In northern Vietnam, just south of the Vietnamese-Chinese border, is Sapa, one of the largest towns for the numerous hill tribes and ethnic groups of these northern highlands. Having become increasingly overrun with tourism, it is not the centre of Sapa which is most enchanting, but the people and scenery of Sapa’s rolling green mountain surroundings.
Veiled in the cool fog of north-western Vietnam’s far-flung Lao Cai province sits the mountain town of Sapa. A central gathering point for the numerous ethnic minority groups of Vietnam’s rugged highlands – the Hmong, Dao (pronounced Zow), Giay and Tay – this ‘Orient-meets-the-Alps’ hideaway has been increasing in popularity on the travellers’ map for the past ten years, and is now a refreshing popular weekend getaway not only for Hanoians seeking to beat the city’s stuffy confines in the hotter summer months, but the world-at-large.
Begun as a French military outpost, and more specifically a medical retreat due to the fresh air and more moderate climate, in the early 1900s, Sapa, which lies roughly 370 kilometres northwest of Hanoi, is home to a plethora of flora and fauna, diverse animal life, and even more diverse cultural habitation. With attractions such as Silver Waterfall, Rattan Bridge, Phan-Xi-Pang peak, Ta Phin Grotto, a lively weekend market and a slew of other attractions, it’s no wonder that this northern Vietnamese melting pot of a locale has taken off in recent years as a must-see in northern Vietnam’s rolling green highlands – for both the outdoorsy and the romantic.
As for the best time to venture into the hills, for those that are choosing to hike (perhaps the most popular of draws to Sapa), it may be the cooler months, as anything above a few kilometres gets extremely sweaty despite the cool breeze, though beware, as the rain can turn your hike into a muddy slip-and-slide adventure. However, the folks in Sapa are never shy to boast about their weather, constantly letting visitors know that every day in Sapa is a beautiful day, as they each contain the four seasons within them: a cool spring morning, a warm and sunny summer afternoon, a cloudy autumn evening, and a cold winter night. As always, I urge travellers to skip into Vietnam in the autumn or winter, though to be frank, Sapa rarely becomes unbearably hot, even in the warmer months – hence the flow of local tourists that escape the muggy streets of Hanoi each weekend.
As for me, my journey to Sapa begins during the wet season in Hanoi, where I barely manage to roll out of bed at 5:30 in the morning to board a surprisingly lux bus equipped with reclining chairs and plenty of wiggle room, and nest in for the five-hour journey that will twist and weave itself through the ascending northern highlands. With a number of options, it isn’t hard to sort yourself out on a bus from Hanoi, and equally as easy to figure out is the sleeper train that slowly rattles passengers to and fro overnight between the two northern Vietnamese hangouts. And with costs remaining relatively low, the choice is yours to make when it comes to transportation, but keep in mind if you settle on the sleeper train, you’ll miss a nimiety of natural scenery that is sure to impress even the grumpiest of wakers. For those who would prefer a more personal experience, cars and drivers can certainly also be hired to guide you in, unbothered, to the small mountain escape, but for me, the bus seems like a pretty nice way to roll in.
And while there are a slew of hip cafes, restaurants and bars that line the various laneways of Sapa’s interior, it is for the fact that I felt overindulged in theatrics that I decided it was time to head out – to dig into what Sapa is known for best: it’s serenely beautiful mountains and valleys.
And so, five hours gone, we finally pull into Sapa’s quaint town square. Dwarfed by the nearby ranges, and especially the peak of Phan-Xi-Pang (Vietnam’s highest point at around 3,100 metres), the centre of this small mountain town is crowned most prominently by the Holy Rosary Church, or also known as the Stone Church. Built by the French in the late 19th and early 20th century, this stained-glass-ornamented church is one of the last remaining French buildings in town, and at roughly 6,000 square metres, isn’t something that is easily missed. Sat directly across from the town’s main marketplace and plaza, these three destinations within the town make up the pulsating heart of this Alps-like Vietnamese retreat. But it is one of these three that presents perhaps the most culturally unique aspect about Sapa’s constructed interior, the plaza.
But as I alight from the bus I can’t help but notice the braided network of colours that slam into me, short Hmong women dressed in vibrant traditional outfits smile and chatter amongst themselves, bickering over who’s to take the next aimless tourist, and I can’t help but thinking it all seems a bit manufactured, it’s almost too traditional. And while I find out later that the traditional outfits are indeed still worn, the same fate can’t be said for the town’s cultural crown, the plaza. During the day, hordes of Vietnamese can be found here chatting over coffee, knocking around on the volleyball court, or simply catching some Zs, and in that respect it’s as culturally representative as the hundreds and thousands of coffee shops that are set up around the rest of Vietnam, but come Saturday night, the plaza transforms as Cho Tinh, or the traditional love market, takes over.
“People can’t forget that even though we live in Vietnam, and might be able to speak Vietnamese, it doesn’t mean that we are Vietnamese. We are our own people, and we are proud of that.”
