Out of Hanoi-Sa Pa, Hanoi
Located in Vietnam's remote northwest mountains, Sapa is famous for both its fine, rugged scenery and also its rich cultural diversity. It is an incredibly picturesque town and area that lies in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border in north-western Vietnam, known as "the Tonkinese Alps". Sapa and its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam. However, as a result of a recent surge in popularity Sapa has rapidly become a tourist hotspot where money is the new drug of choice. Don't be put off by the rush, your explorations of the surrounding countryside will be worth the trouble.
I travelled to Sapa as part of a 4 day/3 night tour with et-pumpkin who are based in Hanoi. Everything was done for me and I travelled from Hanoi to Sapa via train and bus where they even have their own 1st class train carriage which was very nice. I arrived at their hotel in Sapa called the Pumpkin Hotel and got given a good sized twin room all to myself plus I had all my meals here during the 2 days I stayed here before and after my 2 day trek.
Day 1 of my trek started the following day which took me from Sapa to a village called Ta Vin where we stayed with a Zay family overnight. After climbing down from Sapa and just making out the rice terraces through the mist, we walked through the village of Lau Chai, after having lunch, past pigs, ducks, buffalo and some lovely wooden houses. We got to our overnight home stay in the village of Ta Vin where our beds were upstairs on the floor while they cooked our evening meal on a small open fire in the kitchen area where the food was fantastic.
Day 2 of the trek started with breakfast and we left and started to make our way up the valley along some very muddy paddy fields where my feet slipped all over the place even though I had on brand new boots which I had bought in Sapa. We came to the village of Giang Tachai which is a Zao village and visited inside a house which was very interesting. The village had only had electricity for the last couple of years and the school had only been built in 2004. We had lunch near the river and I said goodbye to my fellow tour party as I had to make my way back to Sapa and they went their way to another village for another overnight stop. I got back to Sapa and spent the night at the same hotel.
Day 3 took me down to the cultural village of Cat Cat. A 17-year old Black Hmong girl, who was on the first day trek to Ta Van, took me here where we headed downhill past wooden houses selling more textiles. We then came to a museum sort of place which displayed some ethnography items such as musical instruments, tools etc and then carried on down to some waterfalls. I then had the afternoon to myself before being taken to Lai Cai and the overnight train back to Hanoi. I really enjoyed my tour and trek and it was really good fun to stay with an ethnic minority family.
Through Handspan Travel (80 Ma May St, Hanoi) we booked a tour to Sa Pa. We (2 adults, 2 teenage daughters) travelled overnight on the train in a 4-berth sleeper. We slept better than we expected. On arrival we were taken by bus on a very scenic journey to Sa Pa - about an hour. From here we went from the Handspan office by jeep to the start of our trek.
We had our own guide, for just our family. We trekked 18km up through the mountains and down clay paths, through the paddi fields, over streams with hanging bridges and through the local villages. We stayed with a family in their village home. Cold water, our own towels, very clean squat toilet, beds with no sheets (we had our own silk sheets) and we ate what they ate. We loved it and it was the highlight of our whole trip - but don't consider doing this if you have different expectations.
The Queen Hotel in Sapa was a great place to stay. It was cozy and very clean. Shower had nice hot water and very cheap to stay here. Even more bonus is that there is a restaurant in the bottom of the hotel and they can exchange travelers cheques. Furthermore the staff is awesome. You also wake up to beautiful views of Mt. Fansipan outside your window.
If you are worried about Avian Flu, I'm not sure if I would recommend eating in the open air market, but if all your travel immunizations are up to date and you aren't immunocompromised eating in the open air market is a must. Best Pho that I had next to my moms. Also I am a firm believer in eating where the locals eat, and in the market my husband was the only nonVietnamese person I saw eating. So if the locals eat here you know it must be good. Here you can also see the many different tribes that come to market, the Black Hmong, Flower Hmong, and Red Zao. Don't be intimidated about ordering here. Even if your cook doesn't speak English, they still have English written menus that you can point at to indicate what you would like and he will be able to recognize it by its number on the menu.
When in Sapa, you can't leave without spending at least a day trip trekking to one of the nearby villages. Alot of the hotels in Sapa or Hanoi have package deals where they provide a tour guide to take you into Mt. Fansipan and you trek along the many rice terraces to nearby Hmong villages. This was my favorite part of my trip to Vietnam. The views of the landscape that you see are breaktaking. If you are in good health, I definitely recommend doing this. Make sure if you do this that you wear a good pair of hiking shoes that you don't mind getting muddy and a pair of pants that you don't mind getting dirty because you will get quite muddy and dirty on this hike trying to manipulate the mountainside. A walking stick is a must. It will help you get out of a lot of sticky situations and will help you maintain your balance if you feel like you are going to fall. Don't worry, little girls on the hike will sell you a bamboo stick for $1 that works quite well as a walking stick.
