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Walking in the Mountains of Sapa Vietnam

Updated on October 30, 2010

In the Mists of Sapa - High in the Mountains of Vietnam

The mountain town of Sapa is a "must see" on any travel to Vietnam, particularly if you enjoy mountain air, mixing with locals and wide open spaces.

Sapa is northwest of Hanoi and a 10 hour train ride away. The town of Sapa is about some 40 minutes away up a narrow winding road from the drop off point. It's approximately 1650 meters above sea level.

The train trip from Hanoi to Sapa is overnight so you arrive in the morning.  Four people share a cabin so there wasn't much sleep to be had however, any tiredness evaporated once I arrived at my hotel ( where I was enthusiastically welcomed by Australian Pete who presented me with a huge breakfast (included in the room rate).

I was keen to get out there and explore a little, but Sapa was cold…..mainly because of the altitude and heavy mist which obscured the great view of the mountains from my room. Over four nights in Sapa I never did see the view. I'd been so long in the heat of Hanoi that the cold, was a shock to the system. However the conditions were great for photographs.

Pete is almost evangelical about Sapa and after completing a couple of treks myself I could see why. He'd visited Sapa the previous year and fell in love with the place. He was tired of the Sydney life, managing 120 staff in a computer company so he bought the run down hotel and is well on the way to transforming it. It’s an excellent place to stay.

The coldest months here are January and February but from March to May my Lonely Planet guide book says the weather is often excellent. The prime time for visiting the region though is September to mid December plus the Festival of the Clouds which occurs during May so its worth combining travel to Vietnam to co-incide with this event.

The friendliness of the local H’mong people who wander the streets in their multi colored and layered finery with huge smiles (see photo) helped to make my visit to Sapa special.

Of course they were always trying to sell me something….anything…..they just wanted me to buy from them. Sometimes I would duck into a shop to try to evade them but no chance….they’d just wait outside the shop chattering away and their lovely open faces peering in waiting. The shop owners who pay for their display space and other business overheads seem remarkably tolerant of these hill-tribe people wandering the streets garnering sales where they can. However, shopping is easy here and it is an experience just buying from these beguiling young (and not so young) ladies.

Their self taught English is quite good and they continually ask questions “where are you from….what is your name…..what is your age…..are you married….do you have children…….”? When they hear that I have two sons the younger girls get very excited and want to know how old they are. When I tell them, they ask if they can come home with me so that they can marry my lads!

I love the art work around the hotel. Pete has engaged an artist to help him to make the space creative. He is making light shades from the local fabric, different tables, couches and a lot of pottery etc which is displayed in all nooks and crannies. I fell in love with a pottery head of a buddha. The one I’ve shown in the photo was in my hotel bedroom and the gorgeous flowers are grown locally.

While I am up at the hotel, they install a new reception top. It’s fascinating to see the local men working away with primitive gear as they install the hand made top. It's cut from a special tree in a nearby village.

For my second day I decided to take a guide and go to a village about 17kms from Sapa. This village has a reputation for wonderful hand embroidery and I really looked forward to it. The day was extraordinary.

The mist was annoying and obscured the mountains, but the rain held off. I left Sapa on the back of Huong’s motor cycle wearing several layers of clothing including a waterproof coat and pants. However, my young guide didn’t even have a jacket and I felt rather sorry for him as we raced through the countryside.  But this is Vietnam travel at its very best.

As we descended into the valley we left the mist above us but it hung around the tops of the mountains. On arrival in the village we were greeted by several H’mong women who stopped to chat and then pressured me to buy their wares. They decided to follow me and so we looked like a bright celebratory procession as we traipsed, often single file, through their village and up the rise to the place where traditional medicines, made from local plants, are boiled in massive vats until they reduce to form a concentrate.

When we were nearly there, I could hear the cries of a young baby. It was a four week old swaddled and intricately strapped to his mothers back. When we stopped she unwrapped him and put him to the breast to suckle. The boys here are differentiated from the girls by the number of colours in their hats. The hats the children wear are very pretty and have good luck metal (like coins) sewn into the cloth. They believe that it is bad luck for anyone to touch the head of a child and as a westerner I had to constantly remind myself to refrain from patting them. Continued after the adverts.....

Colorfully dressed village girls are a delight.
Colorfully dressed village girls are a delight.
The colors of the roses is surprisingly bright.
The colors of the roses is surprisingly bright.
The new table being installed at the Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel.
The new table being installed at the Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel.
Fabulous art in "my" hotel room.
Fabulous art in "my" hotel room.
A village lady.
A village lady.
The mists of Sapa.
The mists of Sapa.

Sapa, Vietnam

hanoi to sapa:
Hanoi, Vietnam

get directions

sapa vietnam:
Sa Pa, Lao Cai, Vietnam

get directions

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

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Here girls can marry at 18 and boys at 20. I was informed that the girls cannot marry until they have learnt to sew well. “Why?” I asked rather naively.
“We must be able to sew to make clothes for ourselves and our family” was the prompt reply. With that short statement, I am quickly taken back in time; way back.

The men work hard and are rather stoic as they wander the roads, their long black pants rolled up to create shorts. Their bodies are “nuggety” - short, compact with strong muscles and not an ounce of surplus fat.

But the women work hard too. Not only do they work in the fields when required, they cook, take care of the children, make the families clothes and embroider, sew and sell goods to tourists. To sell their goods might necessitate a walk of many miles, perhaps even days into Sapa.

The prices are so cheap it seems rather criminal to bargain, but again, it’s expected and respected. I bargained half heartedly and didn’t spend very much money to shop for a big pile of goods to take home for myself and as gifts. Like I needed more stuff!

Part of their costume is a striking richly embroidered piece of cloth hanging from the waist down the back of their skirts to mid thigh and I was told that this takes a year to embroider with silk thread. They are very beautiful.

In this village, after the women marry their eyebrows and some hair back from the forehead is shaved and they don a bright red head dress making it very easy to tell the wed from the unwed.

We had taken some raw ingredients from the hotel for my lunch to be prepared by the villagers. It was made of fresh organic vegetables and a tasty broth. Afterwards my guide Huong and I wandered through the countryside which I loved. It was very peaceful, and interesting to see how they cultivate and live in harmony with the land in this rural countryside dominated by the task and business of growing rice.

I saw few other tourists once I had left Sapa to descend into this picture perfect valley.    Sapa had been recommended to me and I too suggest that for those who travel to Vietnam, this is an area well worth visiting and I am keen to return.

BenC has an excellent overview of Vietnam in the article Backpacking Vietnam. The link follows.


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