People come from all over the world to trek in the Sapa region in northern Vietnam, drawn by its misty mountains, lush rice terraces and colorful local villages. Sapa offers an almost mythical landscape to explore, and I had an amazing three days trekking between its many villages.
But this post isn’t about a hike through some nice mountains. It’s about the amazing lady who led me through them.
Standing at just over 4 feet tall, she’s not immediately imposing. She speaks in a high, raspy voice and comes off a bit timid, almost cautious, at first. But what she lacks in size, she makes up for in energy and personality.
We first met Ly in Sapa, a touristy mountain town in northern Vietnam, not far from the Chinese border. A group of us on an organized trek had just arrived on an overnight train. We were red-eyed and groggy. Ly introduced herself, told us she’d be our guide and to be ready for our first trek in less than two hours. Despite her size, she didn’t seem like someone who you want to keep waiting, so we obliged.
Cat Cat Village
A few hours later, packs strapped to our backs, we followed Ly out of Sapa towards Cat Cat village, only an hour outside of town. We pass shops selling local handicrafts and fake North Face clothing, catering to travelers like me who didn’t prepare for the winter temperatures.
As we walk, we find out more about Ly. She’s a member of the Black Hmong minority group, who originally come from China and speak the Hmong language, very different from Vietnamese. Ly wears the traditional indigo clothing of Hmong women, every single day – “not just when the tourists are around!”
In Cat Cat, we visit a Hmong weaver and see how these cloths are made from hemp and then dyed deep blue. Ly tells us that we’ll see more people wearing these clothes the next day when we venture further into the mountains towards Lao Chai, her village.
Despite her initial shyness, Ly soon lets her big personality shine through. She turns into Mama Bear mode and tells us to call her “Sugar Mommy.” She started lecturing us on how to stay safe in Sapa – watch out on slippery paths, don’t pet the dogs, and ignore the local women in town who are pushy about buying something from their basket, because they will follow you to your hotel if you show the slightest bit of interest. I fell in love with her immediately!
After the first day’s hike, we headed back to Sapa for a night in the hotel. Our legs aching, we were shocked to hear Ly tell us she’ll be walking back to her village for the night, about two hours away! And then the following morning, she’d be back to get us…..so that we can turn around and head back to her village.
Talk about a rough morning commute!
Before she left, Ly grabbed me and asked to look at something on her cell phone (yes, she has one). It was a movie clip showing dinosaurs fighting ferociously. She asked what animals these are, and I told her they were dinosaurs. She scrunched up her face. “They scary! They in Australia?” I told her they lived millions of years ago, but not anymore. When she asked how I know, I told her no person has ever seen one, we’ve only found the bones in the ground. She still looked concerned, and I realized how crazy that explanation must sound to someone who has never heard of dinosaurs!
The sun was already cutting through the clouds the next morning when we started the 13 km (8 miles) of trekking we had planned for the day. As we left Sapa, a handful of Hmong ladies from Lao Chai, Ly’s friends, joined us. Like Ly, they’d already made the trek from the village that morning to sell their handicrafts in Sapa, and were now heading back.
These smiling ladies chatted with us in basic English and helped us down the slippery parts of the trail. There was one girl in the group named Tam, an 8-year-old that Ly told us was an orphan who lost both parents at a young age. Without parents, Tam is very poor, but these ladies have taken her under their wing and are teaching her how to be self-sufficient and strong.
Meanwhile, I tried to get to know Ly as much as possible. It turns out she the busiest and hardiest woman ever. At age 33, she has three children under the age of 11, a farm and her own livestock. She said even though her house is small, she has more than most in her village.
When she’s not trekking with tourists or raising her kids, she’s tending to her farm, feeding her animals, and helping her mother run a handicraft shop in Sapa. Oh, and she also embroiders items to sell in her spare time…..which I assumed was never. But sure enough, every time we stopped down for a water break, she would whip out the scarf she was working on to get a few stitches in while she could!
I asked Ly if the father of her children helps out, but she told me he doesn’t live with her. “He has new woman now,” she told us. Ly explains it’s hard for Hmong women to get another husband if the first one leaves because no one wants to take on the responsibility of the children. She told me she didn’t mind – she’s proudly “single for life!”
We wove through emerald rice terraces, passing free-roaming pigs, water buffalo, ducks, chickens and dogs. Low clouds swept by us, but we caught glimpses of the towering mountains above us and the vast valley we were descending into, where Lao Chai village was nestled.
When we arrived and sat down to eat lunch, I was sad to see the Hmong ladies suddenly turn around and push their wares on us, along with dozens of other local girls. They must have spotted us coming! It got a bit aggressive when they swarmed our table. Eh, I guess they have to make a living somehow.
Ta Van Homestay
After our stomachs were full, we made the final push to the village of Ta Van, home to the Dzay people. The Dzay have their own language, different from the Hmong, and Ly has to communicate with them in Vietnamese when we arrive at our homestay. Despite their differences, her joyful manner has them laughing in seconds.
It occurs to me how amazing it is that Ly speaks three languages, and I ask her how she came to know English. She learned from talking to tourists in her mother’s shop in Sapa, and used her skills to start leading tours 7 years ago out of a desire to show her beautiful home to foreigners. She says a lot of locals cheat the tourists, but she wanted to show them the honest, good side of Sapa.
Over delicious home-cooked noodles and beef soup, we chatted with Ly about our lives back home. I showed her a picture of the Brit, and she cooed loudly. “He’s very handsome!” I told her he does all the cleaning and cooking, and she was astonished. “Hmong men not like that!” she laughed, lecturing me in her squeaky voice to hold on to him.
Afterwards, we settled in for the night while Ly slept in a bed by the front door, to “guard it.” I asked why and she said, “So you don’t go to Bamboo Bar next door!” (Have I met this woman before?) I guess she’s had some bad experiences with travelers being too hungover to hike the next day! It was getting far too cold outside, so none of us were tempted, but it still made me laugh.
Freezing Rain & A Waterfall
We woke up the last morning to drizzling rain and near freezing temperatures. The group of us bundled up under several layers, but Ly just upgraded her outfit with a pair of rain boots, and nothing else. We set off through muddy rice terraces to an unremarkable waterfall, shivering the whole way. Ly, on the other hand, never once complained about the cold!
In fact, Ly was hiking circles around all of us, patiently waiting each time we needed a moment to catch our breath. I guess if you grow up in these hills, they’re a piece of cake. Still, I was impressed. She’s so tiny, yet packs such a punch physically. She could leave us all in the dust in a matter of minutes if she wanted to!
We returned to Sapa in pieces, chilled to the bone with sore legs and feet. A hot shower was calling, but I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Ly yet. Despite being only a few years older than me, she seemed so much wiser than all of us, offering up positivity and even joy in the face of a difficult life. She is the hardiest woman I’ve ever met, both mentally and physically.
Ly told me I could always come back and stay with her in the future. To find her, all I have to do is show her photo around in Sapa and the locals will direct me to her. She asked if she could do the same thing in California to find me, but I told her it might be a bit harder!
I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again – she gave me an email address that bounced back when I tried using it – but I do know I’ll never forget Ly. Her and her Hmong friends were the epitome of girl power. Even though she grew up in a traditional environment, she is the definitive strong, independent woman.
She leveraged her strengths and took charge of her life, choosing to look at her circumstances with positivity and grace.
We could all learn a lot from Ly. I know I did!