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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Vietnam | Sapa

Sapa felt like we were stepping into a storybook. There was beautiful scenery, with equally beautiful ‘characters’. The people of Sapa are mainly members of the various hill tribes that inhabit the area and their clothing is colorful and ornately decorated. There was such great history in this region and each person there I’m sure had their own unique story.

Overnight Train to Sapa

We took the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, in the far northwest corner of Vietnam which is almost on the China-Vietnam border. Just like Hanoi, it was cooler weather, but much more scenic and laid back. The overnight train went as smoothly as possible, considering it was almost like we were laying on wooden floor boards. We were in the hard sleeper cars and our compartment had 6 beds (3 beds high on each side), but it's also the cheapest form of transportation without having to sit upright in a seat for the entire night. However, we had a couple of stow-aways in our compartment -- a couple of people must have had standing only tickets. They ended up sharing a bed with a couple of the other compartment mates. They would have two people laying on this little 3 ft. x 6 ft. bed with one person's feet up near where the other person's face was - but they seemed to sleep with their knees bended so the feet were not directly in the other person's face. Not our idea of comfort, but I guess you do what you have to do when you need to get somewhere.

We arrived in Lao Cai around 8:30 a.m. and then took a mini-van to Sapa Town for 40,000 VD. The websites we had checked before said you could get tickets for 25,000 VD but we were not sure how old that information was and they produced this ticket with 40,000 VD printed on it. We almost think they just found or made one ticket with "Lao Cai to Sapa" with 40,000 VD on it so that they can show to people to make it seem official. However, Alex requested the physical ticket, so if it was a hoax maybe we prevented other people from getting ripped off….at least for the rest of the day…ha ha! However, the ride to Sapa Town was very scenic! Sapa is a mountainous area, but it is still fertile as they grow a lot of agricultural crops there. In order to prevent erosion and their plants from washing out, they have all the hillsides terraced. Most of the crops growing are farmed by individual hill tribe families and they grow a variety of things including various garden vegetables, rye, corn and rice, of course.

Hazed Filled Skies

We checked into our hotel, the Fansipan Hotel, and were happy to see that the bed was soft after spending the night on the hard bed. Our room even had a balcony with a view of the Fanispan Mountain, but because of the haze you couldn't really see it.

It seems many of the areas we visited in Northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are more hazy than the southern areas. We think it is a combination of pollution coming down from China's industrial southern area and the hillside fires that the hill tribes members use to get rid of the brush and clear their fields for harvest. My respiratory system didn't seem to like it and I had a smoker's cough for most of the time in Northern Southeast Asia. (However, once we got back to Southern Vietnam it seemed to clear up a bit and she could breathe better….coincidence?)

Ethnic Groups of Sapa & Exploring on Motorbike

Sapa is the area of Vietnam where many of the Vietnamese ethnic groups have settled. They still wear traditional dress and have their own languages. Many of them also still live in very simple homes - similar to the homes we saw in Laos with the dirt floors and bamboo walls. After a brunch, we rented a motorbike and headed north of Sapa Town further into the mountains. We went to Silver Waterfall, which we could view well from the road. As soon as we got out of the valley of the town, the wind really started to blow and we could feel its resistance as we scooted around.

Ta Phin Village

We then headed to the hill tribe village of Ta Phin, which has the H'mong and Red Dao minorities living there. Although it was interesting to walk around and see parts of their village, Sapa has become much more touristy than the ethnic areas we visited in Laos. As soon as we parked the motorbike, a small group of women would come up to us and ask us where we were from and then continued to follow us throughout our walk in the village just so they could show us their handicrafts, which were in the basket on their backs. It's impressive they have learned to speak English so well, but it was also a turn-off because it was like you had a shadow following you around the entire village trying to get you to buy something.

Local Food Markets of Sapa

In the evening before dinner, I went to explore the local markets in the middle of Sapa Town. One of the most interesting markets was the local food market. She saw everything from fruits and vegetables to pigs' feet, a cow's head and cut up parts of dog meat. Surprisingly, I was still able to eat dinner later and tried some wild hog, which had more of a red meat taste to it. In one area of the city, there were several restaurants that had dog roasting outside. Although Vietnam is known for eating dog meat this was the first time we had actually seen it up close.

Day 2 - Motorbike Adventure

The next morning we rented a motorbike again and instead headed south of Sapa Town. Many of these roads leading to the hill tribe villages charge a fee for foreigners going on them, so we had to fork over 15,000 VD each, just like we had the day before to visit Ta Phin. However, this road had many more villages along it so it was well worth the money. However, as soon as we started up the road, a very wet fog hit us and it took most of the morning to burn off. It made for a chilly ride, but we came prepared with more layers (a t-shirt, long-sleeve t-shirt and a jacket on top) to put on; and after a while stopped for some coffee to warm-up. But in the late part of the afternoon, it warmed up and we were back down to T-shirts as we headed back to town.

Ban Ho Village

We continued to Ban Ho village. Along the way there were some parts of the road that were basically dirt, gravel and small patches, as well as 1-3 inches of water covering the roads in parts from the waterfall coming down. There we saw some of the Tay people.

Ta Van Village

This village seemed to be less touristy than Ta Van village that we stopped at after lunch to see the Zay (Day) people. [Ta Van even had a house with a karaoke bar at the top of it.]

Telling the Differences Between the Tribes

Although each of the hill tribes have their own languages, the easiest way for us to tell them apart was by the women and children's clothing. The H'mong people wore black jackets and pants with colorful embroidery around the edges with sometimes a black hat. The Red Dao would wear black skirts with patterns (almost checkered) on them with red scarves or really big red headdresses (which they said was just individual preference as to how big the woman wanted it). The Tay people wore black with plaid scarves over their heads; while the Zay women also wore head scarves but had solid bright colored shirts they wore with black bottoms.

It's so interesting so many of these people continue to live like people did a hundred years ago in so many parts of Asia. However, they also seem to be the friendliest and laid back people, while definitely have a strong work ethic. As we drove through the mountains, almost everyone we saw was doing some sort of work - whether trying to sell goods or plowing the fields with a hand hoe. Even the children would be out in the fields watching their parents work and children as young as 9 or 10 would be helping them as well. In the middle of Sapa Town there would even be groups of young children going around trying to sell handicrafts to tourists. Later in the afternoon we caught a mini-van back to Lao Cai train station for our night train back to Hanoi. We were in the 6-bed hard sleeper again, and it wasn't any more comfortable this time, but we did have one less stow-away in our cabin this time! ;-)

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