I’ve been blessed with some unforgettable travelling moments. From swimming alongside manta rays to living with nomadic tribes and walking along the Great Wall thrice! With the COVID pandemic putting a 3-year hiatus on my travels during what should have been the prime of my life, it affected me quite a bit.
Little did I predict that the first real international trip I would take after that involuntary break would be the best travelling experience I’ve ever had in my ENTIRE life.
The universe and its divine powers culminated in what would become the pinnacle of my life, a moment that I would cherish for the rest of my days. I found that moment in the mountains of Northern Vietnam at the hands of a blessed woman called Mama Zuzu.
This article may contain affiliate links which I may be compensated for at no extra cost to you dear readers!
Table of Contents
A Bit of Backstory
The story starts back in Taipei. In the midst of planning our trip, Jess pointed out that visiting the region of Sapa in Northern Vietnam was one of her must-dos. I must admit, I had never heard of Sapa before, but for travellers in Hanoi, it was one of the biggest highlights.
The area is renowned for its outstanding natural beauty across its vast mountain ranges, pristine rice paddies and, more importantly for our story, tribal villages. And we’re not talking about the touristy let’s put on a show for the visitors kind of villages, these were the real deal!
As soon as I found out about the tribes, I was immediately hooked! A few years ago, I visited the Karen Long Neck Tribe in the hills of Chiang Mai, Thailand, an experience that I still hold close to my heart to this day. The tribes of Northern Vietnam (and many other mountainous regions of South-East Asia) were all distant relatives and shared cultural similarities. Thus, I was intrigued to meet a brand-new tribe!
Want to learn more about the Long Neck Tribe? Check out The Ultimate Travel Plan: Visiting the Karen (Long Neck) Tribe.
Setting Up a Dream
This Vietnam trip was unique for a whole different reason. Whilst travelling in Taiwan, Jess was in charge of the planning. As she spoke Chinese, she had a whole breadth of info at her disposal and it was ultimately easier for her to plan. Thus, I never really had the opportunity to arrange any of our trips, until now.
I made her a promise. As soon as we travelled to another country, I’d take care of everything to the last little detail. On top of that, I had to show her how much of a kick-ass trip I was capable of planning. Suffice it to say, I didn’t disappoint.
Once we’d decided that visiting Sapa was a must, I looked into the best way to do it. We only had 2 days available, so everything had to be pre-arranged. On Trip Advisor, I came across one tour which had absurdly good reviews.
As I read through them, all I saw were heartfelt comments about a lady named Mama Zuzu. Everyone gave her a special mention. They all pointed out how wonderfully accommodating she was and how she made the trip for them. Then and there, I fell in love with Mama Zuzu and was adamant that we must have our trip with her. And by God, it was the best decision I ever made.
Getting to Sapa
The benefit of doing things through an agency was that everything was arranged for us, including the transport to Sapa. It would also give me a brand-new experience – travelling on a sleeper bus! It’s almost a traveller’s rite of passage in Asia. I’ve always been ashamed that I’ve missed out on the experience.
We waited with an enormous group of other travellers who were all trying to figure out which bus was theirs. We came across one that was even flashier than our own Taipei apartment. LED lights, private booths, and I might have even seen a TV. Alas, it wasn’t ours. Turns out our vehicle was quite clearly the first sleeper bus that was ever created.
The rinky-dink, prison beds were like half-open coffins, hardly the lap of luxury. Your feet slid into the gap beneath the bed of the person in front. Of course, being a 6ft 4 guy, my legs had no chance of fitting in there. Instead, I had to dangle my legs on either side, looking like I was about to give birth. Regardless, it was awesome!
As objectively uncomfortable as it may have seemed, we both slept for pretty much the entire journey.
“Are You Tom?“
Once we got to Sapa, we were soon approached by a young lady who certainly didn’t look like a Mama Zuzu. Turns out it was her 20-year-old daughter who would be taking us to their village. After a quick spot of lunch, we were joined by Mama Zuzu’s sister who herself had found a Chilean who would tag along for the trip.
Both these ladies and the village that we would be staying in belonged to the Black Hmong tribe, a distant relative of the Karen Long Neck Tribe. As we walked through the remainder of Sapa city, it reminded me of an off-season ski resort. The crisp cold climate, scores of heavy coat-wearing tourists stepping off coaches and exploring wooden-framed buildings with chestnuts roasting nearby. It felt awfully familiar.
Soon enough we came to a small alleyway that led into the hillside, and we quickly left civilization behind. Sadly for us, the weather wasn’t the best that day. A thick layer of mist had rolled through the valley, blocking any distant views.
That meant that we couldn’t see any of the rice paddies that had inspired us to get there in the first place. Though in reality, that didn’t matter. We were hiking through the hills of Northern Vietnam guided by three ladies of the Black Hmong tribe, learning about their way of life and the world in which they lived. I couldn’t have been happier… or so I thought.
A guide on everything you need to know about visiting the Long Neck tribe and why you should experience it.
