Sapa, Vietnam

After a long, restless night on a cramped “sleeper” bus from Hanoi, at 5 AM we pulled into Sapa, Vietnam as the rain poured down on us.  We drowsily slipped into a cafe to warm and caffeinate our bodies.  When the sky brightened for a moment we were off to find a hotel in the mist-ensconced mountain town tucked high in the northern highlands, not far from the Chinese border.

This was not the most ideal introduction to Sapa, but after a shower and quick nap we soon experienced the many wonders of this town.  It attracts tourists mostly for its rugged alpine landscapes with soaring mountains and for the many hill-tribe villages of H’Mong, Dzao and Tay ethnic minorities not far from town.

With less than a week remaining of Paul’s vacation we had wanted to get partway into Laos but the realities of time sank in and instead we opted for Sapa as our final destination together.  He would be just an overnight train ride away from Hanoi and could easily fly to Hong Kong for his return home.  Getting to and from Laos would be a much trickier (and rushed) matter.

And we were more than pleased with this choice: within a day the rain stopped and sunshine lit up the valley.  Our remaining days were filled with excellent and interesting walks, fine meals and relaxation in the friendly and outdoorsy town.  Restaurants offer delicious local specialties, such as H’Mong sticky rice (roasted in bamboo stalks), roasted vegetables from nearby farms, grilled fresh-water fish, and delicate soups and hearty stir fries brimming with indigenous mushrooms from the hills just outside of town.

And the climate is especially agreeable: days in the 70’s and low 80’s with dry air and afternoon valley breezes, and chilly nights (often requiring electric blankets).   Occasionally dark clouds would roll in and produce a gentle rain or downpour, usually not lasting an hour and soon sunshine would return.

This constant cycle of washing rain and dry mountain sunshine lends Sapa a cleansed, refreshing feel dissimilar to the hot, dusty feel of the lowlands.  I would soon journey to Laos and Cambodia where temperatures are hottest in April reaching 100°F with high humidity.  So I enjoyed the ideal Sapa weather of mild days and cool nights while I could.

The vibe of Sapa town is great – a healthy mix of travelers (lots of backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts) and good-natured locals.  And the plucky hill-tribe vendors from the valley villages ply the streets with their textiles, beautifully hand woven and embroidered in the style of their particular tribe.  For example, the H’Mong wear darker clothing with subtle yet colorful patterns that identify their specific tribal group: Black H’Mong, Red H’Mong, White H’Mong, etc.  Dzao women shave their heads above the forehead and the sinuous lower locks are tied around bright red hats.  Most younger hill-tribe men wear western clothing, while the older men still dress in the traditional long vestiments of their ethnic group.

As intriguing and lively as these vendors are in Sapa, they are canny sales people and their persistence takes some getting used too.  But after a couple days, we got used to politely declining their advances.  We even established a rapport with a few of the women, who generally speak excellent English and have a spirited sense of humor.  So there were some enjoyable moments amid the hard selling.

Purchasing from street vendors is widely discouraged by local authorities, as the increase in tourism has brought a flood of cheap (and inauthentic)  imports from China which undercut the profits of genuine village craftspeople, many of whom rely on this income for survival.  Furthermore, many children are taken out of school to help their mothers sell, which is not a good thing.

At the entrance of each village frequented by tourists, a prominent reminder is posted to not buy from people on the streets.  And one morning as we enjoyed coffee on our hotel terrace, a roving government “information” truck passed us broadcasting (in English through a loudspeaker) messages to not solicit the local street vendors.  This was unusual  since we have seen lots of these trucks pass in the past weeks, but always in Vietnamese and probably official “news” and other propaganda from the Party information ministry.  Fortunately there are appropriate outlets for purchasing authentic hill-tribe products: cooperatives and working markets where crafts are made on the premises are not hard to find in Sapa.

Attractive Parks

We chanced upon Dragon Jaw Mountain Park, just a short walk up the hill from Sapa town center.  We were looking for a short hike in the mountains, and the tourist information office said we could walk to the cell-phone tower perched on a peak not far from town.

