Out of Hanoi-Sa Pa, Hanoi
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
For some of the best hilltribe trekking in the world you must go up to SaPa. SaPa can be reached from hanoi by night train to Lao Cai and then an hour bus to Sapa, or by a more direct 12 hour or so bus. For some it may be a pain to get to SaPa, but it is completely worth it!!
For good all-inclusive tours or just tours you should check out this website: www.sapadiscovery.com
This company has great tours for good prices. From 2-7 or so day treks!
Company: SaPa Discovery
Company website: www.spapdiscovery.com package site: sapadiscovery.com/package.htm
E-mail(s): firstname.lastname@example.org and/or info@sapadiscovery
Owner: AUBERGE-DANG TRUNG
Package Tour (P.V)
Sapa-Muong Hum Market
(For every Friday or Saturday)
Day 1: (Friday)
9.15 pm, car will pick you up at your hotel and then transfer to Hanoi railway station to catch the night train at 10.00 pm.
Day 2: ( Saturday)
Bus will pick you up at Lao Cai station to Sapa ( 1 hour drive). Check in hotel, After having breakfast our guide will take you to visit Ta Phin village of Red Dzao and Black H'mong ethnic minorities or Lao Chai and Ta Van of Black H'mong and Dzay people at your requests. Having picnic lunch on the way. After 5 hour trek, jeep or motorbike will pick you back Sapa. Staying in the hotel in Sapa.
Day 3: (Sunday)
Waking up earlier than usual (6.00 am), after having breakfast bus will take you to visit one of the most colorful Sunday market of Muong Hum (3 hours drive, 80 km from Sapa). Here, you are free to go visiting around the market and meet several ethnic minorities such as Ha Nhi, Red H'mong, Tay, Dzay, Red Dzao). At 12.00 pm, having picnic lunch. After lunch, the guide will take you to visit Nam Pung village of Ha Nhi people (3 hrs walking). Leaving Muong Hum for Lao Cai railway station at 3.30 pm to catch the night train back to Hanoi.
Price varies depending on number of people with you from $140 for one person alone to $85 p/p for 6 people. All-inclusive price includes: deluxe room in Sapa, private transportation, all meals, all tours, English-speaking guide, roundtrip soft class (1st) train ticket, pickup and return in Hanoi.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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!!