While vagabonding throughout Northern Vietnam, most travelers tend to have a keen eye on the UNESCO Heritage Site of Halong Bay, but would also not miss out on trekking in Sapa. Once you have captured all the breath-taking scenery, hike through the spectacular rice fields, and enjoy the calm atmosphere of the genuine Sapa. Do not skip spending the night at Gem Valley in Cat Cat Village. Gem Valley is nothing like any kind of accommodation I, and probably most of you, have experienced. It is the only home-stay combined with a cafe and art gallery that you could find around the area. Gem Valley is the home of two Hanoian artists who moved to Sapa slightly more than ten years ago. They fell in love with the landscape and life of Sapa, and decided to buy the house, move here and turn it into an art gallery combined with a home-stay.
So how is the actual homestay experience?
As soon as you arrive in the centre of Sapa, be prepared to receive a lot of invitations from locals to enjoy a homestay with them. Though these locals most often try to charge foreigners a lot, you would be surprised to see many visitors taking them up on their offers. Some families might speak English. Some don’t. For a homestay experience with one of these locals, you are normally charged around 20 USD to 25 USD per night, which is about 400,000 to 500,000 VND (you can pay in US dollars in many popular tourist destinations in Vietnam). Be expected to pay even more for local families who speak English. You can decide to take their whole service, including homestay, breakfast and guided trekking tour, or just to stay in their home for less money. Most genuine local home-stays only have outhouse toilets.
We took a look at a few homestay options around Sapa and decided to stay at Gem Valley in Cat Cat Village. Cat Cat Village is about 3 kilometres (1.86 mi) from Sapa, in the direction to the famous Mt. Fansipan. From the city centre of Sapa, the most convenient way to get here is to hop on a scooter taxi (xe ôm), which would take you there within 15–20 minutes. The homestay at Gem Valley offered everything we were looking for: stunning views of the rice paddies seen through an old wooden house that was well designed and decorated with an authentic art gallery. A night at Gem Valley would cost you 300,000 VND (about 15 USD) per room for 2 people, or 400,000 VND (about 20 USD) during high season.
It is a cafe and restaurant with a breathtaking view of Sapa
To our pleasant surprise, the accommodation was also a cafe and restaurant! So how did they make it a cafe, restaurant, art gallery and an accommodation for travelers at the same time? While the first floor of the building is used mainly for the gallery, you can also enjoy a cup of Vietnamese green tea or coffee on the balcony. We ordered some local coffee and tea, then had a warm welcoming dinner with Vietnamese food and homemade apple wine with the family.
If you do not wish to eat dinner at a western-themed restaurant in most touristy areas of Sapa, such as Cau May or Muong Hoa, come to Gem Valley for home-cooked food by the owner. We paid about 6 USD per person (120,000 VND) for a dinner with the family, including up to 6 different local dishes (fried rice, 2 meat dishes, 2 fried dishes of meat and vegetables and soup). The pork cooked with several dishes was excellent, and locally produced. Later on, we even spent the night playing guitars, drums and singing with the owner and other guests.
Don't forget to spend time checking out the artwork
The simple beauty of the accommodation and its surroundings was increased by the stunning artwork created by Gem Valley’s owner. He was inspired by the ethnic groups’ signature textile patterns and local customs. Take a close look at the details of his work. You would be amazed by how the artist has reflected the lives of the people from Sapa.
How are the facilities?
The facilities there are pretty basic. The room is equipped with an old-style bed, a blanket, a mosquito net and a closet. This set of bed was designed to resemble beds, blankets and nets commonly used many years ago in the countryside. Nowadays, most households in the city don’t have mosquitos net any more, so the bed at Gem Valley feels very traditional for a local. There’s a toilet with hot water upstairs for guests, so you would not need to worry about using an outdoor toilet.
Enjoy your stay at Gem Valley
During peak season, somewhere between summer months (from June to August) and September, when the rice fields bloom, travelers may find it difficult to experience the genuine, calm and beautiful atmosphere of Sapa. It is not possible to reserve a place at Gem Valley via the internet as the owner prefers keep to keep it less commercialised. The only ways to book a stay at Gem Valley is to contact Mr. Chien via phone (+84 912 849 753 or + 84 984 001 391), email ([email protected]oo.com.vn) or book in person on arrival.