If you visit Vietnam, you will be told to visit SaPa. To see the endless natural beauty, to rejuvenate yourself via the fresh air, to hike through the local villages, experience the sounds and smells of this unique landscape, and to explore new cultures. Of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minority groups, there are 9 in this area alone. This breath-taking mountainous area 380 km northwest of Hanoi is near the Chinese border, and can now be accessed by the newly completed toll-highway. 6 hours of driving. 1600 m (5250 ft) high. The SaPa District has about 55,000 people; over 50% Hmong, 25% Dao, and 10% Viet Kinh (lowland Vietnamese), the balance Tay, Giay, Thai, Muong, Hua and Xa Pho.
Brochure sunrise photo (above) of the terraced rice fields. Starting in May, there is only one rice crop planted per year due to the high elevation weather conditions. As early as possible, seeds are sewn in the lowest beds, then when the weather is warmer and the upper beds have been prepared and flooded, the seedlings are transplanted.
Second brochure photo (below) taken in early summer, of a mother and daughter (Black Hmong) walking and working along the growing rice. We’re told these fields are brilliant shades of yellow and green beginning in July, until the harvest which starts in September. We are hoping to visit again the end of August. Join us.
The true original inhabitants are unknown, but left rock carvings thousands of years old. Over time, land has been illegally taken, villages bombed, indigenous peoples forced out, and repeatedly resettled by invaders. From the 1920s-1950s the French built villas and used the area as a hill-station, which is a resort area in the mountains created specifically to escape the seasonal lowland heat. After they were ousted, many ethnic minority tribes returned from China, Laos and Thailand, using SaPa as a meeting and market location. Sa means sand, pa means village so SaPa loosely translates as the place to trade goods and services. Agricultural collectives were offered in the 1970s-1980s by the government. After that, collectives were scaled back, perennial crops were encouraged and land rights were doled out. In 1993 the first foreign tourists (since the French overthrow) were allowed up there.
In February, we had the chance to hitch a ride up with an agency car that was going to SaPa to fetch clients, and we wanted to get out of dodge. The landscape became rural as soon as we left Hanoi. It was misty and overcast, strikingly, like the Pacific NW. Except for the rice fields, the water buffalo and the palm trees. These low-land rice fields were recently flooded and readied for seedling transplants, the first of 3 annual rotations. Here’s the scene from the car outside of Hanoi. When we came back through here the following week, all the fields had been planted.
The final 60 kms from Lao Cai to SaPa is narrow, twisty and congested. Crazy commute to school.
SaPa bustles. Hotels, restaurants, schools, banks, bakeries, North Face outfitters, massagers, trekking companies, hardware stores, auto shops. You name it. The trick is to try and find what’s locally owned. Responsible tourism can be hard work but is essential.
Our morning phổ restaurant in SaPa.
Local Red Dao women, our talking companions on the edge of SaPa.
Near Lai Chao. See the 2 people walking up the terraced hill?
Mama Lili, a trekking guide and homestay provider, with her phone number. We are the same age. We shared stories and entertained each other using pantomime, truncated English, and Hmong. Ua tsaug (wa chow) means thank-you.
The villages are all connected by hiking trails. Passes are purchased before entering the villages. The foot bridge in the center was built by a neighboring Dao family. They charge 5,000 VND per person (US 25 cents) to use it. When it’s warm enough, locals avoid the fee and wade across instead.
Take the time to hire a local guide and directly support the local economy. We were lucky to connect with Zu, the best guide ever (on the left). She spent the day with us, made us lunch at her house, and answered (and asked) more questions than you can imagine. She is Black Hmong, and lives in Seo Mi Ty, her husband’s village. While taking a break, we ran into her sister, who lives in a different village and was passing through.
This is Doug’s hiking helper, Mai. We all had someone to help us navigate through the mud and over the steep terraces.
Family photo. Jenny and Steve came to visit from Seattle!
Ubiquitous water buffalo.
We had lunch at Zu’s home. Yes, that’s a sharp machete and a (skilled) 5-year-old.
Corn grinder at Zu’s house. She says they grind corn every day.
Jenny gets a corn grinding lesson from Zu.
(This video is visible only if you view the post from the website, not from the emailed version.)
Here come the kids, running up the path and yelling something we never figured out.
Animals roam the villages.
The pig pack followed us for a while.
Surprise meeting on the road with friends we had met the previous day in town, 20 km away. Ma is due in one month, and explained how her husband will help deliver the baby. It was hard to say goodbye.
Ma’s village, down the hill and up the ridge.
Congestion at an intersection outside the village of Lai Chau.
Bamboo and ankles.
Bottle section of a barn wall in Ta Van.
The mountains outside SaPa were cloud-covered and hidden except for this brief moment.
Making a note of the hotel in the foreground to check the prices. EcoPalms Hotel. $115 US/night.
Ối Giời Ơi ! Expensive. Still trying to find out who owns it and where the money goes.
I would love to live and work here. These state schools are all painted yellow. Why?
I spy water buffalo grazing, slash pile burning, brush clearing by hand, and a horse.
Watching, as we walked by a Flower Hmong village, outside Bac Ha.
30 minute walk north of Bac Ha.
Buy from me! Seriously, we could’ve talked for hours with these 2 young women.
Her mother told us about this sweet baby’s ear piercing ceremony at birth.
Something is in the air.
SaPa and the surrounding area is magical. And complicated. Responsible tourism is hard to recognize here. It’s a free-for-all. The new road will bring even more people, expanding the impact with no end in sight. Of course there is a move towards reviewing current social and economic development plans but there are so many conflicting factors and obstacles. New construction is booming and there’s even a cable-car to the top of Fansipan Mt, above SaPa, that just opened in February. It’s imperative that growth occurs in conjunction and cooperation with the local people, so that their rights, customs and privacy can be maintained and not exploited and their livelihood be preserved. SaPa O’Chao is a social enterprise organization that I hope to spend some time with in the future, and I’m looking for others. We’ll keep you posted.
Hunger makes a great sauce, quotes Doug, religiously.
Here’s a blog with descriptions and photos of the different tribes in the North part of Vietnam.