Jacob and Mackenzie follow Chi through high green rice field with Mountains in background

Big Strength Comes in Small Packages

After traveling through the cities of Vietnam with populations of 7-8 million people I found myself recalling the words in a message I received from my cousin: “should yonder mountains come a callin’ check out Sapa Sisters”. Don’t get me wrong I do love cities. I love discovering new cuisine, cafes and restaurants with a groovy vibe. I love street art and trying to understand the mind behind the painting on a crumbling wall. I love the culture that cities provide but after the chaos of Vietnam’s most populated cities, I was reminded that I am also a nature girl. My backpacking, rock skipping, tree-hugging, clean-air-loving persona screams to be seen and taken to the natural world. She needs to hear birds, watch butterflies, and feel the awe of mountains, rivers, and flowers. I need to feel the way nature fills my soul and medicates my “monkey-mind” with calm. I am not the only one in my family who yearns for nature. Our girls love the freedom of running ahead on a trail, the joy of discovering bugs, and playing in the dirt. Jacob loves the city skyline but he also loves to hike just as much as me. So, a trek in Northern Vietnam, near the Chinese boarder, sounded like just the thing to satisfy our cravings.

Low clouds ring the mountain in the distance. Green Farm land and rice terrace in the foregroundThere are no less than a million companies offering treks to Sapa where you are led through the mountains whose slopes are covered with terraced rice fields, to the surrounding villages where you stay with a local family. Treks are usually offered in one, two or three day packages. Sapa Sister’s is a tour company that is owned and run by local women of the Black H’mong hill tribe (pronounced mung). They have been leading treks around their home for many years working for tour companies that paid them extremely low wages. These women took charge of their own destiny and started a business of their own, with the promise to pay their guides and support staff what they deserve to earn. These are most definitely my kind of ladies.

(sing it Beyonce: “to all the women who independent, throw your hands up at meeee”)

We opted for the three-day trek and when we landed in Sapa and we had absolutely no expectation of what we would see or the physical exertion our bodies would undergo over the next three days. Our guide was a small, soft-spoken Black H’mong woman with a sweet disposition and I would come to be in complete awe of her strength and agility. Her name is Chi (I later found out she is one of the owners) and she embodied energy just like the Qi (Ch’i) or “life force” described in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. We met Chi at 9:00 a.m. the same day we arrived in Sapa. She gave us several options for the route and hesitated when we asked her to take us on the less touristic trails. She said an alternative route would make the hike more difficult. “We are from Colorado,” we explained, “we are used to hard hikes, we will be fine!” and with a shrug from Chi, we were on our way.

We meandered through narrow roads past local houses, gardens full of vegetables and limestone outcroppings. We walked through bamboo forests and thick jungles; up and down, up and down, up up up. Once we emerged into open air again we got our first view of the mountains. You know that scene in The Sound of Music where Julia Child is spinning on the top of a green mountain in Switzerland celebrating her family’s newfound freedom and in the background are even taller snowcapped mountains? Well, picture that except Asian style with fields of corn and terraced rice patties and rather than snowcapped the mountains were instead decorated with low hanging clouds. As much as I wanted to spin around and sing, “the hills are alive with the sound of music”, I restrained myself and just played out this scene inside my mind (but, I tell you, it took A LOT of restraint).

Our trail took us up, down and across the rice terraces and past farmhouses. We walked as if on a balance beam with the next rice patty below, trying not to notice the steep drop should we lose our footing. Chi helps Quinn navigate a narrow ledge through the rice field.Most of the houses we saw were made of wood and had mud floors. The “barn” for the animals was like a covered patio off the side of the house. Chickens, dogs, roosters and huge water buffalo all lived in close proximity. The water buffalo were often chained up to their stall with the rope attached to the ring in their nose. Shortly after our lunch on that first day, it began to rain. Chi had been pushing us to go a bit faster so that we could stay ahead of the storm but it was a futile effort. The rain began just was we started down a steep path through another bamboo forest. Our path immediately turned to mud. All four of us struggled to stay up right but not Chi. She bounced down the trail, umbrella in hand as if she had spikes in her shoes. She noticed Quinn struggling, hoisted her on her back, found bamboo walking sticks for the rest of us and kept pushing forward.

When we finally reached our first home-stay after 6 hours of trekking, I was satisfyingly exhausted and felt cleansed from breathing clean air. We were joined at the house by a couple from the UK who were guided by a young mother who had carried her baby on her back for the duration of their trek. The way she had her baby tied onto her back reminded me of the many women we saw in Peru with their babies slug on their backs as they worked in the field or nursed while selling goods out of their stores. Chi and her colleagues made us a huge spread of delicious food and after dinner they pulled out their colorful string and taught my girls how to weave bracelets. Our second day of trekking was much like the first although a bit shorter. The girls had now bonded with Chi and were glued to her side (or back as Chi carried Quinn several times on more tricky parts of rice patty balancing). Our second night was at Chi’s own house tucked up in the hills on a farm of her own. We met her husband and two small children who were delighted to see their mama.Chi poses with Mack and Quinn holding her blue and white checkered umbrella rice fields in background

Chi never stops. She set us up with beers and showers and then went about her business of weaving fabric on her loom (to eventually dye and make into a new jacket, what?), cooking dinner and attending to her farm animals and children. My first world, tired bones were in awe of her seemingly endless energy. As I sat watching the sunset, my mind drifted back to the scene of Chi’s colleague with her baby and was impressed at how they have created a life for themselves that allows for balance of work and kids. Perhaps this is romanticized a bit as I have no clue what happens when they say goodbye to the tourists or if they even like leaving for 2-3 days at a time to take foreigners through the mountains to their homes but from the outside they seemed happy.

