I’m much more a mountain lover than a beach and hot weather lover so it’s probably no surprise that I was thrilled to breathe the refreshing air of Sa Pa after weeks of travelling through the steamy lowlands of Vietnam and the bustling city of Hanoi.
The highlands of Vietnam are home to a fascinating mix of ethnic minorities thanks to centuries of northwards migration from Indonesia and southwards migration from China. Walking through villages and markets in and around Sa Pa was the highlight of my time in Vietnam.
It’s Vietnam’s version of an alpine resort and the hotel and café terraces of Sa Pa offer views over misty fields, thick jungle and mountainous country. It certainly felt odd to suddenly needing shoes and a jersey!
The hill tribes of Vietnam are diminutive but strong peoples. I chatted to a girl called Vu, only 16 years old and much shorter than I who easily picked me up around my knees and carried me bodily across the road, her strong back bearing my weight with ease.
They are proud of their colourful and detailed tribal costumes. They swarm into Sa Pa to market their wares and their elaborate headdresses, embroidered tunics and jingling silver jewellery are quite a sight. Vu is a Black Hmong woman and her hair was piled high under a cap-come-turban, with just a flick of black hair emerging from the top.
Tasselled shoulder bags and triangular-shaped turbans decorated with beads or pom-poms draw the eyes. In the market women make careful examination of a new sickle in the market before moving on to pinch, prod and weigh the live chickens.
It was here that I first began to understand the beauty of rice terraces in Asia. A walk to the nearby Black Hmong village of Cat Cat was through fields of rice. Green velvet slivers along the wooded valleys, or curving patchworks of yellows and greens in the flatter areas.
The steepest terraces rise up against the skyline like the steps of an ancient temple. In the early morning light they are swirling yellow pools of ready-to-harvest rice, rimmed with the green of ordinary grass. The fields are divided by earth dykes, along which children lead their buffalo or ride their bikes.
In Cat Cat I watched the dying of the indigo hemp cloth from which the Black Hmong make their clothing. It is sometimes died up to 30 times to achieve the right of intensity of blue, and then beaten until the surface takes on a lustrous sheen. The men are elegant in plain tunics and trousers with simple skullcaps.
The women sport embroidered sleeves and chestpieces, as well as tinkling belts, necklaces and earings. They look very distinctive with their shaved eyebrows and high cheekbones. Walking up the hill road to the market town I passed people loaded down with goods to sell, or carrying empty bamboo carriers ready to buy.
But all this finery paled in comparison to the Flower Hmong, who I saw at the village of Bac Ha, where a weekend animal market a few hours drive from Sa Pa is attended by hundreds of Flower Hmong people from miles around. On the way I saw rice terraces extending to cover entire mountains.
Vibrantly embroidered skirts, turbans and shirts, combined with the cacophony of livestock noise make this market in Vietnam an assault on all the senses.
The bright green, pink or blue chequered turbans are particularly striking, as are the full skirts, aprons and highly-coloured collar/shoulder panels.
There are groups of men smoking with great seriousness, ancient Russian motorbikes for sale, and a cockfight going on watched by very proud small boys.
Piles of pomegranates look a manky greenish brown but when I peel away the outer skin the translucent pink fruit is revealed, turning to sweetest water between your teeth.
The evening air cools quickly as I chat to Vu again and decide how badly I want to eat a pizza at the café after months of Asian food. Her palms are stained from the indigo cloth of her outfit. Early next morning I’m on the bus out of town and I’ll never forget seeing her combing out her hair in the pre-dawn street.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you visited the hill country of Vietnam?