Saturday, 17 December 2011

Walking in the Clouds in Sapa

Considering that were completely unprepared for cold weather, we were not too sure if we should make the trek north from Hanoi and venture into the chilly Vietnamese mountain highlands.  WOW, were we glad we did.  We left Hanoi on the Orient Express (yes – the original) and headed north towards China to Lao Cai. Although the distance is just over 300 kilometers, it is a 10 hour, overnight trip.  The Orient Express is definitely not a high speed train.  We had a sleeping compartment for the four of us and in spite of the consistent jolts and screeches we did manage to get a bit of rest, if not sleep.  

We arrived in Lao Cai, right on the border of China before dawn and caught a minibus to Sapa, our home base for the upcoming week.  As we approached the town it was starting to get light but instead of exploring right away we decided that rest would take precedent.  We had an early hotel check in and all enjoyed a lengthy nap before tackling the town.

As soon as we stepped out of our hotel we knew that Sapa would be yet another destination unlike anywhere we had been.  The heat we had gotten used to throughout the rest of Asia was replaced with misty mountain air tinged with the smell of wood and coal burning fires. Milling about outside of the hotel were two groups of women and girls, each group dressed distinctly different from the other and in fact different from anyone we had ever seen.  One group, we learned were Black  H’mongs.  They were dressed in beautifully embroidered deep indigos, blues and blacks.  The other group were Red D’zaos.   They had incredible red headdresses and were outfitted in flowing layers of bright fabric which was also beautifully embroidered.  During our stay in the Sapa area these women and many others like them were to become familiar sights, adding significantly to the mystical nature of the area.

“Where you from?  Buy from me?  What your name?”  The women and girls surrounded us and bombarded us with questions from the get go.  Admittedly, we were initially a little put off by their apparent aggressiveness and their desire to stick to us like sticky tape and follow us around from place to place.  It did not, however, take too long for us to realize that they were incredibly friendly and their friendliness was not just based on the possibility of making a sale.   The vividness and character of the minority groups we came in contact with and the interaction that we had with them turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip to not only Sapa but to the whole of Vietnam. 

The many villages that are nestled in the Hoang Lien mountains surrounding Sapa are home to various minority tribes, each with their own distinct language, customs and dress.  The incredible scenic beauty of the area combined with the possibility of getting a glimpse of a tribal life that may quickly disappear is what attracts many visitors to northern Vietnam.  Unfortunately the visitors have not brought prosperity and by the end of our week in Sapa we were left wondering if tourism has been a positive or a negative for the way of life.  The colorful hill tribes are still amongst the poorest population groups in the country.  In the not too distant past these folks relied to a great extent on the opium trade and their own backyards to put food on their tables. The government has, however, cracked down on opium related commerce and has instead encouraged tourism related activities.  The hill tribe women seem to have embraced the tourist trade with gusto, pedalling their handicrafts at every opportunity but has it meant prosperity?  Certainly not from what we saw.

Sapa is captivating in so many ways it is difficult to know where to begin.  In the absence of the hill tribes and other Vietnamese people, one could easily mistake the place for a town in the French Alps.  The cobblestone alleyways and staircases that twist and turn throughout the town as well as the architecture of the beautiful buildings are clear evidence that there was once a major European presence.  The town was founded as a French hill station in the 1920’s and although much of it was destroyed in various wars the French influence is still very evident. 

As we strolled around during our first few hours we were literally embraced within the folds of a thick cloud which made visibility difficult.  Within a relatively short amount of time, however, the sun started to peak through and the cloud seemed to move on.  The beauty that revealed itself was completely breathtaking.  It didn't take long to get the feeling that this place must be one of the most amazing spots on the globe.  The week that we spent there only reinforced that this must be true. 

The natural landscape is incredible.  The town itself is surrounded by towering mountains with terraced rice crops cascading into green valleys with meandering rivers and waterfalls around every turn.  Water buffaloes, pot bellied pigs, horses, chickens and ducks wander freely throughout the nearby villages.  Add to this the beauty of the people and you have a scene that is straight out of National Geographic.  It is hard to believe that places and people like this still exist.  

Throughout the trip Rob and I have enjoyed being able to throw on our runners and cover a fair amount of ground before the kids are really ready to start their days.  We were never more grateful for being able to do this then when we were in Sapa. There is something about being up before the masses and experiencing the stillness of the morning that makes nearly anywhere seem sublime.  In Sapa we ran up and down mountain passes, through rice fields, past villagers carrying half their world on their backs, through poverty stricken places as well as pristinely kept parks.  On the few days that we ran in the afternoon we were joined by cute as a button kids eager to keep pace with the crazy Canucks.  As we ran and witnessed just how difficult life is for people in this area it struck us as incredibly surreal that we run for fun and to keep fit.  Hill tribe life is such a struggle that the people here could likely never imagine having such a placid life that schools need to implement mandatory minimum physical activity requirements!  The pictures below are from some of our runs.

The second day that we were in Sapa we met up with a wonderful couple whom we had gotten to know in Halong Bay.  They were on their way to tour a neighboring village and they invited us along.  We accepted in a flash and we enjoyed a wonderful trek with them through Tai Pin Village, a village predominantly populated by Red Dao people.  When we arrived in the village it was like celebrities had shown up.  Stepping out of the van, there were at least 20 women surrounding us and bombarding us with the already familiar questions, "what your name, how many babies you have?" Etc.  A few of the women and children joined us for our walk and it was a real pleasure chatting with them and watching the kids play as we strolled along. 

