crop top wedding dress

Trekking out of our comfort zone in Vietnam – with our kids leading the way

Ellen Himelfarb with her family on their hike through northern Vietnam.


Kids will take on long-haul travel with gusto, writes Ellen Himelfarb, if only you sell it to them right

There's a photo circulating from our first day trekking in the Hoang Lien Son mountains of northern Vietnam. In it, five girls are frolicking around a café table heaving with barely dented platters of noodles and rice, evidence of an overeager lunch order. The two adults in the frame are obscured by jazz hands and curtains of hair. But they never stood a chance, as they are, quite literally, falling into their soup, fast asleep. Those adults are my husband and me.

Jason and I had predicted some exhaustion planning our three-day hike in the Sapa highlands, a lush alpine region near the border with China, where ethnic minorities tend electric-green rice fields on hand-dug terraces scaling down the hillside. Our two daughters, 10 and 8, had never hiked an hour, let alone up scrubby mountainsides at 2,500 metres. They'd never endured temperatures hotter than 25 C, let alone a humid 35. They weren't remotely interested in walking for the sake of walking, that nonsensical grown-up pastime.

What we didn't anticipate was that, whether due to the weather, the altitude or sheer old age, the exhausted ones would be us. That day, four hours into this hazy mountainscape thousands of kilometres from home, the kids were just hitting their stride.


Vietnam with the Kids. Photo by Ellen Himelfarb
Vietnam with the Kids. Photo by Ellen Himelfarb
While the kids quickly took to Vietnam’s humid temperatures and lush mountainscape, the parents were exhausted.

How did we get here? It wasn't my idea. Like many mothers, I defer to my children in matters of itinerary. That doesn't stop me from schlepping them from place to place, just from forcing them too far outside what I perceive to be their comfort zone.

Still, we'd been mulling Vietnam for years, with old friends whose schedules had finally aligned with ours. Another friend, who knew the country inside out, urged us to factor in a tour around Sapa, guided by Hmong tribeswomen employed by the local enterprise Sapa Sisters.

We all signed up together, booking berths in the overnight train from Hanoi and the "welcome breakfast" at Sapa Sisters headquarters in town. But we agreed to trek separately. Our friends' youngest daughter was the same age as our eldest and already a veteran rambler. They requested the "difficult" course; we opted for an easy one. Our guides – Zao, a slight young mother in traditional black culottes with a colourful embroidered sash, and Mai, a spunky, round-faced teenager in a blue wraparound top – introduced themselves, sized up the children and began plotting our respective routes.

Vietnam with the Kids. Photo by Ellen Himelfarb
When it seemed the girls’ energy had all but tapped out, a new distraction would appear and they’d be off in pursuit.

Meanwhile the girls were conspiring. After 10 adventurous days together, plus the thrilling sleeper train, they didn't want to say goodbye. The majority of our gang voted for one more day together.

"Okay," Zao said in her staccato deadpan. "We will find a way."

Zao and Mai conferred. Minutes later, they announced a compromise. Only later did we realize that "compromise" meant simply taking the difficult route.

Bamboo walking sticks helped keep the girls amused.
Ignorance is bliss. Never knowing when a cliff is going to top out for views over rippling hills a million shades of green means you're never overthinking. On our initial ascent through fields of wildflowers, all the scrambling, hoisting ourselves with branches and clutching makeshift bamboo walking sticks provided enough novelty to keep the girls amused. When one started to whine, we sent in an older kid as reinforcement, leading her in a song or sharing a secret. Without really noticing, the kids took off ahead, leaving us puffing delicately behind. And just when we thought the girls' energy had all but tapped out, when they begged for shoulder rides or simply refused to budge, a tiny black potbellied piglet would appear and they'd be off in pursuit.