We made our way with our new Chilean friend, a man of 60 and with a spirit of a man half his age. At first, I was a little pissed at being stuck with someone I saw as a tagalong. I have a love/hate relationship when it comes to sharing a travel experience. On the one hand, those moments when you have an unforgettable experience alongside some amazing people can really be a highlight of any trip. On the other hand, you could get trapped with a bunch of people that drive you insane, forced to work on others’ schedules and essentially ruin any sense of magic the experience would have brought otherwise.
For a while, it seemed we would have had this experience completely to ourselves. Then being bungled in with someone else felt a bit annoying.
Yet in the end, it was a welcome addition. It became another person to share the experience with, to share a whole new perspective. He almost became that father figure, the wise well-travelled soul who simply moved to the will of the wind. It just so happened that the world had brought him to our trail that day.
Walking the Trail
The 3-hour or so trail we were planning to walk along turned into almost 5 as we leisurely made our way between small villages and observed the life between them.
We passed small oddities including, of everything, a catholic church. Stunningly, Catholicism is actually the most popular religion amongst the tribes in Northern Vietnam! Each village even had its own church, albeit a small one, with a statue of Mother Mary standing nearby. The other villagers believed in Shamanism, which often had shrines directly next to their churches. One of our guides told us she was catholic as she couldn’t stand the animal sacrifices that came with shamanism.
Along the way, we were joined by two other Black Hmong villagers, one of which was another daughter of Mama Zuzu! She also had a very adorable little addition with her, a tiny baby hanging from a baby sling! Both sisters were only 18 and 20, yet both were married with multiple children! The little baba couldn’t have been happier bopping away behind her mother with nothing but smiles as she caught our eyes.
Welcome to the Village
For the most part, we had been following the closest thing to a road the villagers had. Only a handful of motorbikes had passed by since we’d been there.
Suddenly we skewed off the road into a rough trail that cut through the surrounding forest. It finally turned into more of the trek that I had envisioned. We made our way single file while revealing even more stunning landscapes along the way. Soon enough, our village for the night came into site.
From videos and blogs that I’d seen, the villages in Sapa were pretty mid-sized. I saw scooters rolling through them regularly, semblances of simple village stores, and places that were capable of housing numerous families. Mama Zuzu’s village on the other hand turned out to be even better than I expected.
It was nothing more than a handful of shacks, five at most, hidden amongst the immense shrubbery of the valleys. It was in complete solitude, out of sight and out of mind – the ultimate paradise.
By the time we arrived in the village and passed all the inquisitive dogs, the sun had already set. We were brought to what was essentially the front porch before Mama Zuzu’s home with a table set up for us.
No sooner had we sat down, we were immediately bombarded with merchandise from the ladies who had joined us on the trail. It took me a second to realise what was going on. I naively thought they were just showing what they had made. We kind of felt used, like they were puppies that only followed us in the hopes that they would get fed.
Even so, I was incredibly glad that they did. Months before I had been declaring how much I desperately wanted to buy things when I was there. I always visit these kinds of places and never end up buying a souvenir. This was the perfect chance, and what’s more, any money we’d spend would be a LOT of help to the locals.
They brought out a succession of shirts, scarves, bags of all sizes and a stunning number of pillowcases. I got myself a shirt (quite a stunning one in fact) and a kind of satchel. Though I was prepared to haggle, when they came up with a total of 400,000 dong (which barely comes to £12)… for handcrafted pieces of stunning tribal crafts, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. They deserved every penny.
As soon as we sat down, we entered into the hospitality of Mama Zuzu. We were shown to our personal cabin, which was effectively just a shed with a bed and a mosquito net. It was so basic, yet perfect in every way. The insanely thick layers of the blanket made it all the more inviting.
They also had a purpose-built shower and separate bathroom outside, which was by far the most modern aspect of the whole village. We were told it was a very expensive set-up, and it was only done for the benefit of travellers who stayed there.
Once we had a moment to settle, we were invited into Mama Zuzu’s home where dinner was served. We were given a spread of fresh vegetables, taro, chicken, and the best spring rolls I have ever tried in my life by far! Never before had I eaten ten in one sitting.
The meal was capped off by a relentless stream of shots of what they called happy water. It was a homemade rice wine served out of a reused plastic bottle, as authentic as it got. Soon enough, Mama Zuzu’s husband came home flushed in the face after a night of drinking. He then, adorably, tried his absolute best to communicate with the incredibly limited English he had.
He clearly had never been taught English before and had just learned from hearing others. As a matter of fact, that’s how all the ladies of the tribe had learned English, simply by communicating with travellers. Quite outstanding considering how good their English really was!
The Pinnacle of My Travelling Experience
I had the greatest night of my life, the problem is, I can’t really tell you much about it. Though, I will choose my words carefully.
During our walk, I was intrigued to ask our Hmong guides everything I could about their culture. As we continued to pass by small plots of land, I came to a very innocent question.
“What do you usually grow around here?” Our guide went on to nonchalantly list them out.
“We usually grow things like corn, rice, marijuana, cabbage…” wait….WHAT?! Jess and I looked at each other with the same stunned gaze that screamed did she really just say that?
“uh…you grow marijuana?”
