To access the valley and the minority villages that you’ll find here an access fee is collected at a SMALL HOUSE like structure along the way soon after you leave the town of Sa Pa.The building where you pay is unmistakable and in fact you really cant miss it although WE TRIED to….we were on a motorbike and were scooting on past when we were flagged down and prompted to turn around and PAY…
Getting to the valley and OUT of Sa Pa town you simply need to follow Cau May Street down the hill ….the road curves to the left as you descend and before you know it you’re on the outskirts of town and on the road to the villages of Ta Van, Ban Ho, Lao Chai and points beyond.
So….you need to pay up…and the cost to access the valley and its villages is a mere 15,000 Dong….or less than $ 1.00.
I’ve read that its obligatory to have a guide with you…in fact though this was not the case when we were here in January of 2010…all we needed to do was pay the access cost and we were in…it might be better to have a guide but we didn’t think it was necessary and as well we were moving on motorbike and were not walking…or “trekking” on foot so a guide was not a part of the plan!
So from the shack…follow the road until you see a large sign that says “Lao Chai” where you see a dirt road that turns to the right. Follow this road down and into the valley and you’re here….the Muong Hoa Valley, eventually the road passes through the small communities and the minority peoples that you’ve come here to see.
The Black Hmong are ONE group of the many minority peoples you’ll find in Vietnam and here in Sa Pa and the region there are a sizable population of these people.
Dressed in DARK clothing dyed black with indigo they are the most common minority people seen in Sa Pa..
They are thought to have immigrated to northern Vietnam from China in the late 1700,s and are descendants of the Miao people who fled China…in contrast to they’re Chinese name “ Miao” which means “barbarian” the word “Hmong” translates to mean “free people”..
There was no written Hmong language until recently but there has always been a strong oral tradition of these people relating to story telling, proverbs and riddles.
All of the Black Hmong I encountered were quick to smile and laugh even when I was NOT buying anything from them…
Fondest memory: Two Black Hmong kids “snagged” us as we were making our way down off the main road to see the “rattan” bridge that goes over the Muong Hoa River. Chai and Ju accompanied us to the bridge and talked mostly with me as Kevin was far ahead scouting the route. They were both soft spoken and both spoke English very well, they described themselves as BEST friends in the Whole World!! It was a pleasure to have them join us for a short time that day.
Another GREAT photo op and funny funny event happened on our way out of our favorite restaurant...an older woman grabbed Kevin and wanted him to buy a hat form her...They haggled back and forth and finally she had the hat on him...I don't think he ended up making a deal but it sure made for a few laughs as the process evolved!!
The Dao are another ethnic people seen quite commonly in and around Sa Pa…The women dress in a brilliant red colored clothing and often will be seen wearing a red turban like wrap on they’re head’s. These people also participate in the tourist market and you will experience they’re many attempts to also sell you something for you to take home with you
These people also originated in China and are thought to have settled in and around the Sa Pa region for a few hundred years.
Unlike the Black Hmong though, they have long ago adapted the Chinese writing system but similar to the Black Hmong, all that I encountered here were easy to talk with and quick to smile!
Fondest memory: There was one woman in particular that I met soon after I arrived in Sa Pa…we established quickly that I was not shopping. She gave me a small embroidered wrist band that she put onto my wrist, a gift she said, so it was a sealed deal I think as far as she was concerned, when I was going to make a purchase, she was going to be the seller@!! I did end up buying a small set of pillow cases from her. At different times when we ran into each other on the street, we would stop to talk…and quickly a crowd of her companions would gather around attempting to make a sale.
This central square is pretty much the Soul of Sa Pa Town…the Catholic Church, the Tourist Center, the Market,, and the Museum are all located around the perimeter of the square. It’s quite a busy spot attracting people who are hanging out at the corners of the square and the streets around the Church.
The focal point of Quang Truong Square is built below street level in a park like setting, market stalls are built around a walkway that takes you around the entire area of the Market, the focal point of the walkway is the “Star” symbol of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, built into the walkway out of concrete.
Local Hmong and Dao people are the major participants of the market you’ll find here and you’ll find the usual assortment of hand made embroidered items and wooden carvings and clothing.
