Sa Pa North Vietnam Travel Diary

Sa Pa North Vietnam Travel Diary

Words by Mia McCann

Immersive, slow journeying is the anti-tourist travel cure. Making real connections in a homestay in North Vietnam, our traveller shares excerpts from the diary she kept during her trip.

Planning a holiday to an unknown land can easily topple the most relaxed soul into a stress-tornado of budgets, scheduling, pre-booking, back-and-forth emailing and worry. Our guest writer makes a case for shirking the beaten path, trusting your impulses and going wherever your heart takes you at the drop of a hat.


In 2015, after finishing a year-long internship at ELLE magazine in Sydney, Mia decided to postpone her return home to Ireland. During her stay in Australia, she realised how close she was to Asia, somewhere she had always dreamed of visiting. Without letting the fear of the unfamiliar get in her way, Mia bought a ticket and got on a plane to Bangkok. What followed were, as she described to us, the best five months of her life.


Mia travelled through many countries in South East Asia, but Sa Pa in North Vietnam had the most profound effect on her. She has supplied us with some of her favourite extracts, written on the go, whenever she found a moment to record her thoughts. We hope you enjoy this raw account of her experiences while staying with a family in a remote mountain village.


Travel Diary – Sa Pa – Northern Vietnam

Diary – Sa Pa

Just arrived in Sa Pa after a long night on a bus from Hanoi, and I’m still alive! It is freezing cold up here. Most of the town is hidden by mist. It feels strange to see people in jumpers and jackets for the first time in two months. When we drove in, there were about 50 people surrounding the bus, all wearing their traditional black Hmong dresses with multi-coloured embroidery and colourful headscarves. One of the lads we met on the night bus explained that he would be living in a homestay, with a family of tribal villagers who live in the mountains. I knew when I got off the bus that all the women around us were members of the tribes he was talking about. As we exited, we were stopped and grabbed by a group of women trying to sell us their crafts. One lady, gave us each a handmade bracelet and asked if we would come and buy from her soon. We were freezing while waiting to check in to the hostel room so we decided to buy some warm clothes and have a look around Sa Pa town. The tribal women hung around outside the hostel since the morning. I didn’t understand why, until I realised their earlier gift was not an act of good-will but to identify us after our promise to buy from them earlier. After chatting with and getting to know one woman called Mai, she asked if we wanted to travel up the mountains with her to stay in her home and see her village. 7am start tomorrow for a 15 mile trek to her home.


Woke up at 6am wishing I had said no to beer pong in the hostel last night. Mai was waiting for us outside the hostel gate with her 3 year old son, so we joined her to start our hike up the trail. The hills were blanketed in morning mist. We couldn’t see much ahead of us until the fog cleared a few hours into the day. The trek was tough and steep and I can’t even say how many times we tripped and slipped on gravel and wet grass. That didn’t stop us from having the best time, though. We honestly couldn’t stop laughing the whole way up. Mai would just casually tell us to watch out for poisonous snakes and spiders on the path. I had to have two leeches pulled off my foot. Mai told us she would walk this trail up to four times a day with her three year old son and explained that she had him and her two girls do this since they were small, 15 miles each way!
We stopped at what looked like a shack in the middle of nowhere, so that we could have something to eat. There was an old woman inside selling cooked food from various pots. She also had a stock of beer, which we obviously all jumped at.  We sat on plastic chairs in the sun and about 20 children surrounded us all chanting “Please buy!” in unison waving more woven bracelets at us. I watched them for a while as they played games with an old rope. One little girl had a baby strapped onto her back with a length of cloth. There were no adults around other than the lady selling food. I have no idea where these kids came from. It started raining as we set off on the next stretch of our trek.


Six hours after setting out, we finally got to Mai’s house, all soaking wet and cold from the rain. There was one small electric heater where we hung our wet socks and gathered together to warm up. Mai’s little girls were sitting on the floor cutting up vegetables for dinner. They were whispering and giggling shyly, so Nicole and I decided to help them and they warmed to us. Mai told us that her husband works all day, helping to build houses for his friends. Neither of them can read or write. She told us that each of the villages speaks a different language. Mai has to travel down the mountain every day to the town to meet tourists and sell the handmade jewellery her husband makes so their family can survive. I can’t believe she is only 2 years older than me.


Dinner time! Vietnamese food just gets better everywhere I go. Mai’s husband and his brother came in from work and we all sat around a small wooden table on stools. Her husband produced two large plastic bottles filled with some mysterious liquid. We hadn’t a clue what it was and Mai explained it was ‘Happy Water’ – and it certainly was. Rice wine is what they drink. We were all given a small glass and after every shot of rice wine it was filled again until both bottles were practically empty. Eating, drinking and singing with the whole family I suddenly didn’t feel the cold at all anymore. About an hour after Mai had served the food we were all dancing on the wooden table with the kids and listening to stories of their life. Such a happy family.


I was woken the next morning by the roosters outside. We had pancakes and fruit for breakfast with a gorgeous view of mountains and rice paddies before us.  Mai’s husband showed us his handmade jewellery. He gave us all a new bracelet and he engraved the name of the village, the date and our names on each one. He was so skilled and they were so inexpensive, I didn’t understand how they could live off the proceeds. Mai dressed us all in some of her traditional tribal clothing and the kids thought it was hilarious. We then trekked back down the mountain for 6 hours and it was a lovely clear day. Meeting this family, experiencing and joining their daily life was definitely worth the sore bodies and head colds. This happy memory is one that I will never forget.


Words by Mia McCann