Sa Pa, Vietnam

[ 1 ] July 31, 2012 |

After riding through mountainous narrow winding roads we arrived in Sa Pa, Vietnam. This gem of a town is the capital of the Lao Cai Province, located in north-west Vietnam close to the Chinese border. The landscape and the ethnic minority people were our main draws to this region.

The most eastern of the Himalayas, the Hoang Lien Son range of mountains fills this part of Vietnam and carries your eye constantly up into the fog, searching for the peaks hidden above. Just outside of Sa Pa town Fan Si Pan, Vietnam’s highest mountain, stands as part of this range.

Fans Pan Mountain

From almost anywhere in Sa Pa emerald green rice paddy terraces can be seen in the distance covering the lower slopes of the mountains. Animals roam and bamboo houses stand at sharp angles on the hillsides. The climate is cool and wet with often over 160 days of mist a year.

Rice Growing on the Hillsides

Multiple ethnic minority inhabitants make up this community. Each group we met was adamant to make clear their unique distinctions- not wanting to accidently be considered Vietnamese or another minority. There are five major ethnic groups in Sa Pa other than Vietnamese (15%), Hmong (52%), Dao (25%), Tay (5%), Giay (2%), and Xa Pho (<1%).

Flower Hmong Women

The largest group, the Hmong are thought to be the first people to have settled this region. This Asian ethnic group is found in mountainous regions of Thailand, Laos, China and Vietnam. Their history is one of much struggle and defeat. In the wake of the Indochina Wars large groups of Hmong have fled to other countries for asylum. Many live in the United States today. Within the Hmong culture, there are subgroups. Most of these subgroups originated due to the various locations of villages and multiple languages used. The people differentiate themselves using color words of their traditional clothing. For instance, “Black Hmong” “Red Hmong” and “Flower Hmong” all live in Vietnam. The Black Hmong make their clothing from Hemp and dye it with dark indigo until it turns black; this also leaves their fingers stained blue. The Red Hmong use red fabric to tie their hair into giant bundles on their heads; they also regularly sell their hair. The Flower Hmong wear brightly colored embroidered full skirts.

The moment we jumped out of the van and onto the main street in Sa Pa we were surrounded by a pack of Hmong women all anxious to greet us, sell us metal bracelets, take us trekking, lead us around, etc. All dressed in traditional wear with baskets of goods, or babies strapped to their backs, their enthusiasm and color was contagious.

Hmong Women in Sa Pa Town

We made our way to the Bamboo Hotel located in Sa Pa town. This budget hotel has top dollar views. Our basic room, up many fights of stairs had a balcony looking out to the mountainside. The room didn’t have air conditioning, so we left the balcony door open. At one point we looked up and the fog was so thick it had literally rolled in our room to the point of not being able to see in front of us. At other times we could see far into the distance.

Bamboo SaPa Hotel

Fog Rolling In

SaPa Town Main Street


Our most anticipated Sa Pa activity was to go on a proper trek with a Hmong guide.  Not realizing guides would be readily available, prior to arrival we booked a trek guide through Sa Pa Sisters, a group of Black Hmong sisters and cousins who with the help of a Swiss tourist set up a website and now have a thriving trek guide business. On the morning of our hike “Little Chi” met us at the hotel for an early start. We had given specifications that we wanted to go off the beaten path and would be up for a medium intensity hike.

A&P Trekking in Sa Pa, Vietnam

It was raining, so we quickly rented rain boots ($1) from across the street, grabbed our raincoats and away we went. One minute down the road and we had two Hmong women committed to following us. We politely said, “We’re not buying anything- thank you bye…” and kept walking. They kept walking too. Thirty minutes later I asked Chi to tell them we weren’t buying anything. None of them spoke much English. She told them, but then told me they were coming anyway. Whatever- we just didn’t want them to waste their day.

