when my two friends and I started researching things to do in Vietnam, trekking through Sapa was high on our list. there are a lot of options out there. different lengths and difficulties of hikes, with or without homestay. and they all vary in price. but once we discovered the Sapa Sisters company and read their story, we knew that we couldn't book with anyone else.
life for women living in the tribes of this area is not easy. it is a male-centric culture where girls are discouraged from education, pressured to stay in abusive or unhappy marriages, and sometimes even sold into human trafficking. Sapa Sisters is a company owned and operated by all women from the H'mong tribe, and not only pays their guides fair wages but offers benefits like parental leave and health care. they have empowered these women to better their lives and enabled many of them to buy property, build homes, and save for their children's futures. you can read more about their company and guides on their website. [our guide, Zao, has one of the more incredible stories.]
this post is going to be lengthy. but for me, the experience was about more than just the actual trek.
we decided to do a 2 day journey with an overnight homestay. we arrived at the office and were introduced to Zao, who would be our guide. she explained that the longer trek option might be a bit slippery due to recent rains, but gave us the choice of which trail to take. my attitude for this adventure was that if we were here to trek then we would trek. so we took the long route.
our trail wrapped around and down the side of a valley. and it was definitely slippery. by the time we reached the bottom and had to walk through a knee-deep river, we were glad to just wash the mud away. we passed rice paddies and small wooden homes, crossed streams by hopping on rocks and detoured around grazing buffalo. eventually we came to a small village for lunch.
after we ate and chugged about 3 liters of water each, Zao asked again which way we wanted to take: the short path along the road, or the long way over the mountain? we chose the long route again. along our climb, we stopped to rest by sitting on the porch of a village house. suddenly Zao looked at us and said "I was born in this house. do you want to come inside?" we went in, not knowing what to expect.
the walls were wooden planks and the floor was hard-packed earth. we entered a large room and Zao pulled out some tiny plastic stools for us to rest on. she switched on a dim overhead light and turned on a small fan. in the corner was an old television, maybe from the 1960's. through the doorway to the next room we could see a cookfire dug into the floor, and corn was hanging from the rafters above to dry. a stray puppy from outside trotted towards us for a minute, then decided we weren't worth the effort and curled back up to sleep on the porch.
I don't know how else to explain what it was like to sit in that house with Zao: those were some of the most special and humbling five minutes of my life.
we continued on and arrived at our homestay for the evening. our host welcomed us with fresh cut fries covered in chunks of garlic and chili powder. we showered and met the other Sapa Sisters patrons who were staying the night with us - one French woman who was studying medicine in Saigon, and an American working for the Atlanta CDC. our host cooked us an incredible spread [complete with allergy-friendly dishes for me] and despite the howls from the cantankerous old cat that lived in the house, we all went to bed early. it might have had something to do with hiking 20 kilometers that day.
the next morning there was breakfast and another choice of trails: the short way, or up and over the mountain? we chose the mountain again. after climbing almost straight up for an hour, we were rewarded with the best views of our entire trek.
by the time we made it back down, we were starving, sweating, and exhausted. for a change: we chose the shorter route to get to our lunch. after a wild motorbike ride back to Sapa [during which my driver had to stop due to a buffalo crossing] we arrived at our hotel and said goodbye to Zao. a few hours and, thankfully, a shower later we left Sapa and boarded the night train back to Hanoi.
so often when we travel, it feels like we are just passing though. I'd love to be a more conscious traveler who gives back directly to the people of the communities I visit. have you found any other companies like this around the world, or given back in another way on your travels? if you make your way to Vietnam I would highly, highly recommend an experience with the Sapa Sisters - and not just for the views.
I'm finally home from all my summer travels, and ready to tackle my keyboard again. three months seems like decades in the online world - but it was a much needed break for me. and now, I'm actually excited to blog again and share my travels.
for starters: I've redesigned the blog. I think keeping my last design for 18 months was a record for me. [and maybe an indication of how stale things were feeling.] if you find any issues with links or readability, please let me know so I can fix things to be more friendly.
I've also been writing. so much. I've been writing almost every day. working on my memoir manuscript, starting new fiction projects, wrestling with morning pages and the Artists Way. but it's not enough. I need to put work out into the universe where it can be seen. I want to stay true to myself but I need some kind of interacton, feedback, acknowledgement. I've talked about this before: art cannot exist in a vacuum. I think the hardest trick is to write for yourself where others can read it. and it's time for me to emerge from my little cocoon and make the effort. and so I'm back here.
other happenings include: the arrival of Pokemon Go in Taiwan, our leaky bedroom ceiling finally being fixed, getting sick and going to the doctor like an adult instead of "toughing it out," and making plans for the year to come. the bulk of my summer, however, was spent traveling. I'm not sure where this blog is headed yet, but it's a safe bet there will still be lots of travel stories ahead. for now, we'll start with some favorite iPhone photos from the summer.
