I Meet the Mamas of SaPa

Location: SaPa, Vietnam

SaPa is one of the most northern destinations you can travel to in Vietnam before you reach China. The small valley town, a center of commerce for the surrounding villages, is actually located up in the mountain range that divides the two countries. It’s famous for the rice terraces chiseled into the steep cliff sides and the colorful ethnic groups of the area that still practice traditional farming techniques and live without the modern day conveniences of flushing toilets, air conditioning, and even cars.

My bus arrived in SaPa around 5AM, just as twilight broke. The world outside my window was a faded, misty wonderland of tall pines, sheer streets of concrete buildings leading back into the mountains, and people stuffed into fluffy winter jackets racing down the cracked streets on mopeds. A group of little women (seriously, nobody was over 5ft tall) sat on the stone ledge across the street from me. They caught my eye because of their outfits: dark, thigh-length woven jackets; thick, bright, embroidered belts wrapped around their waists; big gold and silver loops dangling from their stretched earlobes; and all their hair wrapped up in colorful scarves. They all wore round, empty woven baskets on their backs except for one younger looking girl, who had an infant strapped on with a cloth. When they noticed my gaze, they grinned gapped-tooth at me, pointed, and waved. The wrinkled leader of the bunch had a gold cap on one of her front teeth.

I already knew what these women offered. I’d read about them back in Hanoi. They came from nearby villages in the mountains and would take tourists up to homestays, show them different hikes, and basically give them a local tour of the land. I’d also already dismissed the possibility of the idea. The prices on these tours back in Hanoi ranged from $45-65 depending on whether you wanted a day trip or three day long stay. And you were grouped with a bunch of other people in an extension of a local home. It was simply out of my price range and I always preferred to stay away from group tours.

However, when I exited the bus, the women were waiting. And I might just be a total sucker, but they were more adorable than I could handle. I was suddenly surrounded by this crew of tiny, cheering friends, who told me their names were Mama Xung, Mama Chi, Mama Li, and Mama Lung and held my hands in their calloused, child-sized palms.

“Where you from? Where you stay? You like see mountains? Come with us! You stay with us! So much fun! We drink happy water and feed you! You pretty American girl. We have so much fun.” They giggled and quipped and jangled the silver and copper bangles that covered their arms. They weren’t pushy, but they followed me as I wandered up the sidewalk. They all wore dirty, thin, cheap, skin-colored rubber slippers. The whole group kept joking in their local dialect as we went, poking fun at each other.

I laughed with them, at their imp-like cuteness. They were a great marketing team. “No, no. I’m staying in the town.” I waved them off.

“How long?”

“I don’t know.”

“So you see mountains tomorrow? Or next day? Very cheap! C’mon!” The leader, Mama Xung, the tiniest lady of all, held my hand was we walked.

“How much?”

“You stay two nights for 500,000 dong. All food and happy water included. And we take you on treks of mountains! You stay with Mama Chi and her family.” Mama Xung told me.

I was surprised by the price. I knew from experience that it would be cheaper than purchasing a tour from a travel agent, but I didn’t expect it to be a third of the cost. Mama Chi, a rosy-cheeked, round-faced lady, assured me that there were no other tourists staying with her. Mama Xung tied a blue-and-green threaded bracelet around my wrist and we made arrangements to meet the next morning at a big church in the center of town. They then escorted me to one of the cheaper hostels and bid me farewell, waving and joking in Vietnamese with each other.

And as usual, the unexpected had swept me away. I was ready for another unplanned adventure.


  • 3-Day local homestay, including treks, food, and alcohol: $25 per person