Somehow it seems industrialized nations have forgotten the importance of mothers and babies. I realize that living in the US we cannot just sling our babies on our backs while we sit at our computers or nurse while we conduct business meetings; however, in agrarian cultures such as these, babies are unquestionably part of the workday. I know we can find a better balance in the US around the needs new moms and dads. I have my own stories of feeling unsupported in the workplace as a new mom and have heard countless stories from other moms who speak about the rigid expectation to return to full-time work after 8 weeks of maternity leave. It’s like we need to pretend the whole pregnancy didn’t happen and return to life as normal. However, it isn’t normal. There is a new normal. Women are expected to put careers on hold or denied opportunities because they want to stay home at least part-time while their babies are young. I wonder if we can ever return to a time when families are important again or if businesses will realize that they lose valuable employees because they are unwilling to work together to think of creative work situations to allow more time for mom and baby to be together. To have the choice to be a stay-at-home mom is a luxury and a privilege that not all moms can make nor does every mom want that for her life. I guarantee every mom wishes she could have been home for longer than 8 measly weeks after giving birth. Don’t even get me started on the rights of Dad’s to have more time off to bond with their newborns, most only get 2 weeks, if any.Jacob and Mackenzie show their purple tongues from eating wild berries from Chi

I wonder if this was one of the issues Chi and her colleagues experienced when they worked for other trekking companies. Maybe providing a workplace more sensitive to the needs of local families was part of the driving force behind starting a business of their own. I’ll never know for sure, maybe if you go to Sapa and join a Sapa Sisters trek you can ask.

Our trek in Sapa was a gift. Not only did we experience another amazing place on this earth but also how the people that live there add to the beauty. Chi inspired me to keep creating a life that feels balanced to me. From my first world lens, it looked like she worked incredibly hard (and she did) but it also looked like she enjoyed her life. She enjoyed coming home after trekking for 5 hours to sit at her loom high in the hills of Sapa, serenaded by birds, laughing kids and squawking chickens and looking up from her work every now and then to take in the scene of the mountains in the distance. It is a life in balance to her and one she created for herself on her own terms.

View of farmland and farm houses from Chi's house
Chi’s View




Green dragon sculpture with long whiskers

The Beast Part II

There must have been a spotlight that reveled the location of my beastly nemesis.

A special light only beast tamers who prowl the streets of the Old Quarter in Hoi An, Vietnam can see.

Mackenzie and I had just exited a cultural show.  We stood on the curb laughing and discussing what we had just seen.

Suddenly, like magic a short woman appeared before me, thread in hand.

“Only 20,000 Dong very, very cheap. I make you look 10 years younger”

Shocked at the sudden invasion of my personal space, I stepped back only to be met with a wall of  tourists spilling out behind me in what seemed like the hundreds.  Most of them stopping to see what this lady was saying and trying to do. I became the encore show.

She was quick with that thread, there it was traveling along my chin with such deft, such incredible speed.

“Oh! So many long hair! I do this one for free” she shrieked.

Confused, I thought, “what is she doing?”

Then I felt the beast rip from my skin. How did it come back so fast? How many ARE there??

Now swarmed with onlookers, I felt heat flood to my face; sure I was turning as red as the string of cloth lanterns that hung above my head.

I tried to get away, I tried to run but she was quick on her feet. She had caught me in her threading web.

There was nothing to do but succumb.

A Taste of Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Min City is a huge city packed with people, buildings and motorized vehicles. The overwhelming volume of motorbikes at rush hour causes an involuntary jaw-drop and a test of faith while crossing the street. It seems the trick is to move slowly and steadily making eye contact with the oncoming drivers. If you do it right, they can accurately predict your walking speed and gracefully move around you. The number one rule is: DO NOT STOP. If you stop or change your speed unexpectedly, accidents are bound to happen or at the very least you will receive a good crusty (remember those? Middle school girls in my era perfected that scowling glare). The city is also home to the War Museum, dozens of interesting pagodas and a not-bad art museum. I could talk about those places and get myself and you really depressed writing about the war museum with its gruesome pictures of the destruction from bombs and impact of Agent Orange but I just can’t do it this time. I need a pick-me-up. Plus, the experience in Ho Chi Min City that caught our attention the most was, you guess it, food.