TurkeyI have so much to say about our time in Turkey. it was a magical country that went beyond my wildest expectations - the history, the people, the food - I fell head over heels in love. during our week in Istanbul we visited the most stunning mosques and palaces, made friends with every stray cat that tried to steal our doner kebab, and listened in awe as the call to prayer rang out across sunset on the Bosphorus. in Cappadocia we climbed stone castles and monasteries, explored underground cities, and soared with the sunrise in a hot air balloon. and in Şirince we gorged ourselves on a massive Turkish breakfast spread before wandering the ancient streets of Ephesus. it was a dream.
and then the airport bombing happened - a few hours after we had flown through Istanbul on our way to Izmir. I spent a lot of time trying to write about my experience. the shock, sadness, fear that followed the news. the hassle and unexpected expense of changing our plans. the disappointment and guilt that we felt it necessary to do so. but before I could organize my thoughts on the bombing, the attempted coup happened. I have some very strong opinions on the situation - made stronger by the people I met while traveling through Turkey and seeing firsthand what the government has done there. maybe someday I will be able to sort it all out and share. but not yet.
despite all these recent events, I would never discourage someone from visiting Turkey. I still plan to share our experiences in the hope that you will someday visit this incredible country. for now, I think that's the only way I can fight against terror and injustice that has happened - by showing you the wonder and beauty of everything I saw there.
Prague, Czech Republicour first few days in Prague were spent recovering from our emotional departure from Turkey and catching up with friends. eventually we took a walking tour - which turned out to be the best decision we could have made. we saw everything and learned the layout of the city, and were able to navigate on our own the rest of our stay. Prague is extremely walkable and completely gorgeous from every angle. it's been 12 years since I had been to Europe, so it kindof felt like the first time for me. most of our time was spent wandering its charming streets and squares [and for me, photographing them] but we also took a trip out to see the bone chapel and St Barbara's cathedral in Kutná Hora.
while Prague is famous for beer being cheaper than water [which was true] I found that there were incredible Moravian wines for barely $5 US a bottle. eating in Prague was also surprisingly easy for me. apparently the EU requires restaurants to list what allergens are in each dish. seeing as I have issues with 8 of the 14 listed allergens [plus 4 things not] it made ordering meals a lot safer. I could have happily stayed in Prague for a month.
Vienna, Austriawhile this was an unintended destination for us - added when we changed our travel plans after the bombing - we certainly enjoyed it. we took the train to Vienna from Prague and splurged on a nice hotel. there was stunning breakfast, hip street art, Egyptian artifacts, Viennese sausage, and sachentorte for Luke. we didn't venture much past our neighborhood by the museum district. but we did have a lovely and relaxing time.
after spending extended time in most of our other stops, two days in Vienna seemed like nothing. I know that we missed out on much of what the city has to offer, but by the end of our travels we just had to do what worked for us. which was: sleep in, eat, explore a few museums, and drink lots of wine. sometimes you need a little vacation in your travels.
Vietnamback in February this year, I was sitting in the park with two friends. one of them mentioned that she was thinking of going to Vietnam in the summer. the other said she would be interested in going, and so did I, since it's one of the few nearby Asian countries I have yet to explore. for some people this would have been idle talk. but my friends - they are planners and doers.
that's how, after two weeks of recovering from a solid month of travel, I left for a 10 day girls trip to Vietnam. the first days I spent in a cold medicine haze, but by the time we traveled from Hanoi to Sapa I was ready to soak it all in. we did a two day trek with an overnight homestay, a Vietnamese cooking class, and a 3 day cruise through Ha Long Bay. our weather was mostly rainy or hazy, but we still managed to see and do [and eat] a lot.
overall, it was a great summer of travels. there were many glasses of wine, sunrises and sunsets, cat encounters, selfies, and magical moments. but it feels good to be home in Taiwan again. I've started sorting through everything and hope to share detailed itineraries, packing lists, many photos and stories in the weeks and months to come. if you have any questions or topics you'd like me to address in upcoming posts please let me know! I hope your summer was as fantastic as mine.