It’s still dark outside when the roosters begin to crow. I roll over on my pallet and bury my face under my pillow, but it does little to muffle the sounds of Giang Ta Chai village waking up to greet another day.
The first stirrings of morning activity begin downstairs: an alarm’s repetitive chime; pots and pans clattering over the kitchen fire.
Nearby, huge sacks of rice are propped against the rafters, harvested by our host family and intended as their personal food stash through the rain-soaked monsoon months ahead.
The peoples of the Hmong tribe, who call this area home, start their days early and work extremely hard.
In addition to their farming duties, our Hmong host family needs to prepare breakfast for their four homestay guests – myself, my mother and a cheerful American couple.
By 8am, we’ve gathered around a plastic table to munch on fresh crêpes filled with sliced banana and honey and washed down with sachets of sugary instant coffee.
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Hanging out with Vietnam’s Lolo people
We all knock back several cups – today, on the second day of our trek, we’ll be hiking 20km across the Muong Hua valley and caffeine seems like a necessity.
Thirty minutes later, we’re heading downhill through a tiny agricultural hamlet comprised of low-rise wooden houses, carefully tended vegetable gardens and the occasional pig pen.
What is Giang Ta Chai village known for?
Populated by other ethnic Hmong, who first originated in the mountainous region of southern China and eventually spread across South-East Asia, Giang Ta Chai reflects the daily workings of tribal life across this corner of north-west Vietnam.
Little has changed for the Hmong, Giay, Tay and Red Dao tribes over the centuries – the isolated locations of their villages, set among the vast hills and valleys of Sapa’s Lào Cai province, have helped play a part in sheltering age-old traditions.
But their existence has also been protected by the tribe members themselves, whose fierce loyalty to their culture, customs and community is undiminished despite increased exposure to foreign tourists and regional development.
“I really like my tribe,” says Vang Pay, our 26-year-old trekking guide whose bulging calf muscles reflect the many hours he spends venturing across the area’s steep terrain. “Even if you go somewhere you don’t know, they still welcome you like family.”
A business model that guarantees sustainable tourism
Pay is employed by Sapa O’Chau, a travel company and social enterprise that supports ethnic minorities in Sapa and the surrounding Lào Cai. The company aims to protect local tribal traditions from the corrosive effects of poverty and illiteracy.
Its socially conscious trekking service provides regular income to the homestay hosts, trekking guides and village craftswomen while allowing them to remain enclosed in their rural communities.
But Sapa O’Chau isn’t the only grassroots social enterprise operating in the area.
Sapa Sisters, which was founded in 2009 by artist Radek Stypczynski and Ylva Landoff Lindberg in collaboration with four Hmong women – Lang Yan, Lang Do, Cho and Zao – is an all-female, self-sustaining trekking company that employs 19 guides during peak season to lead trekkers through the area’s hilly and often unpredictable terrain.
Like Sapa O’Chau, the organization aims to empower Hmong women with decent jobs and financial independence – all without having to leave their communities for a neighboring city, which would separate them from their families and necessitate additional expenses.
For the local guides, it’s a way to earn money and meet people
Pay first heard of Sapa O’Chau through a friend who was learning English at their language school. He enrolled, studied for a year and became a Hmong tour guide shortly afterwards.
“As a Hmong tour guide in Sapa, I can earn money and meet people from different countries,” Pay says, his English fluid and easy. Pay’s earnings – roughly $130 each month, plus tips – support not only his wife and their baby, but an extended family network that includes his parents and siblings.
We stop by their farm at the end of our second day of trekking – after hiking through immaculately-tended terraced rice fields, up rocky paths winding through shaded bamboo forests and through bustling Lao Chai village.
Pay’s brother comes out to meet us as we hobble into the front yard, Pay’s son wriggling in his arms.
The family live together in a typical Hmong home: one large communal room, with an open fire pit on the dirt floor for cooking, and absolutely no privacy for Pay and his wife.