“Oh yes yes, we use it to make clothes.” My excitement dwindled as I figured she was actually talking about hemp. Though it is cannabis, it lacks the psychoactive element. In layman’s terms, you can’t smoke it.
Turns out that hemp is one of the main fibres the tribes use to make their crafts and their traditional clothing. Thus coming across fields full of these gorgeous plants in Sapa wasn’t uncommon. However… plenty of the more psychedelic, THC-filled variety is still grown amongst their more innocent cousins.
So… let’s just say at some point on this trip, someone asked me whether or not I smoked. Naturally, I responded FUCKING YES. Suddenly, this individual returned with a plastic bag FILLED TO THE BRIM with a particular herbal remedy. It must have been a few pounds.
My stunned expression matched that of someone who found the holy grail, someone who unexpectedly found themselves looking at the most beautiful thing they’d ever seen. With tears of joy welling up in my eyes, this individual insisted…
“Take it, take it! I don’t need it, take as much as you want!” I was too stunned to respond. They were adamant that I take as much as I wanted, FREE-OF-CHARGE!
That evening, I sat in a Hmong tribal village in the mountains of Northern Vietnam listening to Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones as a member of the tribe silently knitted beside me as I sampled some naturally grown herbal remedies. Without question, it was the happiest moment of my entire life.
The Next Morning
As the sun rose on a beautiful day in Sapa, we were awoken with a stack of homemade pancakes with all the trimmings. Complemented with freshly brewed Vietnamese coffee out on the front porch, there have been fewer finer starts to my day.
This also became the end of our time with the Chilean. He’d continue for another day into the mountains (lucky him), and we would start making our way back towards Sapa to catch our bus to Hanoi.
Though before we left, Mama Zuzu yet again went out of her way to make our day. Soon after giving us some of her homemade crafts (for free!), she brought out a stack of traditional clothing for Jess to dress up in. God bless this dear woman.
One Last Walk
Our trail for the day literally started at the back of Mama Zuzu’s house. The tracks made their way right through the heart of tiny villages along haphazard trails that led through people’s gardens and homes.
Once we’d broken free of the buildings, we walked between the rice terraces which had gained such a reputation. On that day, the weather was still not the best, and on top of that, there was no rice in sight. The rice season was done by that point, leaving behind pools with a few strands poking out of them, giving it the appearance of a marshland. Though at this point, it didn’t even matter, nothing could have ruined our happiness.
One hut we came across seemed to belong to a friend of Mama Zuzu. She was an old lady, must have been in her 70s. She was sat outside her cabin with nothing more than a small fire burning and an old radio set. Once she saw us coming, she gleefully opened the door to her cabin and led us inside to the door on the other side which opened up to a vast panoramic view of the rice terraces. In any other world, this plot of land would have been worth hundreds of thousands, though this all belonged to this sweet old woman.
Before we left, we felt it only fair to give her a tip for her time. Mama Zuzu suggested 10,000 dong would be okay. Though that only came to 35 pence, never before had I seen someone look so grateful.
Sapa isn’t the only place you can do some trekking!
The ultimate guide to trekking the world’s most beautiful volcano and Indonesia’s second-highest,
Into the Fields
On we went along the immense stacks of rice paddies as they kept growing in size. tiptoed along the outer ring of the paddies, cross unused fields and even ran into some of the iconic water buffalo.
Eventually, we reached one of the highlights of the region, one that’s part of many Sapa trekking tours. We passed through the main village in the area, the one where most tourists usually stay. It was the largest by far, but still nothing more than a generous handful of shacks, homestays and local stores.
At the end of a wonky Indiana Jones-style bridge, we came to a simple yet beautiful waterfall. Sadly though, the majesty of the moment was a little spoiled. The ladies of the hill tribes knew full well this was the tourist hotspot. Not that it was touristy in the normal sense, though any traveller in the area was bound to come through here, and they knew it.
They were all sitting directly next to the waterfall, all with their bundles packed to the brim with their handmade crafts. As soon as they saw us approaching, out they came in full force.
As sweet and wonderfully soft-spoken as the ladies were, we had already bought a number of items from another bunch of ladies higher up the landscape. What’s more, they really didn’t take no for an answer. As much as Jess would politely nod and say “aww no thank you”, these women were relentless. It made the situation pretty uncomfortable.
One Last Adventure
As we made our way back up the hillside towards the main road, our trip was coming to an end. Mama Zuzu arranged for her husband and some other guy to take us back to Sapa.
Before that, we had a truly emotional farewell. It was the first time I was genuinely saddened that I would most likely never meet my guide again. We’d read online that a typical tip for a guide might be around 100,000 dong (about £3.50) per day. Though considering she gave me the best night of my life and a significant tick off my bucket list that may never be topped, we gave her no less than five times that amount.
We hopped on the back of the bikes and had one last epic adventure as hobbled along rough mountain tracks through the misty valleys on our way to Sapa. It was the perfect ending for what became the greatest trip of my life.
To arrange a trip yourself with this wonderful woman, you can find her here on Facebook!
Thank You for Reading! Check Out These Other Helpful Links!
Thank you so much for reading Hanoi: Reaching My Travelling Peak in Sapa! Check out these other helpful articles!