We were amazed at how the children care for the children.  We frequently saw little ones with even littler ones strapped to their backs and just going about their day.  Above she is playing a game like marbles.

In the picture above they are showing us rice drying.

 Our entourage!

A few days later we went to a different neighboring village with a local H’mong woman, Winchester, as our guide.  Friends of ours were in Sapa a few years ago and had become close to a girl who was from the woman’s village. We wanted to try to find the girl and bring her good wishes from Skye and Renato.   Although we did our best to find someone who knew her, we did not have any luck.  It was a rainy day and the mud soaked pathways likely kept many villagers off the trails.  In spite of the rain we enjoyed our time with Winchester but we were glad to be able to go back to a warm and dry hotel room and scrub the mud off ourselves.   We could not help but think of the poor conditions the people in the villages contend with.  They have no luxuries like hot showers and heated rooms.  The apparent poverty and absence of basic infrastructure is difficult to see.  The people live in simple huts that lack bare essentials such as clean running water, bathrooms and sewer systems.   Luxuries such as stoves are non existent.  Food is cooked and huts are heated via  open pits.  Rice crops are planted and harvested with the help of hand plows and water buffaloes and little else.  Cloth is dyed using local plants, soil and rocks.  Life is very difficult for these people and it is not surprising that they age before their time.  

The pictures above and below are of two boys who were not likely older than Eric (12).  They were carrying their load first on motorcycles up a mud slick lane. They jumped off their motorbikes and proceeded to carry the load up the mountain - feed for the water buffaloes.....and our boys complain about school!

Notice the motor bike in the house. They wheel them right in and there they sit.

As we have mentioned before, everywhere we have gone we have met wonderful people.  In Sapa we met a terrific Australian family who we ended up spending quite a bit of time with.   On the day we were leaving I travelled with them to Bac Ha village market, about a 3 hour drive away.  After having spent every hour of every day for nearly 4 months within a few feet of Rob and the kids, it was a little strange to be without them for the day. They just didn’t want to spend so much time on the road and then turn around and get into the train for ten hours.  Boy, did they miss out!

We left Sapa in the fog but we soon climbed out of the clouds and throughout the drive we were able to take in the amazing vistas that make the area famous.  About 2 hours into the trip the guide points out that we are passing a wedding and he asked us if we would like to stop and visit.  We looked at each other and noted that we would never just stop into a wedding in Australia or North America. The guide, however, convinced us that it would be a cool thing to do and that we would be welcomed.  The van stopped on the side of the road and we piled out and entered this road side canopy where the wedding was taking place.  

The bride and groom gave us a big welcome and soon we were surrounded by people shoving food and drink at us.  We all had to have shots of “Happy Water”, home made moonshine of some kind that they brew up especially for weddings.  Many folks were having lots of happy water and getting very happy even though it was not yet 11:00 AM.  It was like we were special guests that they had been waiting for forever.  Even though we could not speak a word to anyone we could definitely “feel the love.”  It was an incredible experience with the father and mother of both the bride and groom paying special attention to us.  Here we were, under a canopy on the side of the road with at least a hundred Vietnamese people, none of whom we could talk to, celebrating a marriage.  We ate amazing food and managed to consume enough happy water to keep the hosts happy before having to get on the road to make it to the market.  The bride and groom were handing our cigarettes and betel nuts as gifts to guests as they left.  Travel is so awesome!

The proud Father of the Bride....

Our Australian friend Phil, with yet another shot of Happy Water!

The Bac Ha market was another experience like no other.  We had just had a feast of Vietnamese food and the market turned out to be a Vietnamese feast for our eyes.  Villagers from many surrounding hill tribes walk for hours to make it to this meeting place once a week.  Although there were other tourists there it was definitely not a tourist market but rather a trading and meeting place for locals.  In fact, the villagers here paid little attention to us as they went about their business of buying and selling.  I can’t even begin to describe it so I am not going to try but rather, I’ll let the pictures do the talking!  It was amazing.

As you will be able to see throughout the pictures, the colours at the market were something to behold.  The surrounding area is populated with Flower H'Mongs tribes.  Their clothing and head pieces were works of art and yes, they dress like this daily and make everything themselves, beautiful!

We were not too sure what they were smoking but there was quite a line up for the pipes.

The sugar cane was a popular item.

The people were just so beautiful and they didn't mind having their pictures taken, they got a kick out of seeing them afterwards. The meat section was not so lovely......

There was an active buffalo trading area that was pretty cool to see.

Time has not completely stood still here.....yes, that is a cell phone in her hand.

Taking home food for the month!

On the way back we stopped for a picture at the border of Vietnam and China - China is in the background, so close yet so very different.

We made it back to Sapa just in time for me to gather my things and get ready to leave the mountains and head back to Hanoi.  What a week we had had.  When we boarded the train for the night we were happy to be heading towards warmer climates again but sad to bid farewell to such a spot and to the new friends we had met.  It was one of those places that will be with us forever.


  1. Great pictures and great comments,

  2. What amazing pictures and comments. What little did we know about these amazing people when the Americans were bombing and killing them.


  3. The more we learn the more horrific it is. We are in Cambodia now and the impact that the war has had is visible everywhere.


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