DO NOT TRY TO TREK TO THE NEARBY VILLAGES FROM SAPA ALONE! Not only is this a dangerous task in case you get hurt on the slippery rice terraces, but if you get lost there is no one to find you out along Mt. Fansipan. Also a guide will be able to communicate with the villagers who speak a different dialect than the native Vietnamese. Furthermore with a guide you can usually enjoy lunch at one of the nearby villages and a guide can also tell you about the history of the people and the surrounding landscape. You can arrange a tour guide either at one of the many hotels out of Sapa or from some of the hotels in Hanoi as part of a package deal to trek to Sapa villages. Our tour guide Truong was from a hotel out of Sapa and he was excellent!
In the town of Sapa you will find some of the remnants of French Indochina on the town. Still standing is an old Catholic church in the town square which the day I visted was used as a haven to get out of the cold and rain by the Hmong girls.
The Black Hmong girls are some of the most intelligent young women I have ever met. Do not make the assumption that just because they dress in indiginous garb that they are not brilliant. Too many ignorant travelers have made this assumption on too many a tribal people over time just because their culture or customs may be different. These girls are savvy business women who can talk any tourist into buying their wares with their impeccable English and one-liners, while still maintaing house and home with their babies in slings around their shoulders. I met this Hmong girl who had an e-mail address and could tell me any US capital of any state I could think of. Heck her geography of my country was better than my own. Furthermore if you take the time to travel to Sapa, make sure that you take the time out to talk to these girls about their lives because its such a wonderful opportunity for two very different cultures to exchange ideas to get to know each other better.
Just down the street from the weekend Sapa Market up a hill you will find the Friendly Restaurant. It is a nice place to have a meal for a good price. The waitress and hostess are quite sweet and like to joke and have a good time with their patrons. The food is nothing to write home about, but you can't beat the hospitality.
Ok I may be bias on this one, but I'm the proud owner of 3 wondeful dogs, Baxster, Ginger, and Zeus. So when I was walking in the market place in Sapa and saw the decapitated head of a dog with its tongue hanging out being sold for dinner, I have to admit I even had to look away. But be respectful and just move on. Eating dog in Sapa is common. If you see a sign advertising Thit cho, pass on it unless you want to be eating fido for dinner. I did see a sign in Sapa that I found quite amusing. Outside one of the many restaurants that sell dog there was a sign with a picture of Pluto from the Walt Disney Cartoons that said "Yum Yum".
Ok the Hmong people are very shy and they don't want you taking pictures of them without asking first. The pictures that I did get of the people while I was there were of girls that I bought things from or who I had made friends with during my visit to Sapa or ones that I just happened to catch in a picture while I was snapping a picture of the landscape. So don't take pictures of the people without permission first. Its rude. Don't worry if you try without permission, the Hmong will turn away from you anyway.
Sapa Market is a wonderful place to go to if you can say No. Every weekend in Sapa they have an open air market where the Hmong people come into the town from their respective villages to sell wares and to shop. Also it is a place for the Hmong to con tourists into paying 2 times the price for their wonderful handmade wares. Also beware if you look like a tourist (my poor white bald and huge husband) you will be attacked by the Hmong girls and they are quite persistent. Just be polite and say no thank you and move on. However you can't miss the brilliant display of wares that are on sell. There are great deals to be had. I bought my nephew a handmade wooden flute for 33 cents. I also bought beautiful silver patina bracelets for $1 and handmade sewn handbags for $5. Just be ready to haggle.
Sapa is by far the most brilliant place I have ever been in the world. It is about an overnight train trip outside of Hanoi. Here you will come face to face with the Hmong people, a minority indiginous people in Northern Vietnam. Way of life here is much different from Hanoi or Saigon. Every weekend you will find they have an open air market where the girls of the different tribes come to hock their wares. Sapa used to be a retreat for the French to escape the hot days of Saigon. Here it will remind you of an old ski town with its french chalets. Definitely a breath taking experience.
SA PA town is located 1650 m above sea level in north-west Vietnam in the province LAO CAI. Sa Pa means "town of sand" in Chinese. The northern Vietnam usted to be known as Tonkin, hence the name of Sa Pa Area - TONKINESE ALPS.
When you go to SaPa make sure to make the Sunday Cultural Market. This is where many of the diffeent hilltribe groups meen and sell and trade their products. It is absolutely amazing to see and wander around!!