Sapa is not short of tour operators, but Hmong run social enterprise Sapa O’Chau is certainly worth considering: it arranges reliable, socially responsible trekking tours, and runs a community cafe, both of which support its free schooling for disadvantaged ethnic minority children.
Sapa O’Chau (O’Chau means thank you in Hmong) was born in 2007, the brainchild of Shu Tan, a Hmong woman who wanted to help open up opportunities for local people in Sapa, particularly those from ethnic minority villages.
With help from some visiting Australians, Shu set up an information and tour/trekking website, promoting socially responsible tourism, and this was followed by arranging homestays. In 2010, Shu decided to tackle the problem of illiteracy. Most children in the villages either never go to school or drop out early to help parents in the fields or at home. This severely limits their future employment options, so Sapa O’Chau set out to provide English tuition; they now also teach classes in Vietnamese, IT and maths, as well as traditional song and dance and arts and crafts. This helps bring the children up to a level of education that will enable them to re-enrol in school or access vocational training.
Visitors to Sapa can connect with Sapa O’Chau in several ways, including joining a trek or visiting the cafe. Donations are also accepted. Treks are the main income generator for Sapa O’Chau and as a social enterprise all income is ploughed back into its activities and the community. Having initially arranged treks through a third party — legally you cannot organise treks and homestays without a license — in 2013 Sapa O’Chau received an International Tour Operators’ License. It is the first license to be granted to an organisation run by ethnic minorities in Vietnam and they are rightly proud of this.
This license has opened up further opportunities: when we visited, Sapa O’Chau were in the process of taking its tour guides through a one-month training course, designed by staff and volunteers. This training will ensure that guides are able to really enhance the experience of its guests through sharing knowledge not just about their own culture, but about the culture of other ethnic minorities and the history of the region. It will also help further develop the English skills of the guides.
Treks can be arranged for one day or more, including a homestay in either a Red Dao or Hmong home. Minimum group size is one person and maximum is six or eight; the price decreases if you are part of a larger group but solo travellers can ask to be grouped with others.
The Sapa O’Chau cafe, opened in 2011 and located on Thac Bac Street in Sapa, is both the reception area for organising and waiting for treks and a relaxed place for a coffee break or snack. We loved the O’Chau ginger tea — with plenty of honey — and why not enjoy a beer on the terrace after a hard day trekking? Profits also go back into the community.
Sapa O’Chau is truly helping visitors to live its slogan: Come to Sapa and leave more than just footprints so do consider using their services.