We finally made it to Sapa in the northwestern Tonkinese Alps of Vietnam after 5 nights in bustling Hanoi. The Lonely Planet Vietnam suggests not booking any tours here and just exploring it on your own. We followed this advice and highly recommend if you want to come to Sapa that you do the same. We think you will have a better time on your own and you can always arrange tours and treks when you get there if you are drawn to that. If you can spend more than a few days in Sapa area we promise you won't regret it... it is SO BEAUTIFUL!!! The
night train from Hanoi was a rollicking, rolling ride but comfortable enough. We arrived in Lao Cai around 6:30 I think on a rainy foggy day which later seemed rather gloomy to us.
Lao Cai is right on the Chinese border and Sapa only a 1 hour bus ride away into the mountains at 1800 m. Arriving as we did on sunday we were told at the train station that there were no buses. Guys were trying to sell us on taking an expensive taxi ride. We figured there had to be some kind of bus... finally they talked to us about these small shuttle buses going up the hill but they were still giving us ridiculously high prices. We ended up paying 50,000 dong each for a seat after much negotiation. We wondered if even that was too much.
We were going to stay in Sapa for a week or so while waiting the six business days for our China visas and ended up staying two. We were glad we didn't book any tours as we really enjoyed the freedom to explore as we pleased, some days walking in this or that direction and on one or two occasions we rented a motorbike or got a ride on one to go greater distances than we cared to walk. We met several persons who were regretting that they came on a tour and were sorry to have to leave on the third day or were dissatisfied with the small amount of trekking on the tour. Don't let this happen to you. If you can spend more than three days here you will be happy you did. Any direction you choose to go in these mountains they are so gorgeous, so awe inspiring! This is definately one of our most favorite places in Vietnam. A great place to unwind, explore and motorbike.
We stayed 4 nights at the Sapa Star (formerly the Hoi An hotel) across from the Cat Cat hotel. We had a room with a view and the people were wonderful. After that we moved a bit out of town to a room we liked even better on the 5th floor of the Sapa Summit hotel. Also with a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains and down a valley it was tempting to just sit all day on our balcony and watch the fog or clouds shifting around endlessly. Fortunately we could do the same thing as we walked various places soaking up the unique and special environment created by the different hill tribe people. I (Christina) fell in love with them immediately even though they were very "pesky" after a while always approaching, showing their handcrafts and saying "buy from me, buy from me".
Even so they were so friendly and genuine in their way and many could speak in very good english so I enjoyed talking with them, though I often had no intention to buy anything. I believe that they also simply enjoyed the exchange that occurred. Often for me it was not an option to walk along and completely ignore them (though sometimes I did) and William would say to me "o.K. I just want to walk down the street and not get in any conversations this time". You can see from the photos how adorable they are. They seem to live such a simple, pure life, surrounded by such beauty that we envied them a bit. Over the 2 weeks we visited many villages around Sapa and were able to observe and learn about how they are living.
A young woman I befriended who was 22 and had three children under the age of five told us many things one day as we walked toward her village and had a lunch she prepared us in her house. We walked a long way that day as she took us through some other villages down in a valley and then back up to the road where we walked another km before turning up a dirt path going steeply up the crevice of a mountain. Everywhere we walked there were fields of corn and rice terraces. In the small villages themselves people grow vegetables. Kids played in the muddy water of an adjacent rice paddy not yet planted.
Our hostess was Ze and her baby boy and a friend of hers who had been walking with us part of the day. Ze's village had recieved lines for electricity only 5 months before and this enabled them to be able to cook rice with a rice cooker, have a couple florescent lights in the house and a television. She said they only watched the t.v. sometimes at night or on a rainy day. This day she made a fire and cooked the rice, vegetables and eggs we ate over the fire inside the house. There was a separate room, divided by I can't remember what now, which had a wooden platform with mat that the family of five slept on. The floor was hard packed dirt and this is the type of floor all the hill tribe people have. Coming up to the house we had to duck our heads beneath the bottom of the A frame metal roof to enter. This house, like so many others had walls of 1x6 or 8" boards with no windows. Daylight enters only through the open doorway and small cracks between the boards. Inside the house we sat on a low wooden bench or small stools and a small, low, square table was brought out for us to put some of the food on. The lunch was simple but delicious and we enjoyed
sharing with them something we had brought also. I had been thinking for days about whether I would like to buy a particular colorful shoulder bag from Ze which I liked and was different than what most of the women were selling. After we ate the lunch I looked at the bag some more and (having already decided to buy it) bought it. She had already told us that if we wanted, we didn't have to pay her anything but we could just buy the item. Apparently, it is customary that if you enter someones house as their guest it is expected that you will buy something from the hostess.
We did not have the opportunity to meet Ze's husband or other children as he was working in the rice fields that day and the kids were with other family members. Ze and her family seemed to live in a typical way but were also a bit more affluent than the people we met from another village whose houses seemed to be even smaller. It is the women and some children who speak some English, not the men. But everyone works in the fields of rice and corn at various times in the week. Only one crop of rice and corn is grown each year in the mountains during the spring and summer. They use Water buffalo to work in the rice paddies (as is true all over Vietnam) and prepare the ground for new crops. Nothing is mechanized. We saw young boys minding and herding the water buffalo around the hills.
Most of the hill tribe groups in the Sapa area are still wearing their traditional garb. In the case of the H'mong and Dzao groups some of these items of clothing are made from the hemp they grow. You can see them sitting alongside the road often working with the long hemp fibers, preparing them for the looms that the fabric is made on and then later dyed the dark blue color with natural plant dyes. They make knee length jackets and sleeveless vests with the fabric which they embellish with colorful hand needlework on the wide collars and sleeves. After I learned they used hemp I wanted to buy a jacket but new these can be quite expensive.
I really enjoyed seeing the women walking around carrying their babies on their backs. We even saw young girls carrying around their siblings this way while their mothers were away working in the fields. Babies are nursed for around 2 years. Also, they do not use diapers on the babies. They have blanket padding next to their backs as they carry them most of the day and wash out everything every morning. We also learned that these peoples still have marriages arranged by their parents and they really don't have the option to say no. The woman CAN say no but then there may not be any other man offered to her.
They do not have sex before marriage. Families have their own fields and this is of course a measure of their wealth so when they can they acquire more. Most of the people walk everywhere but some young guys now have motorbikes they ride. This is some of what we were able to learn about the indigenous culture in this part of Vietnam. These peoples are not Vietnamese, but have Chinese related roots and came down from China probably hundreds of years ago. Likewise, in nearby Yunnan province to the north (China) there are more than 50 different ethnic groups the most of any part of China.
As with other parts of Vietnam, the tourism is so important here as a potential contributor to the common person's income that travelers will often feel harassed with all the attention. However, after our first week in Sapa we were approached much less by people. Also, our experience in Vietnam, contrary to negative tourist stories of the country, was not much different than touristy areas we ventured through in other countries. In other words, you will feel harassed by "sales people" in any tourist area; this happened to us in Angkor Wat for example. I think we just have to be tolerant as travelers and empathetic and learn to deal with it all with a smile... that is what has worked for me. Then, besides that just be mindful of protecting your own interests and bargain to the best of your abilities. If you simply resent them all and expect to be treated not like a tourist but like they "really care" about you (as someone we talked to put it) then maybe traveling here isn't for you. But we think if you can get past this you will enjoy yourself and feel glad you have the opportunity to witness their culture and way of life. We sure have! For sure, Sapa and the surrounding area is well worth whatever hassles you have to put up with as it is such a unique and fantasticly beautiful area of the world. Do not miss it!