A bowl of noodle soup adorned with greens and bean sprouts
If you have never tried Vietnamese food GO DO IT. I am sure you can find a good restaurant in your city, especially one that serves the famous noodle soup called Phò (pronounced Phuh-uh). The herbaceous broth packed with soft rice noodles and meat (you choose beef, chicken or pork) is light and rich at the same time and is a perfect dish to dip your toe in the water before diving into the weirder, by US standards, flavors of Vietnamese food (I’ll let Jacob tell you about Balute, Google it and you’ll get some yummy images on your computer screen). Plus, Phò allows you to get involved with the creation of your dish by adding a squirt of lime, teaspoon of chili oil or pile of fresh Thai and Vietnamese Basil, mint and other greens. You can find Phò all over Ho Chi Min as they claim it originated there; we found a yummy one on a corner down the street from our hotel. You know you are in a good place when there are a lot of locals eating there too and they all look at you like you are an alien as you walk in and sit down.


In Vietnam, sometimes you find the best eats on the street and sometimes you find it by following the trail of tourists through review sites like Trip Advisor. Many avid travelers turn up their noses to Trip Advisor claiming the authentic experience is lost, which certainly can be seen in those restaurants around Vietnam who boast their trip advisor status with GIANT blown up pictures of the logo hanging beside their own sign. Perhaps it is true that some of these restaurants have lost their authenticity (especially those on the uber touristy backpacker streets) or perhaps using review sites is a way to find the new heartbeat in the city and the young budding chefs that are putting a modern spin on their hometown dishes.

One such place and my very favorite of all the food we tried in Ho Chi Min was at a restaurant called Mountain Retreat.Mountain Retreat Maybe it was because of their name (I needed a retreat from the city chaos by the time we went there) or the trail of red lanterns hanging down through the center of the twisting stairwell that took you up to their 5th floor digs. Maybe I loved it because it was filled with soft light from the bamboo basket light fixtures and the statues of the Buddha that were dotted throughout (you know I loved that). Ambience doesn’t always indicate that the restaurant will be special but creativity and vibe in the décor often means creativity in the food and this place did not disappoint. The Vietnamese people love their pork and you will find it in most dishes. At this restaurant we had BBQ pork ribs with a sticky lemongrass glaze. Vietnamese cuisine likes to find the perfect balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors and these ribs rang with that harmony. We also got our first taste of a popular dish called Bańh Tráng which is grilled, crispy rice paper topped with green onions, herbs and yep, pork. On the street you can find them folded up for easier consumption but here it was served pizza style. They added toasty sesame seeds to their rice paper and the creamy drizzle of a sort of aioli sauce on top pulled it all together, once again achieving the coveted balance of the 4 S’s.

Little ChefAnother of my favorite entrees in Ho Chi Minh City was Bún Thįt Nuóng or BBQ pork noodle salad. We ate this at another spectacular restaurant called Propaganda but Mackenzie and I also learned how to make it during a cooking class we took together on one of our last days in the city. The thinly sliced pork is marinated in fish sauce (an ingredient found in most dishes), lemongrass, honey and garlic and is then barbecued over an open flame. The pork is then laid atop a bowl of rice noodles, Vietnamese basil, mint, shredded Morning Glory stems and other greens. Then the dressing, whose key ingredients include more fish sauce and kumquat juice, is poured on top. As you can imagine diving into this bowl of smoky sweet pork and fresh herbs with the snap from the kumquat juice will stop all conversation at the table until it is finished. Oh, how I miss you Ho Chi Minh!Bún Chà

If you like to cook at all, I highly recommend taking a cooking class. You don’t even have to travel to an exotic location to do it (although it is a great experience if you do). There is nothing like learning the ins and outs of your favorite foods by learning to cook them yourself. For instance, did you know there is little to no wheat in Southeast Asian cuisine? They don’t grow it so they don’t use it. Everything is made from rice except the bread for the Bánh Mí, which is made from potatoes. Oh, you can find some amazing pastries in Vietnam but that is the French influence from the days of their rule.

I used to think that spring rolls were always those soft, fresh rolls filled with raw veggies but now I understand it is about the rSpring Roll Bundleice paper not whether it is fresh or fried. In my opinion, when fried, rice paper creates the best crisp of all the rolled and fried things that you can eat. If it is not made with rice paper then you are eating a Chinese influenced egg roll, which is made with a wheat-based wrapper. You can eat spring rolls in the classic way by picking them up and dipping them into that glorious sweet and spicy sauce (again, made with fish sauce). However, another choice is to ramp up the flavor by building a little bed for them first by diligently piling up herbs like Shisho leaf, mint and basil on top of a piece of green leaf lettuce. Then tie the whole package together with the green part of a green onion that has been blanched to make it pliable and THEN give it a dip and your whole spring roll world will be changed forever.

I could go on and on about the food we tried in Ho Chi Minh City like lotus stem salad with prawns or Bún Chà (another type of noodle soup and really is more from Hanoi than Ho Chi Minh). It was a great city to start us off on our food tour of the rest of the country. The cooking class gave Mackenzie a little bravery when trying weird dishes and made her a huge help when convincing her sister to eat something other than rice.   Crowds, chaos and cuisine that was our experience of Ho Chi Minh City and really a theme that ran through all of the cities we visited in the country of Vietnam.image