The cities are the heartbeat of the nation but the small villages are more intimate. They let you feel their culture and the people’s way of living. The experience of Sapa and the nearby tiny villages was amazing. Sapa is famous for its picturesque rice fields and often travellers trek around its valleys to experience and feel the beauty of this region of Vietnam.
It wasn’t easy to go for it with a toddler – however we decided to trek parts of the valley with an 18 month old. Our private guide organised transport to and from Sapa Town so that we will not get tired before actually starting the fun part of the trek.
On our first full day, we trekked down the Hmong Tribe villages of Lao Chai (home of the black Hmong minority) and the adjacent larger village of Ta Van across the numerous rice fields. Our guide – a Hmong young lady herself wearing traditional vivid blue clothes and accompanied by two of her friends – one of which carrying a six-month old baby on her back. Immediately you could start sensing differences. The sling she had was very basic yet ours sophisticated. Weren’t both slings/carriers doing the job? You start wondering. The two ladies walking down the valley together with our guide – didn’t they have anything better to do? I don’t think our guide was going to give them a portion of the service fee we paid her. You start wondering again – how much I myself wished to have the luxury to walk around beautiful natural landscapes like that on any other day. I would do it for free myself too.
The walk was not very difficult however in certain parts of the trek babies/toddlers have to be carried as the downhill is steep. Our little one did walk quite a bit but at times it was getting too slow so we carried him in the baby carrier.
The scenery was not at its best when we went in May as it was quite hot for Sapa – around 25°C – but believe me it still filled our senses with serenity and awe. Our guide was not very fluent in English but had enough patience to deal with a toddler. Our son wanted to hold her umbrella all the time. At one point, I had to give her this big sun hat we bought earlier from Ninh Binh as a substitute and to have some shade from the sunny rays – she really looked funny wearing it :).
When we reached the Lao Chai village, we stopped by this family “restaurant” for lunch. There were other tourists but also many locals (and lots of dogs). Local children were surrounding us to buy some of their merchandise – be it pockets, bags, bracelets, hair bands … If you buy from one child, soon another child – most of them, if not all, girls – will come to you and say “from me, from me”. Before we bought anything from a child we were asking them if they attended school. They were telling us that they go to school in the afternoon. One girl – I still remember – when I mentioned school to her – she replied back “Ladybird”. So on the promise by the children to never give up school, we bought a few bracelets from each of them. Our hands soon became very colourful with different kinds of designs. Our little boy liked the bracelets too. He was showing them off as if he wanted to tell us that he’s now part of the land he’s on! 🙂 The food we ate was typical local. You don’t expect anything fancy in such small remote villages – yet the food was good and safe to eat.
Outside the restaurant there were toddlers playing with a stick and rubble. Our boy was interested in playing with them – or rather do like them – as if what they were doing was equally fascinating like an expensive toy. For him, there are no cultural differences and surely this shows you (and reminds you) that kids are simple and that happiness is all around us. (Let’s not drown them in toys, let’s not nurture them up badly, let’s not cut short their innocence. All we need to do is expose them to life and let them engage with nature to learn!)
Later we continued walking through the village core. Here there were tiny shops selling local costumes, bags, cushions, throws and other local stuff. The items of one “shop” are more or less similar to the rest but it was still an enjoyable experience entering one “shop” after the other to see and buy a few items to take home and at the same time supporting the locals. Our toddler was kept quite entertained by the shop attendants. The love of this nation towards children cannot be explained – you have got to experience it first-hand.
On our second day, the guide took us to the nearby gorgeous village of Cat Cat. This village is really nicely taken care of. Contrary to Lao Chai and Ta Van which we can describe as more authentic and raw, Cat Cat village felt a bit more touristic due to its closer proximity to Sa Pa Town and its embellished route. We started going downhill until we came up to a spectacular river with lovely water mills and bamboo bridges. This was a bit tricky for our toddler as there are quite a lot of steps to go downhill so we had to carry him in the baby carrier to cover some ground. To ensure he does not get bored though, we did frequent stops at local open-air “bars” to either have a drink or nibble some fresh fruit like mangoes. From here, we could even see the rice farmers working their fields with buffaloes.
When we arrived near the river, we stopped to have some lunch. We ate at this cool restaurant, Cat Cat Riverside overlooking the river. Our boy was asleep so we could sit right in the corner at the edge of the restaurant, literally on the river. It was very peaceful and relaxing listening to the sound of the waterfalls and being surrounded by nature. He woke up staring down at the river underneath in awe as if he couldn’t believe the beauty of the place he woke up at. It was also just in time for food – he loved the Vietnamese food so much, so meal time was a treat for him. Earlier that day at the hotel, he had already eaten noodles for breakfast – he did not mind that all. Now, vegetable spring rolls for lunch and some more yummy noodles. (Food in Vietnam is exquisite – do not be afraid that you’re not going to like it – you will surely miss it when you’re back home). In the villages, the food is quite basic and repetitive; however the restaurants in the cities are varied. The best we ate was in Hoi An).
The walk upwards was very challenging especially carrying a 14kg baby on your front. But it is doable and clearly rewarding! Just take it easy – do as many stops as you wish. No one is running after you – you’re on holiday – you’re in Vietnam! 🙂
Tips for a trek with a toddler:
- Book a private local guide – trekking with a toddler is a challenge and having a private guide with you gives you peace of mind that you are going in the right direction and not having to think about where you are heading or risking getting lost. It’s also an experience in itself having a local with you along the trek with whom you can chat and discover about their way of life.
- Analyse the length of the route suggested by your guide before you trek – only you know how far you can go trekking carrying a toddler on your back! We have made arrangements with the guide to have us transported to the beginning of the valley from our hotel and start the trek from the top of the valley to ensure we don’t get tired by the time we start the real trek. We trekked around 6 km in all, with various stops.
- Take a good baby/toddler carrier – you cannot go trekking accompanied by the small steps of a toddler so we think that the best way to go about it is to carry your toddler in a carrier at least for parts of the trek. Make sure however that you take a good ergonomic carrier with back and shoulder support. We used the Ergobaby 360 which we found very comfortable to carry our 14 kgs son in it. Our boy could be carried in the front to see where we are going and be part of the trek. When he’s tired, we just turn him inwards and he could have his nap resting on our chest.
- Go light as much as possible as whatever you take you must carry – do take the necessities mentioned below but don’t overdo it. Check with your guide whether there are stops to buy water from during the trek so that you will not carry too much water bottles.
- Be prepared to have to go slow at times – trekking with a toddler does slow your trek unless you are a professional trekker and can fly by even with a toddler on your back 🙂
- Must-carry items when trekking:
- Hat for yourself and toddler
- Baby/toddler carrier (we used the Ergobaby 360)
- Small backpack
- Water for yourself and toddler
- Isotonic drink or supplements to put in water in case you get drowsy
- Energy bars / banana
- Milk / goodies for toddler
- Wipes / antibacterial hand gel
- Any other items your toddler might need during the trek (but not toys as there will be plenty of natural ones along the way – sticks/pebbles are our son’s favorite)!