Vietnam - Sapa - Rice Terraces, Hill Tribes & Trekking

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June 1st 2013
Published: June 5th 2013
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Fanispan MountainFanispan MountainFanispan Mountain

The view from my room.
Friday night was certainly not my best night for sleep. The overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa groaned, creaked and jolted it's way through the night, finally arriving in Lao Cai two hours late, at 7.30am. Lao Cai is the capital of Lao Cai Province and shares the border with the city of Hekou, in the Yunnan province of Southwest China.

I had already paid for a private transfer to Sapa, about 32klm away, and the driver was waiting outside the main exit of the railway station with his sign. Once again he was a Trails of Indochina Tours representative and he had a good vehicle for the hour long trip and we wasted no time in getting on the road.

I was dropped at the door of Family Guesthouse in Sapa, my accomodation for the next two nights. The guesthouse was basic but spotlessly clean. Plenty of hot water, a complimentary breakfast, wifi in my room and mountain views to die for. All for $18 a night.

Sapa is located in Vietnam's remote north west mountains. It's famous for spectacular scenery and its rich cultural diversity. It's an incredibly picturesque village that lies on the Hoang Lien
Sapa ViewSapa ViewSapa View

Taken from the balcony outside my room.
Son mountain range near the Chinese border. Sapa and its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam.

I wasn't able to gain access to my room until 10.30am, so I dropped my luggage and headed out for a walk. I had no plans organised and no accomodation booked beyond Sunday night, so I needed to get myself sorted. I called in to a couple of travel agents, to get an idea on what day trips were available around the region. It didn't take me long to decide on how to fill the next three days, and I ended up booking the trips through the guesthouse as their prices were no dearer.

I finally got into my room, and was blown away by the awesome mountain view from the huge window. I showered, put laundry in to be washed (per kilo again instead of per piece, so a lot cheaper) and headed out again.

I browsed in some of the lovely shops lining the main street. I'm quite taken by the beautiful embroidery work and ethnic jewellery, and think I'll be purchasing a
Sapa SurroundsSapa SurroundsSapa Surrounds

Taken on the way to Cat Cat Village.
couple of special pieces before I leave. There are lots of women, dressed in the Black H'mong traditional costume, walking the streets here with baskets of trinkets to sell. They are very persistent with their selling techniques, in a nice way, and always with a big smile. But they can be very annoying and intrusive, because as soon as one moves on, another takes her place!

After enjoying lunch at a local restaurant, where I was silly enough to sit at a table in full view of the footpath, thus fair game to the trinket sellers, I decided to walk to Cat Cat Village, about 3klm away further down the valley. This H'mong village is accessible by a rough paved road most of the way, and cement path for the rest. There is an admission fee to visit - 40,000 dong or $2.00.

The walk to the village was downhill all the way and the scenery was spectacular. The path winds through the village, lined with the inevitable souvenir stalls in places, past the Tien Sa waterfalls, and across a rickety timber and iron bridge suspended high over the river. Once you've reached the end of the path
Two Black H'mong GirlsTwo Black H'mong GirlsTwo Black H'mong Girls

They followed me for a while, hoping I would buy something from them. No luck!
you have two options - walk back to Sapa (uphill all the way) or do what I did and take the easy option, on the back of a motor cycle taxi. There were plenty available, and I was very thankful as I sailed past those trudging back on foot. I was back in Sapa in no time and it cost me 50,000 dong ($2.50) for the ride. But, best of all, it saved my time and energy!

On Sunday, I joined an organised day trip to Bac Ha Markets. This trip was booked through the guesthouse reception and cost me $15. Pickup time was 7.30am, and the mini bus was full. Even though it was only 110klm to Bac Ha, it was a two and a half hour trip down winding mountain roads with the usual breaktaking views.

Every Sunday, Bac Ha hosts the largest and most colourful market in the area and attracts throngs of villagers from the surrounding hill tribes, such as the Black H'mong and Flower H'mong people. Some walk several hours for the weekly opportunity to trade and barter fruit and veges, livestock, clothes and household goods.

The markets are a big tourist
Buffalo At WorkBuffalo At WorkBuffalo At Work

This is doing it the hard way - a buffalo pulling an old wooden plough.
attraction and now have many stalls of beautiful hand embroidered runners, cushion covers and wall hangings, amongst other souvenir items. I purchased an embroidered belt, part of the Flower H'mong traditional costume, completely made of blue indigo fabric, which ties around the waist like a sash. A lovely souvenir for $10.

Unfortunately, they was a huge storm at lunch time and the rain bucketed down. The markets, which usually finished at 2.00pm became a wash-out. Lucky for me I was having lunch in an eatery and managed to stay dry. Everyone huddled under awnings until the bus picked us up at 1.15pm.

Next on the agenda was a village walk which I, and half the others in the group, decided not to do as it was still raining. We returned to Sapa via Lao Cai where we dropped off people who were returning to Hanoi on the night train. We got back to Sapa around 5.30pm.

On Monday and Tuesday I had booked myself into a trek which stayed overnight in a village homestay. Once again, it was booked through the guesthouse and cost $35. There was no rain that I heard anyway on Sunday night, after
Cat Cat VillageCat Cat VillageCat Cat Village

These terraces are where rice is grown. It's harvesting time now so a lot of them are empty.
the big storm during the day, so I had high hopes for a reasonably dry track.

I checked out of Family Guesthouse, but left my locked suitcase chained to the handle of the window in their luggage room, as the room isn't locked. I'll be back on Tuesday night. I had everything I needed for an overnight stay in my backpack plus some fruit for snacks along the way.

