In September 2015, whilst backpacking from North to South Vietnam with two friends, we stayed at Ms. May Kieu’s Homestay in Ta Phin Village, Sapa.
Fellow travellers had recommended that we stay with locals to appreciate the rural way of life in Sapa, so after a little googling, we decided on a two-night homestay in Ta Phin village with May Kieu, whose family belongs to the Red Dao Hilltribe.
You can read my original blogpost here: A Homestay in Sapa.
An ethnically rich and popular trekking destination, Sapa sits on the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains overlooking the terraced rice fields of the Muong Hoa Valley. Ms. May Kieu’s Homestay is in Ta Phin village – around a two-hour walk from the town centre, almost 5000 feet above sea level.
Booking & Overnight Costs
One week prior to our flights to Vietnam, we emailed Kathy Cull, who runs May Kieu’s website, to book an overnight stay. Kathy is a Canadian woman who met May Kieu in 2011 and spent six weeks in the village to help May Kieu's family build a homestay. She took photos, developed their website, and is their in-between communication person who helps book trips online.
Kathy responded to our email promptly, and our spaces were officially reserved. It cost us $35 each for a two day, one night stay – which is on the expensive side compared to the majority of hostels and hotels in Vietnam as a whole, but a respectable price for an experience that not only contributes to a tourist’s experience of a cultural area, but also, goes towards helping an entrepreneurial rural family carve out a profitable livelihood for themselves and their children.
Kathy's email told us that the cost would be $35 USD per person including our homestay, transportation to and from the village, and three meals with traditional drink. She also gave us directions.
Room & Amenities
Everything was extremely basic – of course, it’s a rural homestay – those accustomed to luxury and basic amenities such as a shower will be displeased (although they were currently in the middle of building a Western toilet, which is possibly finished now).
The bathroom was tiled with hot water and a flushing toilet.
We had a relatively large bedroom. Our door was wooden with a manual metal slide lock. There were two double beds, with mattresses made up of large foam blocks with wooden frames, large mosquito nets, pillows, and sheets. The beds were perfectly adequate, although the foam was hard. There was a window with a small curtain, but no glass panel. Make sure your mozzie net is down!
The family gave us plenty of bottled water and we were extremely well fed with three generous meals per day. There were little shops selling junk food and toiletries along the roadsides if anything – about a 15 minute walk or 5 minute bike ride away.
After departing Hanoi at midnight on an overnight bus, we reached Sapa before noon. We walked in parallel to Sapa Lake towards the town, quietly remarking upon the chilly breeze, the atmospheric presence of the mountains, and the lack of other people around, save for the occasional local or fellow backpacker that suddenly appeared from the mist.
Once we reached the main street of restaurants and shops, we searched for Le Gecko Restaurant, where we were scheduled to meet May Kieu. We had a great lunch, after which May Kieu rode up to us on a motorbike and greeted us with her cousin, Pham. May Kieu loaded our backpacks onto her bike, put on her helmet, and sped away into the mist.
Pham put us into a taxi that took us to the foot of the mountains, organized and paid for by them. From there, we walked. Local children pushed small trays filled with bracelets and handicrafts at us as we passed, which we politely declined. We had read somewhere that we were not to buy anything from the locals unless it was an official tourist shop in Sapa.
It took us two hours to get to Ta Phin, probably because we kept stopping to marvel at the view. We were still able to make good time, arriving by sundown.
May Kieu’s house turned out to be very large and, although basic, like a concrete barn, was significantly more developed than neighbouring houses in the village. The lower floor held the communal area and bedrooms. The upper floor was used to hang dried rice and corn.
May Kieu’s mother lived there, a small but robust woman. There was a local Vietnamese young man staying at the homestay, exploring his country. He spoke some English and we chatted before dinner.
May Kieu’s husband, Phan Quay Lua, was a wonderful cook and generous tour guide. He went out of his way during our stay to ensure we were comfortable, especially when taking us around the mountains. The family are excellent cooks who use locally grown crops and produce. Dinner was a generous array of Vietnamese dishes including pork, chicken, stewed vegetables, white rice, and of course, local rice wine. That stuff was strong!
May Kieu’s children were cute and extremely well disciplined. They obediently cleaned away their own plates and cutlery after dining on their own little table. Then they played with wooden toys and yo-yos in the communal area until it was their bedtime.
After dinner, Ms. May Kieu ran us a rustic herbal bath in three giant wooden tubs. The rice wine and hot steam went straight to our heads; the bath was great. Very relaxing. We took a while to fall asleep, but probably because we were still jet-lagged.
The next morning, we woke up to the sounds of roosters crowing and the inviting aroma of freshly brewed coffee and a stack of crepes with bananas and local honey, courtesy of Lua. After breakfast, Lua took us on a hike around the area. We traversed streams and rice terraces, and hiked to a vantage point high in the mountains near a local school. Although fog clouded the vista, it was still gorgeous.
Later that day, we looked around the local market before going back to the house to pack and have another huge bowl of steaming noodle soup, prepared by Lua. Finally, at dusk, we were taken back via motorbike to Sapa, where we were set to catch our bus to Hanoi.
Overall, we had a great time. May Kieu’s homestay isn't for the faint of heart, but it's highly recommended for regaining life perspectives, enjoying the beauty of the rice terraces, and experiencing life as a member of a Vietnamese mountain tribe, even for just one night.
THINGS TO NOTE:
It is extremely noisy in the morning – cocks crowing, dogs barking – but it’s mountain life. Drink it all in!
I had difficulty falling asleep, even after the long trek up and relaxing herbal bath. It was a mixture of jetlag and being able to feel the mattress, a.k.a. foam blocks, beneath my back. Maybe wait until you've been settled in Vietnam for at least a few days before tackling Sapa!
Expect creatures! Geckos, spiders, cats, puppies, buffalo...
After dinner, May Kieu and her family showed us a table full of homemade crafts – such as weaved bracelets, traditional clothing and purses – that they were selling. We bought three bracelets and two purses. Good quality and for a good cause!
About a twenty minute walk away is the local village and market, which sells food, arts and crafts. The amount of houses springing up everywhere, under construction, is really quite impressive.
Make sure you bring any medications necessary – malaria tablets, diabetes medication, allergy pills, paracetamol and so on. The nearest hospital is a while away and local pharmacies, if there are any, may not have what you need.
After two weeks in Vietnam I started getting blisters on my hands, feet and throat. When I got back to London I was diagnosed with gastroenterital HFMD (a kid's disease!). It takes 2 weeks to develop, so I caught it by eating something dodgy at some point in Sapa or Hanoi. Be careful of street food!
Remember to be respectful, dress warmly and conservatively, and have fun!
Mel left London to chase summer around the world, one country at a time. She loves the ocean, writing postcards, and solo exploration. Travel with her on Instagram.