AS WE sat in front of the wooden hut, with the wind softly caressing our hair, a sense of tranquillity settled upon us.
In the distance were lush, green mountains, while down in the valley, a lone farmer was working his buffalo hard in the rice fields.
We were in Sapa, a picturesque town in north-west Vietnam surrounded by lush vegetation, rice terraces and beautiful mountains, including Fansipan, the highest peak in the country.
Sapa is popular with tourists, but I had not expected to see hordes of minority tribal people crowding the main market square and chasing after every visitor, badgering him to buy a silver trinket or a handicraft item.
There are nine ethnic minority groups living in and around Sapa, with the Hmong people making up the majority.
Although most of the ethnic villagers are subsistence farmers, more are capitalising on the tourism boom by providing travel services or making items such as ethnic-style clothing, blankets and jewellery to sell to tourists.
It was interesting at first to just wander about the town, observing them and checking out their ethnic clothes and handicrafts, and having simple conversations with them on their life and culture.
After two days, however, the endless “Hello, madam, buy something from me?” started to grate on my nerves.
I headed to Cat Cat Village. The closest ethnic village to Sapa town, it is a mere 3km walk away. Set in a valley surrounded by rice fields, the village is pretty, but even here, one can’t escape the touristy fabric, art and souvenir stalls.
A bit more walking took me to the lesser-known village of Sin Chai, which hardly sees any tourists and allows a visitor to observe authentic village life.
Here, depending on the season, you can see villagers ploughing the fields with buffaloes or harvesting rice, mothers bent over embroidery work while keeping an eye on their kids, or groups of men or women gathered around simple wooden sheds smoking huge pipes and gossiping.
The villagers share a close bond and it is not uncommon to see neighbours combing one another’s hair or picking out the white.
There are many trekking opportunities in Sapa. I signed up for a one-day trek with one of the smaller travel agencies, which employs minority people as guides.
My guide took me to several villages and padi fields, where I saw people going about their daily chores like planting rice, walking the buffaloes or doing their laundry in the streams.
I got a stronger dose of village life when I stayed at the home of an ethnic minority villager.
Seeking a more authentic experience than those catering to tourists that local travel agencies arrange, I joined a few backpackers for a homestay at the invitation of a villager one of the group had befriended. Because there were five of us, we split up and stayed the night in two homes.
After a one-and-a-half-hour trek into the mountains from Ta Phin village, my two friends and I arrived at Tha May’s home — a wooden shack halfway up a mountain.
The house had just a small table, a few homemade stools and two wooden beds without mattresses. It was neatly kept, with a bath and washing area in one corner and a cooking area in another. The toilet was a hole in the mud a few metres from the house.
There was nothing to do there but soak in the rustic atmosphere and the serene surroundings. Tha May made us a meal with vegetables freshly picked from her small garden.
After dinner, we were admiring the starry sky and the fireflies flitting about in the dark when Tha May informed us that our bath was ready. It was a pleasant surprise as I was not expecting to have a bath in the remote mountains.
I had a wonderful time soaking in the herbal water and breathing in the cool mountain air. The Red Dao people know how to use plants to treat illnesses and are good at preparing medicinal baths.
Later, the three of us squeezed onto one hard bed so our hosts did not have to sleep on the floor.
Their generosity in going all out to make us feel at home despite not having much to offer was heartwarming and made our stay all the more memorable.
In Sapa, there is a market almost every day, where you can find meat, fruits, vegetables, clothes, bags and other everyday items.
Most travel agencies can organise a trip to the Sunday Bac Ha market, the biggest market for the minority people in north-west Vietnam. Most of the vendors are Flower Hmong.
If you wish to avoid the tourist crowd, book a car to get to the other Sunday market at Muong Hom, 90km from Sapa. It is lively, with a diversity of minority people from all over Lao Cai province hawking their wares.
Singapore Airlines, SilkAir, Vietnam Air, Tigerair and Jetstar all offer direct flights from Singapore to Hanoi. To get to Sapa, you can catch an overnight train to Lao Cai town, then a bus to Sapa town.
There are also direct buses from Hanoi to Sapa.
Vietnam uses the Vietnamese Dong. In Sapa, it is possible to pay for your hotel stay or tours in US dollars.
■ To help improve the lives of the minority people, book a tour or trek with agencies in Sapa that work with the villagers.
■ Being up in the mountains, Sapa is cooler than the rest of the country. Bring warm clothing, rain jackets and proper footwear.
■ The local markets start at 7am and usually end by 10am.
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