Beginning of the Trek

Trekking in the Rain

The trek was no joke. It was one of the most physically challenging things we’ve done. Pat and I both were both slightly intimidated by the landscape at moments, but the views were breathtaking. There wasn’t a path per say, we just followed Chi. The ground was extremely uneven, steep and slippery. At times we were walking on the narrow paths between rice paddy fields just hoping not to fall off. We passed water buffalo and crossed rivers. The rain boots were perfect and awful- when we sunk knee deep in mud they were awesome- when we were climbing on rocky cliffs they were not very comfy on our toes- mine are still purple to prove it. We both fell and slid many times and were covered in mud from head to toe.

Lush Views while Trekking

Hmong Homes in Villages in the Distance

Alison Stuck in the Mud

Narrow Path in the Rice Paddy Terraces

Building New Terraces

Pat Trekking in SaPa, Vietnam

Down in the Valley

Flags Used Like Scarecrows Just Before Harvest

Trekking in the Mud

As more time passed, we still had our tail of Hmong women. Now accepting they were part of this adventure too, we started engaging with them also. Climbing all of this way was Ly, a young mother carrying her 2 ½ month old daughter strapped tightly to her back. She carried an umbrella to keep the baby dry. All I could think was what if she falls or slips backwards on the baby? It was cold and wet and this baby went on a difficult seven-hour hike with us. In all that time, the baby barely fussed once- the mom fed her quickly and then was back trekking with us in five minutes.

Ly and Baby, Black Hmong

Vue, the other lady with us was older. She was tiny and full of smiles. For the steep hills she ended up often rescuing me from defeat by offering her hand for steadiness and showing me exactly where to step. All of the women were all incredibly sweet natured and willing to help us in any way.

Vue, Hmong hiker helper

Vue and Pat

Vue Helping Alison

Vue, Hmong lady who followed us all day

Alison and Hmong women

We asked Chi all about the Hmong lifestyle and culture. Black Hmong women rarely cut their hair. Women get married very young and usually have children soon thereafter. Most men stay home and work the fields for rice and corn and the women travel to town to sell handcrafts. Young boys are usually tasked with watching over the water buffalo. Her village was a two-hour hike away from Sa Pa town, we hiked there during the day. There are schools in most villages, but many children stay home and work instead of attend. All of the English Chi knew she learned from tourists in the past year as she began leading treks.

Black Hmong Very Rarely Cut their Hair, Chi

Hmong Boy on a Water Buffalo

Hmong Children

Men Fishing in the Stream

Passing Hmong Families on the Path

Almost to Lao Chai Village

Village Bridge

As our trek came to an end, we were very far from where we began. Fortunately we were close to a road. We told the two ladies who followed us all day goodbye and ended up purchasing some crafts they made. Chi flagged down two motorcycles and she and I got on one with the driver and Pat jumped on the back of the other with his driver.

Pat and Chi Walking Through the Village

As we took off on the bikes the full view came into focus. It was a stunning scene. We rode around the valleys and up the mountainside heading back. After about ten minutes into our thirty-minute ride back, Pat’s driver pulled over. There was a Hmong lady with a baby on her back walking uphill in the same direction we were headed.  The driver asked Pat if she could get on the back of his motorcycle.  Of course he said yes and she jumped on. It was splendid- Vietnamese driver, Pat, Hmong woman, tiny baby. The looks we got the rest of the journey from other locals were hysterical. Confusion, shame, jackpot—all expressions were being processed as they tried to quickly understand what just zoomed past.  While Pat was sandwiched in the middle riding around Sa Pa the Hmong lady whispered in his ear “What is your name?” “Where are you from?”- all the English she knew.  It was a precious moment that happened in such real time there was no chance to grab the camera. It was also probably the only time Pat will ride on a motorcycle at high speeds on curvy mountainous roads with a baby on the back.

View of the Stream Riding back to Town

The Village Noshery and Sapa Rooms

After a hot shower, we were ready for some comfort food. The day before we had eaten lunch at a new eatery in town called The Village Noshery. It was delicious food in an arty café space. While there we read about the owner and his brand that includes another restaurant in town, Sapa Rooms.