A handful of Vietnam's 50 ethnic minorities prevail around this fertile area of 6,000 square kilometres. Within the dominant Tay, Dao and Hmong tribes are subfactions, identifiable by distinctive dress. Black Hmong, such as Zao and Mai, choose basic black edged with flamboyant stitching; their Red Hmong counterparts throw scarlet silks into the mix and Flower Hmong layer gaudy, fringed textiles from their turbans to their legwarmers. Each group speaks a dialect unintelligible to the others, despite co-habitating on this territory since the migration from China 800 years ago. And each has endured its own struggle. Zao began her life picking crops for pocket change, foraging for wood, selling feeble woven bracelets to tourists, she explained dispassionately. Then, at 18, she was lured across the Chinese border and married off. She escaped less than a year later and Sapa Sisters took her in. crop top wedding dress

Vietnam with the Kids. Photo by Ellen Himelfarb
Water buffalo on the rice terraces.

What the hill tribes share are their tools for survival: scallop-edged rice terraces tamped down by water buffalo; recipes for stewed tofu and pork-flecked rice; and ramshackle barns bursting with frolicking chicks and piglets like clowns from a Volkswagen. Packaged with the savvy of the Sapa Sisters, who arrange authentic meals and overnights in local homes, they deliver the right mix for a robust family escape.

After lunch, we lazily skirted farm after farm to a small handicraft gallery, where we rifled through hand-stitched purses and watched an artisan work a loom into indigo-stained hemp scarves. It was just the break in momentum the 15-year-old needed to stage a mutiny. She was done. More negotiations ensued. Mai agreed to lead a small faction on a shortcut to our homestay. My eldest locked an arm through the teen's, clearly in her thrall. With a twist of my rubber arm, I tagged along.

We teetered home along a ridge, zeroing in on a village strung with laundry – knock-off designer gear stitched with "Lous Vuitton" and "Calvim Klain." Buying glass bottles of Fanta from a vendor dozing on the crates, we peered from the plateau over a gorge laden with buffalo, the raised borders around the paddies like lines on a contour map. We sat on the precipice and shaded our eyes from the late-afternoon sun.

Soon, out of the mist, tramped the other seven, the youngest scurrying ahead as if it were her first mile and not, some of us hoped, our last.

From there, it was downhill, if only metaphorically. We emerged from a bamboo forest at a rust-red bridge over a cool creek. Children played in the mucky bank – the oldest, around 5, hauling a baby by the armpit until his bottoms slipped below his bum.

Crossing a courtyard obscured by rainforest, a Red Dao woman with full, rosy cheeks hurried toward us, clasped our hands and offered, via our guides in the lingua franca Vietnamese, cups of (unbearably putrid) fresh tea. Her children showed us to a shower and three bunk rooms strewn with thin mattresses. As we parents napped beneath faded Toy Story sheets, the girls taught one another card games.

The call to dinner brought a dozen grinning relatives to a long wooden table in a windowless room stained with soot. From the kitchen's open fire, our host brought plates of tofu, chicken, morning glory and deep-fried spring rolls. We ate ravenously, woozily – even more woozily after Mai fetched a glass carafe filled with "happy water," which she proceeded to pour into tiny thimbles by our plates.

"Mot, hai, ba, ZO!" she offered.

"Mot, hai, ba, ZO!" we repeated, the last thing I remember before slipping back under the sheets.

All smiles on the back of a moped.
The temperature had fallen 10 degrees by morning. We set off at 9, back along the bridge, tracing the plateau to the village, where a van waited to transport my immediate family to a gentler, "beginner" landscape. We hugged and said our goodbyes with all the energy I couldn't muster the day before.

Over the next couple of days, our little family squelched across jungles, snacked by a waterfall, bought voluminous embroidered skirts off the backs of puckered Hmong women while they yapped, anachronistically, on cellphones. We regained our strength yet remained weak with awe and wonder. Zao welcomed us into her tiny cabin for tea around the fire, then enlisted a gang of friends to transport us back to the headquarters by moped. We didn't realize until the girls had motored off, cackling on the backs of their respective bikes, how far out of their comfort zone we'd already gone.

Trekking out of our comfort zone in Vietnam – with our kids leading the way Kids will take on long-haul travel with gusto, writes Ellen Himelfarb, if only you sell it to them right​