The tiny, mist-shrouded town of Sapa is perched at the head of a deep valley in the dramatic Hoang Lien Son mountain range. Colourfully-costumed tribal groups live and work as they have for centuries amid these epic landscapes, where improbably steep rice terraces reach to the sky.
Today these diverse peoples welcome visitors to Vietnam’s far north in search of authentic cultural experiences and outdoors adventures on Sapa holidays. About 350 km northwest of Hanoi, Sapa is quite close to the Chinese border, and awe-inspiring natural beauty is only the start of this region’s many attractions.
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 Sapa 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 Sapa was the highlight of my time in Vietnam.
It’s Vietnam’s version of an alpine resort and the hotel and café terraces of Sapa offer views over misty fields, thick jungle and mountainous country. It certainly felt odd to suddenly needing shoes and a jersey!
Hill tribes of norther Vietnam
Vietnam’s highest peak, 3,143-metre Mt Fansipan, forms the spectacular backdrop to many villages and bustling markets enlivened by the traditional costumes of the local people. Arrange a guided trek through luxuriant forests and sleep in a homestay, sharing the lives and meals of these friendly people. Observe the labour intensive agricultural practices and hike the trails with farmers carrying crops and youngsters herding farm animals.
Walk through H’Mong settlements and see women dying fabric with indigo to make their tunics just as their ancestors did. Marvel at the vibrant striped skirts and intricate embroidery of the Flower H’mong women at Bac Ha market. Share a smile with a Dao woman and compliment her elaborate headdress in the Sapa bazaar.
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.
Visiting Bac Ha market
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 peeled away the outer skin the translucent pink fruit was revealed, turning to sweetest water between your teeth.
Eating out in Sapa
On Sapa holidays look out for regional dishes like ash-baked river trout wrapped in banana leaves, hot pot with lemongrass and mushrooms, Cap Nach pork and the traditional Hmong black pudding. A glass of homemade rice wine is the perfect accompaniment.
Try one of these dishes at restaurants along Phan Xi Phang, Muong Hoa and Cau May streets in Sapa, particularly Viet Emotion Restaurant at 27 Cau May Street or Hill Station Signature Restaurant at 37 Fansipan street.
Leaving northern Vietnam
The evening air was quickly cooling as I chatted to Vu again and decided how badly I want to eat a pizza at a café after months of Asian food. Her palms were stained from the indigo cloth of her outfit. Early next morning I caught the bus out of town and I’ll never forget seeing her combing out her hair in the pre-dawn street.
Hanoi to Sapa is a half day journey by train or on the road so plan a Vietnam itinerary that explores this fascinating city and add a Ha Long Bay cruise for good measure.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you visited the hill country of Vietnam?