Winter, Feb 2015 – Travelling to north of Vietnam, our exploring intuitions brought my friends & I to the beautiful mountain city of Sapa. Sapa is located some 300 km north of Hanoi, near the Vietnam-Yunnan (China) border. The city is well known for its cool climate, beautiful sceneries and unique local ethnics. Traveling in February, we already expected the very cold winter, mountain climate that awaited us.
From Hanoi capital, travellers normally get to Sapa via train or by bus. We instead rented a car with a driver from Hanoi to be more flexible. It took 6 hours from Hanoi to Sapa, via the new Noi Bai – Loi Cai highway, including a rest break. The scenery along the way is beautiful, with rice fields, rivers, mountains and scenes of farmers plowing with buffalos & planting rice. On the way back, it took us 4 hrs 45 mins, non stop from Sapa town to Noi Bai airport.
Being a city rising in tourism, there are plenty of hotels up in Sapa. We stayed at H’mong Sapa Hotel, a cozy hotel on the slope of a hill, supposedly with a beautiful mountain view, but since it was winter, the view was all cloudy.
We only spent 2 nights & 1 full day in Sapa. I will share here the wonderful places we visited & our memorable experience. Need to note that we hired a local ethnic guide, a young girl from the H’mong tribe, to bring us around, communicate with the locals and explain about their culture to us.
The 2 main mountain tribes in Sapa are H’mong & Dzao tribes. They live in villages around the mountains in Sapa and are self sustained with farming, handcrafting & trading activities, with some recent assistance from the government. The current development of Sapa will definitely become an economic boost for the local tribes.
We were blessed to have the opportunity to visit one of the local villages to meet the people of these tribes to have a glimpse of their daily lives.
We also had the opportunity to attend a cultural show & watched the locals perform their traditional dances & sing songs about their country, town & national icons. We also managed to watch groups of young boys playing their traditional flutes by the city square, preparing themselves for a show.
Tram Ton Pass
It is common that visitors would stop by the roadside at Tram Ton Pass which is the highest point of road in Sapa, before the road goes downhill. We spent some 15 minutes there just to enjoy the breathtaking view of the mountains & valley before us. We took a bunch of photos of the panoramic scenery with ourselves posing & expressing awe of the majestic view. We then rode off in the car for our next desitination.
Sapa is well known to travellers for the trekking & hiking experiences it offers. There are many long, hourly treks all around Sapa leading to local tribes’ villages or waterfalls or simply to a surprising beautiful view. My friends & I took an hour (including return) trek to the Love Waterfall, near the Fansipan mountain pass.
The trek was said to be among the shortest, with a proper bricked path, with stairs at hill slopes. The challenge was that the path was going up and down hills; and being in winter, the walk was a breathing as well as cardio challenge. But the journey was fun as we all walked together, stopped for photos and enjoyed nature’s presentation all the way. At the Love Waterfall itself, it was all about cooling down, enjoying the scene and taking photos for memory of our accomplishment.
Silver waterfall is visible by the roadside and it took some 10 minutes of stair climbing to reach to a bridge, built to cross the waterfall and enjoy the beautiful view, looking up to the waterfall flowing from atop of a mountain or looking down the bridge to see the valleys below. This waterfall, we’ve been told, gushes even stronger during the summer than in the winter.
In front of the waterfall site, are shops selling local souvenirs & food. We stopped to shop, see the local goods and had some free tastes of the local food & tea.
Mountain Tribes’ Village
There are many local ethnic villages all around Sapa, some requiring hours of trekking. The famous one if you studied Sapa, would be Cat Cat Village. We in turn, chose to go to a further village, but with less trekking and more accessible by car.
We visited Ta Phin village, home to indigenous H’mong, Dzao & some Vietnamese people. The village is located some 5-10 km from Sapa town, but it took almost 30 minutes to get there by car, including travelling through the rocky undeveloped road to the village. Along the way, we enjoyed the scenery of the the farms of highland vegetables planted by the local tribes.
As we arrived at the village, scores of local women & girls from the Dzao tribe greeted us & accompanied us through the village, carrying baskets of locally knitted products on their backs to sell to us. Surprisingly, many of them could speak English very well, much better than those in the city.
Each of us had a few ladies accompanying us, explaining about their village, their livelihood & their tribe. The women who accompanied me invited us all to visit her house & farm, showed us inside of her house, her family, her special room for homestay, & her stock of rice & corn. The locals then openned up their baskets to sell to us their hand-knitted products. We bought a few as a token of appreciation.
At the end of the village was a small natural cave. We visited the cave, climbed down inside to take some photos before returning to the village & back to our car.
While walking through the village, we were able to observes the local mountain tribes’ daily lives in the winter. We saw their men working in the farm, chopping wood & bamboo, children running around & playing in their winter jackets, while women having their gatherings or following tourists like us.
It was a precious experience indeed. We do hope that the authorities would help develop the villages even more, but preserving the local ethnic touch.
Shopping & Food
Other than shopping by the roadside or at the villages, the Sapa market is also an option. But with limited time, we just happened to shop along Cau May street by the city square. There were also many local tribe ladies who traveled from the villages, selling their handmade products by the sidewalks.
For food, as Muslims, we only ate the fish & seafood available. We had our meals at our hotel and at a few restaurants in Sapa town. The dishes were amazing; one of a kind. The highlight to me was the local recipe of Sapa river sturgeon cooked with local herbs & vegetables on hot plate. A gastronomical delight.
Overall, our short journey was worth a thousand memories & had opened our view even wider about life on another side, or height, in this world. Sapa is indeed a destination with wonders to offer and is most recommended for adventurers looking to seek a blend of culture & nature.