But when we got there we were amazed at the expansive gardens and majestic views carefully cultivated in the footpath design of the park.  There is an orchid garden, a children’s playground with more than a dozen large sculptures, various paths leading to lookouts to the town below or the soaring Hoang Lien Son mountain range to the west.  There are jagged limestone outcroppings decorating the paths, places to rest and grab a cold beer, quiet gardens for silence and solitude, and there was even an open-air performance space which was playing traditional Vietnamese music.

We were astonished that this exceptionally designed and maintained park is barely mentioned in the dominant travel guides for the area.  For us the Dragon Jaw Mountain Park is an absolute must, and the few Western tourists we met there agreed.

Warm, Welcoming Hotels

Our hotels in Sapa were fantastic.  We stayed in three of them, two budget and one moderately priced – all charming, friendly and comfortable in their own ways.  All our rooms had private terraces with sweeping views, buffet breakfasts with a smorgasbord of Western and Vietnamese specialties.  We slept wonderfully, helped by the cool nighttime temperatures – we even used the electric blankets and the room heater for the first couple of misty nights.  I never would have expected this in Vietnam!

Intriguing Hill-tribe  Villages

We spent a couple days exploring the ethnic minority villages surrounding Sapa.  The first day we rented motorcycles and headed down into the valley.  At the first village we strolled through the terraced rice paddies and Paul slipped and one of his feet fell into the watery mush.  A nearby female villager elder promptly came to his “rescue” and proceeded to hold his hand the rest of the way down to the main footpath.  Paul and I were laughing so hard at this episode, our septuagenarian “guide” taking time to ensure we had no similar rice baths during our visit to her village.  It was a kind gesture, yet it made for a moment of humor.

Generally, the frequented villages for tourists are disappointing.  They are primarily a large tourist market with the same generic goods found elsewhere, uninspiring restaurants with hamburgers and soft drinks, and “traditional huts” featuring homestays that look more like a dorm-style hostel than an authentic village home.

The good news is that the authorities protect the other villages by concentrating tourism in a few areas.  Many villages are simply off limits to visitors, and the ones that aren’t charge a nominal admission fee which (we hope) goes directly to the local communities.

Enticing Valley Walks

On our second day, we trekked from Sapa to the tourist village of Cat Cat whose waterfall was packed with tourists.  We continued on the footpath connecting to other villages and we scarcely saw another foreigner, passing only local tribes people.  Only 5 minutes off the beaten track and we were in full natural and cultural glory.

We continued on to Sin Chai village along the narrow road which was devoid of tourists.  We were amazed by the primitive but charming wooden homes, the farmers in the rice paddies preparing the fields for the coming rains, children helping their parents, families threading mushrooms on strings to dry in the sun.  We saw one electrical line in the village yet almost everyone seemed to have a mobile phone.  Modern communications technology is affordable and capable enough to reach even the most traditional of ethnic groups in Vietnam (and probably the world).

We quietly passed through, smiling as we passed villagers.  Soon we reached the end of the town and the road became a small footpath which continued on up the valley past countless terraced rice paddies.  We greeted locals returning from the hills with baskets of mushrooms, vegetables from the garden, or firewood.  We saw water buffalo and goats feeding on the terraces, and pot-belly pigs and chickens running to-and-fro.  Farmers were tilling the rice paddies.  The views were amazing – Paul and I could barely believe the beauty of the area yet not a single tourist in sight.

We climbed until we reached the main road and promptly caught a local bus which whisked us the remaining 4 km back to Sapa town.  Our legs tired from 6 hours of walking, we grabbed cold beers and sat on our terrace as the sun sank behind the mountains.  A remarkable day!

In conclusion, Sapa was an exceedingly enjoyable stay for us.  We loved the town, the mountains, the weather, the people, the food – pretty much everything was worthwhile and satisfying.  And at the end of our stay, I was saddened to part ways with Paul after a long month together yet it was a great finale.

And I was rested and refreshed to begin the next part of my adventures into Laos.

2 Responses to Getting High on the Villages, Valleys and Views of Sapa, Vietnam

  1. Mark says:

    Thanks for the update Peter. I love your stories of your experiences.

    • Peter says:

      Thanks Mark, let’s make sure we all can travel together in the near future, so much fun with you and Amy.

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