Historically, on Saturday nights, members of the Red Dao tribe would make their way to Sapa’s main square where young girls would be singing, hidden away in the dark. If a particular young man was enchanted with a voice, he would seek it out and court the young girl if there was potential chemistry. Followed by a romp to the forest for three days if the match was on, these trips would usually end in marriage, and was the traditional way in which the Red Dao would go about finding suitable partners. This same spectacle can still be seen at the plaza on Saturday nights, but unfortunately, it has been commercialised to the point now that the only love being found is the local love of new dollars in old pockets as tips for singing and instrument-playing. Certainly an educational experience, these types of nostalgic theatrics have become quite the norm in central Sapa as it has grown in popularity. And while there are a slew of hip cafes, restaurants and bars that line the various laneways of Sapa’s interior, it is for the fact that I felt overindulged in theatrics that I decided it was time to head out – to dig into what Sapa is known for best: its serenely beautiful mountains and valleys.
I meet up with my guide Du (pronounced Zu), an ever-smiling, traditionally-clad and tiny Hmong lady, and we get to walking. The plan is to march 12 kilometres through the ridges, valleys, rivers and fields to a homestay in one of the small ethnic villages that sits tucked away in the lush green canopies of northern Vietnam. As we get to walking, the thing I notice most immediately is that this tiny Hmong lady is no slouch on the slopes, and is more often than not helping me, perhaps twice her size, navigate the muddy slopes of the tiered rice terraces (not a hike for children or the physically unable). “Are you ok?” she chuckles as she reaches her hand to help me negotiate a particularly sticky, and muddy, situation. “Couldn’t be better Du, but this all seems so easy for you, how can it be,” I say, as I not so gracefully ease my way down. “When you live here your whole life, in the mountains, it’s as easy as walking on the streets for you.” And that it is for her.
As we continue along passing buffalo, indigo fields and rice paddies, I can’t help but feel taken. Fog and silence co-mingle with the drone of crickets and the hissing of rivers recently revitalised by yesterday’s rain. A slight mist falls and helps to dampen the heat that inevitably creeps in after the first few kilometres, and the rolling green mountains dotted with small ethnic villages give a breathtaking backdrop to what is perhaps one of northern Vietnam’s more beautifully tranquil escapes.
But it isn’t just the scenery that make Sapa’s splendid outskirts a destination; it’s the people that are just as enchanting. These hills, which are filled with Hmong, Dao, Giay and Tay, amongst others, offer travellers a look into the traditionally un-Vietnamese life. Most of these tribes are said to be descendants of the ethnic pockets that have long resided in the mountains of Vietnam, Thailand, China, Laos and Cambodia, and with a rocky history of American support during the American-Vietnamese conflict of the mid-20th century, and subsequent marginalisation by the powers that be for such anti-communist action, these tribes have long been groups that remained relatively unvisited, up until about ten years ago, when tourists began to push the boundaries of northern Vietnamese tourism.
“People can’t forget that even though we live in Vietnam, and might be able to speak Vietnamese, it doesn’t mean that we are Vietnamese. We are our own people, and we are proud of that.” Instead of desk jobs, they work in rice fields and indigo fields. Instead of shopping at malls, they make their own hemp-dyed clothes. And instead of working to save, they work to survive. “We speak different languages from each other and from the Vietnamese,” Du says. “But not only that, we eat differently, we dress differently, and we have different traditions.” And while I am untrained in both the Vietnamese and Hmong languages, and am no fashion expert, the differences are certainly noticeable. While differences between the various mountain tribes aren’t as noticeable as they are between the ethnic groups and the Vietnamese, Du explains that linguistics, food and various belief systems within the varied culture all have slight differences across the board. It really is a life of old here in the mountains, but one that is as inherently beautiful as it is simple.
Evenings are quiet and early, people are smiling and friendly, traffic is non-existent, air is clean, and food and clothes are grown and made – talk about natural.
And so, after a good half-day of hiking I arrive at my homestay. Nestled against the rice paddies of the bottom of a valley in Ta Van, the scenery here is as sublime as it has been the whole day, and after taking it in for quite some time, and a dinner of spring rolls and pork, with a side of “happy water” as Du likes to call it, or fermented rice liquor, I was as good as sleepwalking my way to my bed. “Goodnight,” I shout to Du. But apparently sleep is just as valuable in Hmong society as it is my own.
The next day is the second, and last, of my two-day excursion into Sapa’s outer limits, and it is rung in with a hike that weaves us through a bamboo forest, over a waterfall, and into a river for a nice, and absurdly refreshing, afternoon swim. And as I’m floating here in this river-valley in northern Vietnam all I can think about is how much different life is. Evenings are quiet and early, people are smiling and friendly, traffic is non-existent, air is clean, and food and clothes are grown and made – talk about natural. And on top of it all, the abundance of breath-taking scenery that overwhelms and silences even the most experienced of travellers is something that has to be seen to be believed – and here, now, I’ll believe just about anything.
(Featured image, last image: The mountainous region that makes up the area around Sapa is populated with a number of ethnic minority hill tribes that can be found in places like Thailand, Laos, China and Vietnam, amongst others. Agrarian by tradition, these tribes focus on growing crops like rice, indigo and hemp, as well as raising animals such as water buffalo, chickens, cows, and pigs.)