Other than the day to day business that’s carried out here it’s also a social gathering place for the people here. There seemed to be lots of talking, and laughter amongst old friends I’m guessing. I found that the usual “greetings” that I’d run into throughout Vietnam were common here also…”Buy from me today”...”Help me be lucky and buy from me”…and so on and so on…
There were a few that were a little more pushy than others but as I discovered earlier in my “tour of Vietnam” my “hand slashing” through the air and claiming “NO SHOPPING TODAY” brought the usual smiles and laughter…on both the seller…and me the “Walking Dollar Sign”. I turned it easily into an opportunity for conversation.
The square is a good spot to get your bearings and most of the main streets run by or close to Quang Truong Square so its inevitable I think that you ‘’ find” this without difficulty. On a few occasions I simply found a place to sit and watch as people carried on they’re day to day lives, well worth the time I thought!!
This is pretty much the main drag or one of the main streets in the town of Sa Pa…It starts up the hill beside the Quacg Truong Square, where the Weekend Market happens, and runs down the hill, connects with Muong Hoa Street and will take you out of town.
From this street you can access the Vegetable Market that will be on your right hand side going down the hill. You’ll find more than a few souvenir shops, restaurants, stores, and one of only two banks in town. It’s really a busy spot most of the day well into the evening as people come and go, both locals, and tourists. One day while we were having lunch in Little Sa Pa 2 a funeral procession for a young man killed in a motorbike accident even paraded down the street.
On this street you’ll easily find the restaurants noted here on my pages, the store where I found a GREAT deal on a North Face Winter jacket, I found a GREAT little spot here to have a foot massage along here also. It really is the Heart of the commercial activity of Sa Pa..
Im sure when you venture to Sa Pa some of your time will be spent walking UP…or walking DOWN the street. You’ll have heard about it here at VT!! Watch the motorbikes and good luck dodging the Hmong and Dao vendors!!!
Commonly tourists take a 4-berth soft sleeper train cabin to Sa Pa. So you share with four other people. There isn't a lot of room but it is air conditioned. There is a squat toilet at one end of the carriage and a pedestal toilet at the other end.
The train provides these passengers with a small bottle of water, a pillow and a quilt. No sheets so if you have your own silk sleep-sack, have it handy. A lot of the personal lights above the bunks, don't work. Some really evil coffee was available for sale in the mornings when they come to rouse you to be ready to alight.
You need to be very aware of security. There is space under the bunks and a void above the door for luggage storage. The train stops along the route and it has been known for some locals to hop on and help themselves into cabins so the train staff kept emphasizing to us to use all locks and latches on the inside of the door.
Favorite thing: When I arrived in Sapa in January it was pretty cold with night-time temperatures only a few degrees above freezing. As there's very little in the way of any heating, I had to hire an electric fire for my room in my hotel. To go with the cold, expect fog. I arrived early in the morning after taking the overnight train, and walked around the town where the weather was overcast and grey. Then the fog blew in very quickly, so quickly in fact, that I could hardly see 25 metres in front of me in the space of a few minutes. The fog (or maybe it was low cloud) also hung around at the start of my trek which hampered the views of the rice terraces. However, as we made our way down into a valley, the fog disappeared and the sun came out and it was beautiful. When I returned to Sapa after my 2 day trek there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Expect very changeable weather up here!
Favorite thing: Cau May (Cloud Bridge) is the main thoroughfare for foreign tourists, and is crowded with restaurants serving western food. This street starts at the south side of the town square and terminates in a steep set of stairs lined with cheap rooms, let out by the Vietnamese who have come here to work. At the top of the stairs, you'll find one of the town's two ATMs that takes foreign cards. The street also gives access to the towns market and usually features Red Dzao selling textiles.
Favorite thing: Cau May (Cloud Bridge) is the main thoroughfare for foreign tourists, and is crowded with restaurants serving western food. This street starts at the south side of the town square and terminates in a steep set of stairs lined with cheap rooms, let out by the Vietnamese who have come here to work. At the top of the stairs, you'll find one of the town's two ATMs that takes foreign cards. Word of warning though, I tried a few times to get money out but got nothing. I spoke to an English couple who said that they had tried the day before but had no joy. I managed to get some money out later that same day so I suppose it runs out quite quickly.