After spending four days in Ninh Binh for Christmas we took a sleeper bus to the Indo-China mountains, also known as Sa Pa. Sleeper buses are freaking amazing and we should have them here in the UK. The beds are comfortable and my inner child joyfully enjoyed knowing I’m sleeping comfortably on a bus! Imagine if we had sleeper buses from Scotland to Cornwall, and you’d wake up to your destination!
Sa Pa was a place Jon really wanted to get to, considered a very special place by travellers because how many people can say they’ve visited the Indo-China mountains? Due Vietnam being a very long country, the weather tends to differ all year round depending where you are. For us traveling in December, the south of the country was beautiful and hot but the north was bitterly cold, even colder than the UK. We were not fully aware how cold it would be or that in Sa Pa, no hotel that we found had central heating which made our stay feel even chillier.
It was a bit of a shock after the scorching hot sun of the Meekong. Later in the year Hanoi and further in the North does get milder climate but then the south endures monsoons. The best advice I would give travellers going to Vietnam is, either visit the country twice in your life time to enjoy the best seasons of the south and the north, or pack thermals and a good jacket like we did and hope for the best!
Regardless of the cold and seeing the rice paddies in a bit of a muddy state, Sa Pa was still beautiful and it also meant less tourists so we had the mountains to ourselves which felt magical. My photos do not do the place justice, I was spell bound at every turn I took, the entire place felt like another world, an elven world; The town of Sa Pa lies at an elevation of about 1500 meters (4,921 feet).
Sa Pa was meant to be a time of relaxation before our last day in Hanoi (for a quick walking tour and gift shopping) and our flight back to the UK. Most of our four days in Sa Pa consisted of renting a moped and driving as far as we can and stopping as often as we can just to capture the primordial beauty of the place. However the weather was unpredictable and I struggled with the cold.
We did however encounter a few children from local tribes people which was a beautiful experience. Sadly some of the tribes women have cottoned on to the fact that Westerners will pay a price for a picture of them in traditional wear and will loiter and follow westerns for a really long time and you unfortunatley have to ignore them. Not all locals are like this and to an extent it is not their fault, we’ve all got to make a living somehow right?
Watching the local tribes people walk down the valleys, through the smokey mountains was simply magical, where on earth do you see such beauty? One woman welcomed us into her home to show how they live and she didn’t ask for money, we did give her some anyway as a kind gesture and we met her daughter cooking in their kitchen whilst chickens and ducks ran around the home.
One particularly favourite day involved meeting a group of children who invited us to play jump rope, tug of war and wanted to teach me how to count in Nepalese. These kids were adorable and it was such a humbling experience for me to see how happy they were in comparrison to children of the west. Here, these kids are out playing all day with their imagination and an old bed sheet used as a toy yet all over the west, children are idly sat on the sofa staring at a screen. This is a powerful message of how our digital age is ruining childhood development in social skills and even confidence going out into the world.
In Vietnam, there are mountain people known by the French as the Montagnards, who have experienced a renaissance due to increased tourism. Better restaurants, food and new hotels dot the landscape. Sapa or “Sa Pa,” is situated near the border with China in Lao Cai province.
Sa Pa is easy to navigate around, simply hire a moped and your hotel owner will provide you a map and you can ask where you can find places of natural beauty and which tribal villages are the best to visit? The Black Hmong are the most famous and you will see some of their craft work being sold all around Vietnam, there are also the Tay Tribes, Red Dao and the Nhang people. Each tribe wears specific colours and pattens as well as head dresses too.
Sapa is well worth the effort involved in getting there, being one of the few places left on the planet where it is possible to see tribal culture in an almost undisturbed state.
The people have been here for a long time. The petroglyphs they left behind date back to the time of Magellan and even Columbus, in the 1400’s. The highest peak in all of Vietnam, Phan-Xi-Pǎng (3,143 meters high) can be found amongst Sapa’s rolling hills. The decision to permanently and fully open Sapa, with its rugged, beautiful landscape and fascinating people, to the outside world was made in 1993. The Dao villages of Ta Van and Ta Phin are popular destinations, but there are so many other excellent places to visit that veer off the tourist trail.
we met a few Black Hmong women working in their rice fields. They invited us into their home, where we met their 102-year old mother who was still very much full of life and happy to host us. We were offered tea and spent a few minutes talking about their lifestyle (I noticed that she had some sort of animist altar).
We continued on through even more stunning scenery, and eventually came into Ta Phin village, which is Red Dao (also spelled Dzao) country. We drove to and stopped off at quite a few small villages and took a picnic with us too which is something I love- having lunch in the great outdoors!
Sa Pa was a beautiful yet chilly end to our Vietnam trip. I am really glad we ventured here, however I do wish we had gone when the weather was more pleasant, not just for temperature reasons but to see the lush green of the rice paddies take over the valleys underneath the misty mountains. It is places like this that show you that heaven really does reside on earth.
Check out my write up about Ho Chi Minh City
As well as Cai Be & Meekong
And Cat Ba Island
If you wish to see more of my travels visit the links below: