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Sapa (7/21-22)

July 22nd, 2006 · No Comments

Read below to hear about our favorite place in all of Vietnam, the highlands of Sapa, with its rice terraces, markets, and ethnic hilltribes.

For photos: click here.


We had heard that Sapa was amazing and would give us a peek into a completely different part of Vietnam, so we made a huge effort to come here, for just two days–but it was completely worth it! We booked ourselves on the Victoria Express, the Vietnamese equivalent of the “Orient Express” for the two overnight trains to and from Sapa. We left Hanoi late at night on Friday and really enjoyed the mystique of the sleeper cabins, the wood paneling, the dining car. It was wonderful (until the air conditioning got turned off in the middle of the night, we both woke up sweating, and had to bang on the door of the dining car where our steward was sleeping to have someone turn it back on…) We still arrived feeling (reasonably) refreshed early on Saturday morning and were thrilled to look out our window to see water buffalo working the rice fields.

After settling into our hotel, the Victoria Sapa (you have to stay there if you want to take their train), we decided to explore a bit of the town on our own. We had a wonderful breakfast and bought a picnic lunch from a place called Baguette et Chocolat (yes, we are still in Vietnam, but luckily the French colonial influence means freshly baked croissants are always easy to find!). We then hiked up to somewhat of a tourist trap of a “mountain” for some “amazing gardens” (no flowers were in bloom), but watching the local Vietnamese enjoying their Saturday made the excursion actually rather worthwhile. Dan wanted to take a photo of one of the Hmong girls (from a nearby hilltribe town), but had to buy me a woven bracelet in exchange. It was interesting to see the other girls’ reactions, some of them actually hid their faces behind their hands to make sure they wouldn’t be photographed. The Hmong hilltribe is not the one who believes that taking a photo is taking a part of your soul, but they are still rather camera shy.

What really makes Sapa unique is a wonderful combination of the landscape and the hilltribe people. There are terraces and terraces of rice fields that were the brightest green that I had ever seen. It was so beautiful, I just cannot describe it. Definitely check out our photos! Northern Vietnam is home to many different hilltribe people, and during our time here, we were able to see four of the different tribes. In many ways, they continue to live their lives according to tradition, dressing the way their ancestors always have, tending to their rice fields, and weaving beautiful clothing. Our time hear made us both think about the tough choices between encouraging a group of people to maintain their culture and way of life or helping them to improve their living conditions by educating and “Westernizing” them.

That afternoon, we took the most amazing hike through the Muong Hoa and Ta Van valleys. All along the way the green rice terraces lined the mountain, all the way down to the Muong Hoa river. We encountered many tribes people walking to and from their villages, often with heavy loads on their backs. We visited two villages along the way. The first was a Black Hmong village of Lao Chai. When we arrived at the village, the people were just returning home from the daily Mass. We stopped in one house, and a woman showed us around. The living conditions were rather bleak: no running water, no electricity, not even a proper floor (just the dirt ground). The kitchen was in the middle of the house, so all the rooms were filled with smoke. And there were chickens and pigs running around the garden, and often into the house. The woman who lived there was very happy though, and her daughter happily posed for a photo after I bought a silver bracelet from her.

As we continued on, our guide explained that the Black Hmong people live in much worse conditions than others in the valley for a number of reasons. The main two were that, as they are Catholic, they believe in large families…therefore having too many children to support and causing the family to live in poverty. Secondly, they do not embrace “new” ways of living and like to keep their traditions. When we visited the second town of Ta Van, our guide showed us how the Giay people had managed to improve thier living conditions by assimilating to the 21st century. This meant their house had a linolieum floor, electricity, some ugly wooden furniture, and (believe it or not) a karaoke machine. We found it rather unsettling that the Giay were rewarded for giving up their culture in this way. Many Giay have even adopted modern Vietnamese dress and live in villages of mixed ethnic groups. However the disease and poverty of the Black Hmong and other tribes is really saddening as well. The whole day made us think about the difficult ethical question at hand (one that I think I am not posing too eloquently, but you understand what I’m saying, right?)

On our second day, we had a guide take us to the Bac Ha market, about a 3 hour drive from Sapa. The market is where all the different tribes in the region come on Sundays, using tiny mangy horses to carry their goods. At the market, they trade livestock, weaving materials, and foodstuffs. The Flower Hmong people stood out most at the market, with their beautiful hemp-cloth costumes woven with colorful floral designs. The costumes are hand-embroidered (and often hand dyed), and it is said that Hmong men size up prospective partners by their embroidery skill. We got some amazing photos at the market because it was the perfect setting capture the people going about their daily life–without feeling so intrusive with a giant camera lens.

After the market, our guide took us to another small village and into a Flower Hmong home. The living conditions were in between the two other homes we had seen the day beforehand. The kitchen was in a separate room, but there was no covering on the ground (and no karaoke machine). After some difficulties communicating with the guide (who was supposed to speak English and didn’t), we finally made it down to the river, where we took a boat ride to some magnificent cliffs in the valley. Then, it was back to the train station in Lao Cai, for our overnight journey back to Hanoi.

For anyone visiting Vietnam, I highly encourage you to make the effort to visit Sapa. It was an amazing experience, unlike anything else on our entire trip…and something which may not be around for much longer.

Tags: Vietnam

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