Sarah had 0ne condition of our trip to Vietnam (this being her 2nd trip), and that was that we went to at least some places she’d missed on her previous visit. We were pretty flexible on most places, however Sapa was considered a must.
Located in the northern highlands that border China, this area is home to many of Vietnam’s minority tribes (there are 54 ethnic groups that comprise Vietnam), is popular for trekking and has a much more temperate climate.
With our train arriving in Lao Cai, we had to find a way to travel the final 38km to Sapa itself, and a solution arrived in the form of minivan buses. We joined a mixed group of travelers who we assume had all piled off the train, paid our fair and piled in for the ascent to our ultimate destination.
The bus went about the town dropping people off at their various hotels before it got to the last few people (which included us) who hadn’t booked anything in advance. Rather than be railroaded into staying at a place ‘recommended’ by the driver we quickly piled out, grabbed our bags and began to head down the street.
Like lightning, as soon as we’d taken but a few steps we had local women in their black garb flocking to us, trying to hawk their wares (these were Black Hmong women). Reality was, our first point of order was to find some accommodation then play it by ear from there.
It wasn’t too long before we found ourselves a bed for the night, and from there began to plan our day. After grabbing some breakfast we decided to take the short walk to Cat Cat village as suggested in our Lonely Planet.
The 3km stroll gave us some beautiful views of the valley despite the cloud, and as the day grew older the cloud did in fact begin to thin.
It was really refreshing to feel the mountain air which was missing a lot of the humidity we’d lived through for the past few weeks. Not to say it wasn’t warm, just a very different kind of temperature.
On the descent into the village itself, we took a mazy downhill path. Small stalls clung to the hillside and the path itself snaked between them and the terraced rice paddies which were in abundance.
The reward for our efforts came in the form of a lovely waterfall (complete with an old french power station harnessing the river with a water wheel) followed by a dance performance by some local Hmong people.
We took an alternate path up a tributary of the river and this stream took us past a group of local children enjoying what is the cleanest water we’ve seen in Vietnam. It was quite amusing watching these kids paddle in the icy flow (several of them clad in nothing at all) then warm themselves by laying flat on the nearby rocks before repeating the process all over again.
As we weren’t very clear as to where this path lead, we returned to the main trail and continued along the circuit that would eventually lead us back to Sapa. Once you begin the ascent and the trail meets the rocky road, all of a sudden motorbikes and/or scooters will appear with the offer of a ride back to town (for a fee of course). In no particular hurry, we declined and leisurely made our own way back.
That evening was certainly the first in a long time where we considered the need to wear jeans and jumpers as we readied for dinner, after which we took the time to check out the local night markets, always a highlight.
Prior to the sun setting, we’d taken the time for an evening stroll, which saw us circuit the seemingly picturesque lake in the heart of town. Like so many Vietnamese waters however, you really must catch it on the right angle, as get it wrong and one can easily see how much rubbish has simply been dumped in what could otherwise be a great tourist attraction.
Our following night was to be spent around 18km outside of Sapa at the Topas Eco-Lodge. This environmentally friendly establishment is in the midst of several Red Dzao villages (another local minority). It was the most expensive place we would stay on our whole trip, however it was paid for as a birthday present by Sarah’s mum.
Perched on the crest of a rise, this offered 270 degree views from most of its 25 bungalows. A small mountain trail circuits the grounds, whilst there is also the option to guided treks of much greater length.
As we had arrived in the late afternoon, we decided to do a small walk, essentially a circuit of the eco-lodge grounds. It was a little more adventurous than it sounds however, as being on such a high perch, in all but the direction we’d arrived from it was a very steep slope, so if you can picture 2 sweaty figures on a narrow goat trail where there may or may not be snakes, then you’re pretty much on the mark.
This where the magic happened. We were perhaps 2 or 3 metres off the main path, climbing down onto this narrow ‘goat trail’ when suddenly there were 5 women behind us. They’d appeared as if from thin air! These were some of the local Red Dzao women, and for the next half hour as we walked this steep trail, they were there every step of the way, doing everything in their power to convince us to buy some trinket or item of clothing from them.
It left me a bit conflicted. On one hand it seemed sad to see these women in their gorgeous local garb so dependent upon the promise of tourists buying from them as a means of income, but I could also see how to them it was an opportunity to put some more food on the table for their children.
The local women are not supposed to trespass onto the grounds proper, so on occasion when they might get a little overzealous, you’d see a flock of women scatter as one of the staff members began to head in their general direction.
The following day we embarked on a trek that would take us slightly further afield, with lodge providing us a guide and pack lunch for the journey. As expected, a few additional companions joined (more Dzao women) as we made the windy descent into the valley, so our party of 3, quickly became 7.
They weren’t as pushy this time, so it was quite fun to have them along, in fact at one point we were even able to visit one of their homes and witnes first hand how little they really do posses (although their home brewed whisky truly packed a punch!) Picture a dark, draughty home, with cobwebbed rafters, smoke stained beams and a dirt floor.
After a brief visit to a local school we stopped for lunch where the ladies finally began to push their wares. I acquiesced and we purchased a few local souvenirs for family back home after which all but one of the ladies slowly drifted away. She would walk us all the way back to our lodge and we were more than happy to leave with her part of our lunch for her to pass on to her family. It was only some boiled eggs and ham, but when we realised all she had eaten for lunch beside us was some plain, boiled rice, the true feeling in her gratitude became more apparent.
The home stretch back to the lodge was all along fairly level roads, but it did still afford us some wonderful views of the valley. A couple of quiet beers before our return to Sapa (with the narrow mountain roads and cavalier drivers a few beers is highly recommended) helped see out our final hours at Topas, before our last night in Sapa. The following day was to see us return to Lao Cai for our sleeper train to Hanoi, but there was to be one important stop along the way, Bac Ha.
Bac Ha is famous for its sunday market, where the Flower Hmong (another ethnic variant of the Hmong people) hold their weekly market.
Far more vibrantly dressed than their Sapa cousins, the Flower Hmong really make this market one of the most spectacular I’ve yet seen. Combine this with the market itself which is an incredibly large sprawl, and it really was a wonderful morning.
This market was just a sensory delight. The colour, the smells, it sold pretty much everything and anything. There were narrow lanes with roofed stalls selling fresh meat and produce, vendors grilling meats over hot coals. A large open aired area (which we found by sneaking through a hole in the back of a tent) sold horses and caged birds, whilst another on a nearby bluff had buffalo on display. If you wanted cloth, it could be had, or a shave for a price. We considered getting me a shave… but then I began to haggle on the price. I then felt there was only one option and that was to walk (what if I’d bargained too hard and he slipped with the razor). Next time perhaps?
After another bowl of steaming noodles (Pho Ga, our first sample of the chicken version) for sustenance and we continued our wandering, in search of a few final gifts.
A brief aside at another local village before our final stop in Lao Cai. We were offered a chance to look across the Red River at the Chinese border town of Hekou. It was the first glimpse either Sarah or I had ever had of the worlds most populous country.
Two or three hours later it was time to board our overnight train, and after a round of trivia with a few more Australian travelers, we settled down for our night on the rails, this time sharing our compartment with a lovely Spanish couple.
With some sadness we left this wonderful part of Vietnam behind and made our way back to Hanoi.