There were only three others on this trek with me, young French Canadian guys who were travelling together. Our guide was a Black H'mong woman named Ger, who set an easy pace as she headed off down the track with her umbrella over her head. We were also accompanied by several of the Black H'mong trinket sellers who were hoping to make a sale from one of us. They are so persistant and intrusive, pulling out their items and waving them in your face whenever they get the chance, accompanied by a 'you buy from meeee' whine. As it turned out they lived in one of the villages we passed through, so disappeared at the end of the first day, only to reappear fresh and full of smiles (and
Cat Cat VillageCat Cat VillageCat Cat Village

Another view of empty rice terraces.
hope) the following morning.

On Monday we covered 10klm. The trek passed through Y Linh Ho village of the Black H'mong people, down to Lao Chai village where we had lunch and on towards Tavan village of the Dzay minority. The path could hardly be called a path as such, I had to constantly watch where I was putting my feet, and it often deteriorated into no more than a goat track with footholds cut into the earth so I knew the safest place to put my feet. The day was overcast, with weak sunshine from time to time, but I was soon running sweat and taking quick rest stops to regain my breath. It was hard going, but the spectacular scenery, and frequent photo stops, were worth it.

Unfortunately, it rained on Monday night, soaking showers all night long. We ate a breakfast of pancakes then donned our backpacks and headed down the track again. Tuesday's trek was entirely different to the previous day. Today we covered another 10klm and visited two villages of the Dzao minority tribe. We passed through the Bamboo Forest and out onto the main road where we got picked up by a
Rice HarvestingRice HarvestingRice Harvesting

All done by hand.
mini bus.

The rain had turned the track to mud, sticky slippery mud, which adhered to the bottom of my shoes, giving me no traction at all. Small waterways from the rain were cascading down the mountain and over the track, and I saw a large landslide from the night before, thankfully no where near where we were. I slipped over several times and got muddy clothes but didn't hurt myself, thank goodness. But, there was one section of the trek where I felt unsafe and considered turning back. But, turn back to where? The last village? I couldn't go on my own, so it was out of the question.

We were half way up the side of a mountain and the track stopped at the side of a terrace of rice paddies. It continued on the other side of the terraces, but I had to get there first. The only way across was to walk on the 6" high/wide wall of mud which is on the front of every rice terrace, designed to keep the water in. I knew I had to do this, I had no choice. So, I stepped out onto the terrace, and felt
She's Cute!She's Cute!She's Cute!

I snapped her photo in Cat Cat Village.
the mud give way under my feet. The rain from the previous night had softened it. I lost my balance and stepped forward, shin deep into muddy water with both feet. I clamoured out, thankful that my camera and backpack had escaped a dipping.

As you can imagine I was very sceptical about stepping out there again. Ger suggested I try the next terrace up which no one had walked on, and with her and one of the guides from another group on either side of me, I inched sideways, crab walking, around the terrace. The mud was soft and moved under my feet, but didn't break away. Tears were developing by the time I reached the other side and I was so thankful to put my feet back on hard ground again. This is dangerous and fool hardy. If I lost my balance I would either step forward into a mud filled terrace and rice plants or, worse still, fall backward into the terrace below.

The trek took us to the top of a waterfall which was spectacular. I was able to wash the mud off and we then continued downhill to our lunch stop. Another hour
Indigo FabricIndigo FabricIndigo Fabric

Made by the local women and dyed with natural plant dyes.
of trekking after lunch bought us to the pickup point where the mini bus was waiting to drive us the 10klm back to Sapa. I checked into Family Guesthouse again, and retrieved my suitcase. How nice it was to have a hot shower and change of clothes. I handed in all my laundry to be washed, cleaned my runners myself and handed them into a local business to be dried. Then I headed down town for dinner and a well deserved bacardi and coke. Definately, another early night coming up.

Wednesday morning I woke with a few aches and complaining muscles. I breakfasted and checked out of the guesthouse. I will be homeless for the day and plan to drift around Sapa, take some last minute photos, buy some embroideries, and sit in cafes. I left my suitcase in the luggage room at the guesthouse and will shower there tonight before heading to Lao Cai at 6.00pm, in time to catch the 8.00pm overnight train back to Hanoi. I have no firm plans after Hanoi, just tentative plans and ideas, so once again, I need to get it sorted.

Additional photos below
Photos: 43, Displayed: 29


Bamboo BridgeBamboo Bridge
Bamboo Bridge

Thick pieces of bamboo lashed together form a bridge over this waterway.
Hello China!Hello China!
Hello China!

This is the border crossing in Lao Cai, between Vietnam and China, on opposite sides of the Red River.
Bac Ha MarketsBac Ha Markets
Bac Ha Markets

This child was strapped to his mother's back. I couldn't resist taking his/her photo.
Bac Ha MarketsBac Ha Markets
Bac Ha Markets

Livestock for sale.
Bac Ha MarketsBac Ha Markets
Bac Ha Markets

The local women do some shopping. They are from the Flower H'mong tribe.
The Bac Ha MarketsThe Bac Ha Markets
The Bac Ha Markets

This little girl spotted me taking her photo but kept on eating.
Bac Ha MarketsBac Ha Markets
Bac Ha Markets

Water buffalo for sale. They fetch $1000 upwards.
Bac Ha MarketsBac Ha Markets
Bac Ha Markets

The eating area was always crowded.
Bac Ha MarketsBac Ha Markets
Bac Ha Markets

Hungry ladies.
Bac Ha MarketsBac Ha Markets
Bac Ha Markets

Fresh veges for sale.

5th June 2013
Hello China!

This is the bridge we walked across in January into China. Good memories...

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