The Village Noshery

TET Lifestyle brand began as one restaurant in Sa Pa. Over the years it has expanded to a mountain retreat, trek guides, cooking classes, a hotel in Hanoi, and a new second restaurant. The quality of food and service far exceeds most other local establishments. Best of all, the owners employ and train locals who would otherwise not have such an opportunity. They also holistically care for the families of their employees (pay for baby deliveries, celebrate birthdays, pay rent, medical, school expenses, etc.) While we were there we even witnessed a nightly feeding program that the owner personally oversees. Boys from the villages show up hungry and the owner pauses his role in the profit making business and feeds them well before sending them on their way. Before they can eat- they have to wash their hands and show some basic manners. Some of the boys that are regulars have come for years almost every night to get a good meal before traveling the long distances back to their villages.

It’s always exciting to find and support private organizations, restaurants, shops, etc. that do more good than is expected of them and really focus on making a difference in a community. It’s even more exciting when the brand or products they are selling are wonderful in quality. Sapa Rooms and The Village Noshery were hands down the best food in town.

Bac Ha Market

We planned our final day in North Vietnam around the Bac Ha Market. This is a large Sunday only market that sells everything from lucky birds and cows to fruits and veggies to jeans and crafts. At 7AM we joined a bus of passengers to make the two-hour journey north to the market.

Bac Ha Market, Vietnam

Bac Ha Streets

Flower Hmong Lady

Hmong Man

On the way we met two schoolteachers from New York that were traveling for a project with Fund for Teachers. They were studying ethnic minorities and how to observe others from an outside perspective in connection to what a day in the life of a teenager may be like in various cultures. To be honest, when we run into Americans we often shy away a bit, not because they aren’t great people, we’re just leery of missing something more local by being too close to what’s familiar, or of being grouped with all Americans as exactly the same. These ladies pulled the opposite reaction out of us- such interesting and dynamic personalities that are undoubtedly making a huge difference in students’ lives- we were so happy to get to know them.

NYC Teachers, Fran and Christina

We thoroughly explored the market. The livestock, horses and water buffalo definitely took it up a notch from other markets we’ve seen. There was also a temporary large restaurant area that acted like a food court. The locals who were mainly Flower Hmong slurped bowls of noodles and rice in their bright colorful clothing. Men sat around smoking and sampling numerous varieties of loose tobacco from piles on the ground before making their purchases. A very old lady convinced me to chew multiple varieties of bark being sold as spices. Piles of chilies covered the sidewalks. Although tempted to purchase many things, we left with only a bag of plums.

Hmong women at the Bac Ha Market

Livestock Market

Horses for Sale

Chilis for Sale

Flower Hmong Little Boy and Mother

Hmong Market Food Court

Sampling Tobacco Smoked in Long Pipes

Al Chewing on Bark Varieties

Many Pigs on a Bike

Selling Lucky Birds

Colorful Traditional Clothing of Flower Hmong

After the market we were taken to the Lao Cai train station. With a few hours to kill, Fran and Christina, the teachers from NY, offered to share their hotel room nearby with us for the afternoon. A shower was exactly what we needed before boarding the overnight train back to Hanoi.


Once in Hanoi Pat and I made haste applying for and picking up several required visas we need for upcoming travel. Each country’s embassy required a few days to process the visas, so Hanoi was a fantastic place to cheaply wait while using the services of a capital city.

Typical Hanoi Rooftop View

a Hanoi Sunset

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Category: Alison's Blog, Blog, Destinations, Featured Posts, Vietnam

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  1. Kate says:

    Fascinating. In Portland, where I lived for 25 years, there is quite a settlement of Hmong. I never realized the diversity among the Hmong, though. Too bad more pampering American moms and dads can’t see how resilient children can actually be – even at 2 1/2 months! Feel sorry for the pigs… and the horses. Doesn’t strike me as horse country. Water buffalo, yes. Horse, no.

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