by Johnny

After we left Ha Long Bay, we took a four hour minibus back to Hanoi, an overnight train to Lao Cai and finally an hour minibus to Sapa, an ex-French hill station in northwest Vietnam near the Chinese border known for its gorgeous terraced rice fields and colorful hill tribes.  Don’t worry, our overnight train this time around was much nicer, and we both managed to get some solid sleep (thanks, Ambien!).

Our first reaction to Sapa was…where is Sapa?  When we arrived at 7:00 am it was so chilly and foggy that we could barely see 10 feet in front us (which we later learned is often the case in Sapa in December).  Unfortunately, we couldn’t check into our guesthouse until 11:30 am, so we grabbed some coffee to kill some time in hopes that the weather would clear.  Slowly but surely the fog began to thin out, and we found that Sapa was a pretty cool little town.  Perched high up in the Hoang Lien Mountains, which include Fanispan, Vietnam’s highest peak, Sapa feels more like a European ski town than a dusty, Southeast Asian village.  After checking into our hotel, taking an icy cold shower (that was fun) and resting our eyeballs for an hour, we explored nearby Cat Cat village in some beautiful and welcomed afternoon sunlight.

The sun finally came out in Cat Cat village
Piggies in Cat Cat village
Some Hmong men carrying home a hide… …with baby in tow
Sapa is cute kids central
Bamboo Hand woven blankets in Cat Cat village
Some kids enjoying the afternoon sunlight in Cat Cat village

Sapa lies in the Lao Cai province, which is home to some eight different ethnic groups, most notably Black Hmong and Red Dao, and on our second day Anna and I joined a one-day trek to learn more about these people.  Our trek was led by a Hmong woman named Bam, who was five feet tall, full of energy and spoke by far the best English out of anybody we’ve met thus far in Southeast Asia.  We were amazed to learn that she can’t even read or write, and that all the English she knows she’s learned from speaking with travelers such as ourselves.  We met Bam and began the 4 kilometer walk to Lao Chai village, when it soon became apparent that we were being followed by about 10 other Hmong women.  Bam explained that these woman bring goods to the Sapa market in the morning and then follow tourists back to their villages in hopes of selling them some souvenirs.  A little tacky, we thought, but we ended up talking to and learning a ton from each of them during the three hour walk…well worth the $5 we spent on a handmade scarf and bracelet afterwards.  Throughout the day, Bam explained all about the different hill tribes in the area, each distinguishable by their own language and elaborate costumes, and it was touching to see the simple way these people live.  As a bonus, we were blessed with some sunshine, and the surrounding scenery was some of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen.

Heading down the hill with some Black Hmong
Locals sifting through some cinnamon Cutest pup ever?
Black Hmong Hmong woman heading back to her village
Weaving some scarves Bam’s handmade clothing for her daughter
Kids playing in Lao Chai village
Red Dao Red Dao
Anna and Bam shootin’ the breeze Anna and La
We thought it was cool all the kids were playing marbles
Johnny, Bam and Anna

We really enjoyed Sapa, but it’s definitely one of those places you wish you could’ve seen 20 years ago, as it seems to be on the precipice of becoming Disneyland-esque.  There was a ton of new construction when we were there and no shortage of hawkers.  But it’s not all a tourist attraction.  For each Hmong woman stopping you in the street to sell you trinkets, you see one heading over the hills with a basket full of vegetables to feed her family.  We met some women who still burn their foreheads with the end of fire-heated buffalo horns to cure headaches.  I guess I’m trying to say that there are plenty of authentic experiences to be had in Sapa, but go now before it’s too late.


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