When our overnight train from Hanoi pulled into the station in Lau Cai, we rolled from our hardsleeper berths* and out into northwestern Vietnam. China was a mere 3 kilometers away, though it wouldn’t get any closer on this trip as we boarded a minibus at the train station and wove our way through the mountains to the town of Sa Pa. The buzz of motorbikes, a constant companion in the bustle of Saigon and Hanoi, became fainter with every twist and turn. Even more welcome was the decrease in humidity as we climbed to an elevation of about 1,600 meters.
Built by the French in the early 1900s as a hill station, Sa Pa is now the jumping off point for travelers wishing to visit some of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities, hill tribe groups such as the H’mong, Dao, and Tay. Surrounded by stunning mountains often shrouded in fog, Sa Pa feels a bit as if you’re in a Swiss mountain town…at least until you put in your contacts and notice that each of the mountains is beautifully terraced with rice paddies and worked by water buffalo and women in traditional conical hats.
While picturesque, the town itself is not quite relaxing as local children and women accompany you everywhere, offering to sell you their handicrafts (which, at least, are actually things they made and not things you’ve seen in every other market in Asia). And unlike many of the street vendors of Asia who simply yell “Buy something” at you as you pass, the Sa Pa sellers are often quite cute and seem to have some genuine interest in talking to you, finding out about where you are from, and showing off their English skills (which are incredibly impressive, especially considering that all of their English has been learned from interacting with visitors).
Wanting to see firsthand how some of the local people live (when in their villages and not on the streets of Sa Pa), we ventured on our first afternoon to Cat Cat, a H’mong village just an easy 3 kilometer walk from the center of Sa Pa. And as people like to say, you get what you paid for. Being so close to Sa Pa and so accessible, Cat Cat was a bit too touristy for our tastes. While we got a few glimpses of local life, such as a boy riding his water buffalo between the rice paddies and lots of cute little kids playing, we mainly saw stand after stand selling weavings and other local handicrafts. It wasn’t all that different from town.
So the next morning we went in whole hog. We shunned the hotels and tourist agencies offering to organize for us a trip to local villages a bit further afield, and hired one of the H’mong girls we found in town to show us around. Sun, who was 18 years old and carrying her 7 month son Binh on her back, took us first to the market to buy supplies for a lunch she planned to cook us when we arrived in her village of Lao Chai.
And then we set off out of town on foot, stopping frequently to snap photos of the bright green terraces and cloudy mountain tops.
As we walked Sun told us about her life. We learned that she was married at 15 and like all female H’mong left her village at that point to live in her husband’s village. She noted that fortunately her home village is only a 1.5 hour walk away, and she goes there often. Her sister, who was to be married soon, wasn’t as lucky as she would be moving to a village farther up the mountain. She pointed out the various crops growing in the fields, explaining that she and her husband grow corn and rice, all for sustenance not sale. She also showed us the indigo that the H’mong grow to dye their clothes the deep dark blue that so easily identifies them. We talked about school, learning English, having kids, what a local wedding is like, the feast she cooks every year for New Year, and more. With each step, we got a little glimpse into her world.
And then we arrived at her house, a simple three-room bamboo structure with a view to die for.
She offered us a seat on the tiny stools that made up the house’s only furniture and then set to work making us lunch. She fed long sticks of bamboo into a fire over which she cooked rice, pork and onions, and morning glory (a Vietnam favorite served like spinach). All the while, as she chopped, got water, cooked, and served, she carried Binh on her back. While people in the Western World talk about being tied to their children, she literally was. She didn’t do anything or go anywhere without him on her back. Luckily he was a happy little guy who seemed to enjoy the ride.
After what turned out to be a delicious lunch and a chat with her 21-year old husband (of three years) Jinh, who arrived home right as we finished up, we descended through the terraces to explore the rest of her village and then entered the neighboring village of Ta Van.
By mid-afternoon, we were all hot and tired but at the same time happy. We felt as if we had actually gotten to see authentic life in the highlands of northeastern Vietnam. We felt as if we had spent a day with a friend. It was exactly what we had hoped for when we boarded the train in Hanoi, the mountains of Sa Pa still a 10 hour ride away.
*The preferred method of travel on Vietnam trains is soft-sleeper, but it’s pretty hard to secure your own soft-sleeper berth for the trip to Sa Pa as all the travel agents snatch them up. We found that for the trip to Sa Pa hard-sleeper is plenty nice as you are literally just travelling overnight. It’s a bit cozy, but the AC works well and the bed isn’t as hard as the name makes it sound. For longer trips, ones in which you would be awake for a significant part of the journey, such as the trip we later took to Danang. I’d go for soft-sleeper as you have more space.