which grows in the valley, and it had turned their tongues bright blue! There’s no sneaking a few tastes of this berry!

hmong child blue tongue

hmong child

hmong children

We also walked through a few fields of hemp, which locals use to stuff mattresses and make clothing.

sapa hemp weed

We walked for around four hours to reach Mao’s village, a tiny cluster of houses close to a waterfall. The H’mong are a traditional people, who rely heavily on agriculture to survive, and on the earth to provide everything that they need.

Mao’s husband is a farmer and has a small patch of land on which he grows corn, enough to feed his family of five, but not enough to sell at market. The family also has a few pigs and chickens providing food for the family, and one very spoiled piglet which they keep as a pet.

hmong pig

You could say that although Mao’s husband is working tirelessly in the fields, that Mao is the main breadwinner as she brings in money from tourists taking hiking tours. This money is used for the children’s educational needs (books, pens etc) and to buy a few luxuries, such as the rice wine she was so willing to share with us.

heart sapa

We settled down for a home cooked dinner of bamboo shoots, soup and a delicious curry, followed by regular shots of what Mao calls ‘happy water’, but which is also known as rice wine. Be warned: This. Stuff. Is. Lethal.

relaxing with mao

mao and me

Then we took our leave and walked up the ladder to the guest’s sleeping area, a simple hemp-weaved bed with a mosquito net… Exactly what we needed, and we fell asleep almost instantly.

The morning after the night before, we showered and hit the trail again to walk through rice paddies and through the valley on the way back to Sapa. Mao, despite downing probably half her body weight in rice wine the night before was on top form, and even climbed into the field to show us how the rice is grown.

mao rice fields

rice paddies

We crossed an extremely wobbly bridge (Mao closed her eyes and almost ran across through fear), and came to a beautiful waterfall where we relaxed for a while before we were moved on by the land owner!

sapa bridge

sapa bridge 2

sapa waterfall

A local version of a scarecrow

A local version of a scarecrow

Our two days with Mao concluded with a thrilling motorbike ride through the mountains back to Sapa town. What better way to end such an incredible adventure?

The tour cost US$20 per person per day ($40 for the two day, one night tour), and included all meals whilst hiking and staying with Mao.

If you would like to book with Mao, call her on (+84) 164 537 1770 a couple of days before you plan to arrive in Sapa. As is common with the H’mong people, she cannot read English but can speak it perfectly, so the best way to contact her is to chat to her on the phone.

And tell her Hayley says hi!

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Hayley is the author behind A Life of More, a travel and lifestyle blog with the goal of helping you to live a happier and more fulfilled life, whether you're currently travelling or happily settled.

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Comments 13

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  2. Richelle

    Wow this is perfect! If I go back to Vietnam I’m definitely doing some trekking in Sapa. Now I have someone to call! Pinning this for later 😉

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  4. Seamas

    Hi Hayley,

    Really enjoyed your post – looks great! My gf and I are planning something similar ourselves in a few weeks so I’ve a few questions so if you could give any help it’d be appreciated!

    1. What time did you arrive in Sapa at on the first day? I note you said that you met Mao the following morning – did you just stay in a hostel when you were there?
    2. Were you able to buy a return ticket for the bus – I don’t see that option on the Sapa express website.
    3. Did you return to Sapa in time to catch the return bus to Hanoi on the second day of your trek? According to the website it goes around 4pm?

    Sorry for the questions but we’ve only got 2.5 weeks in all of Vietnam so we’re trying to cover off as much as possible! Your blog has been a great help! 🙂


  5. stephanie

    I went to Sapa for a trekking too and stayed at a local family. But they did not speak english and were only drinking ricewine. LOL
    The black hmong walked with us one day, the second day we were joined by women from the red dzao tribe. Very cool experience.

  6. Morelle

    Hi Hayley, do you still respond to this site? I am looking hard for something to do for several days while in north Vietnam and I would love to hear more about Mao! Should I try to contact her well in advance or just try when I’m in country? Was the trekking challenging at least? I also want to see the rice paddies at sunrise and sunset for photography purposes, did you feel that was doable? Thanks!! X

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    Hayley Griffiths

    Hi Morelle, yes I’m still here! Mao would love to hear from you. I contacted her a day in advance and she was free, but perhaps call a week or so ahead if you can, to make sure she can accommodate you. The trek that we did wasn’t TOO challenging but there are lots of routes you can take so if you’re up for something a little steeper she will know a place. And no problem for photography. There are lots of beautiful places just a few minutes from Mao’s! It’s gorgeous, you will love it!!!

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    Hayley Griffiths

    Morelle, one more thing – if you’re looking for a challenging hike then Fansipan is very nearby and you can hike up and stay overnight so you can see the sun rise. I didn’t get to do that whilst I was there but I’ve heard great things!


    Hi Hayley, Thanks for your sharing. I intend travel to Sapa in this year. Your experience is very helpful for me. Hope to see more your post. It’s very interesting

  10. Jacqui

    Hi Hayley,

    I am currently in Thailand and would like to do some trekking during my break in the beginning of March. I loved reading your post and would equally love to learn more about Mao and your experience. I am a solo traveler, so the more I know the better 🙂

    Thanks in advance,
    Jacqui (:

  11. Lore Janssens

    Hi Hayley,

    Great website/blog!
    A lot of tips which are very welcome niet usefull!!
    I would love to book a tour with Mao, just a bit afraid that she will already ‘full’ booked when we come. Other tours are very expensive and this sound really great and I think she and her family will appreciate a tip than.
    Would be calling her 2 weeks in advance OK?

    Thank you for your advice!

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