Winter is not the best season to be in Sapa. Not only is it bitingly cold and wet but Sapa’s splendid views are mostly obscured by the fog which could be so thick that you can’t see anything beyond a hundred meters or so. On the other hand, there’s less people, you can sip warm red wine by a fireplace, and you can trek all day without breaking a sweat.
I missed the famous Bac Ha market held only on Sundays as I arrived at the Green Valley Hostel from the Lao Cai train station quite late already. The hostel was located on the fringes of the town center on the road to Y Lin Ho so I was the last to be dropped off by the van that the hostel had arranged for me in advance for 30,000 VND. I should have booked a tour in Hanoi so I could have been picked-up at Lao Cai and headed straight to the market before going to Sapa. I spent the rest of the Sunday just getting my bearings around town and heading to Cat Cat village in the afternoon.
The hostel was nice enough though there are better ones nearer the center. It needed a lot of sprucing up but it was very clean and was run by a nice Vietnamese family with a cute daughter. I had a really large room with two large beds. The electric blanket came in really handy at night when temperatures dropped to near freezing.
The summit of Ham Rong Mountain
Of Vendors and Stalkers
A few days of being approached with cries of “buy from me” and “buy some more” and I’m ready to flee from the first H’mong or Dzao that I meet on the street. Make no mistake about it. These people will remember you and haunt you all throughout your stay at Sapa and one of the biggest mistakes you can ever make is to excuse yourself with, “I’ll buy from you later” as you will have to pay for that statement later with actual purchase or you’ll never hear the end of it. You can’t even flee as they’re going to follow you even on treks. A Dzao woman I had already bought from followed me all the way to Cat Cat Village and back. You can always duck in a nearby restaurant or cafe and or even just head home. Sure, they don’t go in but they’ll be waiting for you outside. Stalker!
An all too common sight--- a tourist mobbed with "buy from me!"
Trekking popular routes won’t give you any respite either. Remember that you’re actually heading to their villages. Ever wonder what those hoards of H’mong are doing following those tour groups? They’re not there for the walk. When you take that rest stop at Lao Chao be ready for a sales assault.
Strong-arm tactics are taken literally here,. An elderly H’mong woman grabbed my arm and shoved some souvenirs under my nose. I had to extricate myself and literally run away from her. She could arm wrestle with the persistent vendors in the markets of HCMC and even China.
That being said, it’s actually quite fun to banter (and bargain) with them. It’s inevitable that the economics of a top tourist destination will not be lost on the locals. Buying stuff from them is a small price to pay for intruding into their habitation and their lifestyles. I just hope whatever money they get selling all that stuff actually goes to them so they can have better lives within the parameters of their culture.
Some of the stuff are actually quite good like the fabrics and brocade that decorate their traditional clothes . By the time I was through with my Sapa trip, I had bought a blanket, some small bags, head coverings, bracelets, earrings, and pieces of cloth. I also got a Dzao drum(250,00) at Cat Cat village and a H’mong khaen (300,000) at a stall at the central area. I also got a Dzao drum(250,00) at Cat Cat village and the H’mong khaen (300,000) from a stall at the central area in front of the church.
Trekking the Villages
There’s no point in going to Sapa if you’re not going to do any treks. Indochina’s highest peak, Mt. Fansipan was definitely out of the question as it would have been too cold and too wet to attempt it. Perpetually covered in clouds, I never even saw a glimpse of its peak.
Very touristy and a little kitschy was Ham Rong Mountain that looked more like a resort than a mountain with its gardens and paved steps leading to a viewing point that had spectacular views of its iconic peak. With names like “Heaven’s Gate” and “Cloud Deck” it could vie with China’s Hangzhou for its poetically named sights. My favorite spot was the forest of limestone boulders near near the viewing point. A longhouse charged admission for song and dance performances but it all sounded very touristy to me.
I only did two treks which I arranged with the hostel ($20 for Y Lin Ho-Lao Chau-Ta Van) and with a tour operator ($35 for Ma Tra-Ta Phin). I was told that the Y Lin Ho route was the only being offered as the rest were private tours which meant you had to form your own group. That accounted for the expensive Ma Tra-Ta Phin trek as I was alone.
The guide picked me up at the hostel the next morning for the trek to the villages of Y Lin Ho, Lao Chau and Ta Van. I was joined with two young Swedish girls who were on a gap year from university studies. Far from being alone, we were just one of a hundred other groups trampling the villages. We got to the turn-off to Y Lin Ho where our guide paid the admission. The place was swarming with people getting ready to descend the steep path to the valley. Children were selling long sturdy walking sticks for 20,000 VND. I brought my trekking pole but never saw the need to use it during the entire hike nor the one the next day.
Y Lin Ho
The distinction between the villages were blurry as there were no demarcation that indicated where we were except the school in Lao Chau where we stopped to watch kids sing some songs. They were really cute but I was just wondering the impact of our visit to them.
We had lunch at a restaurant along the river in Lao Chau where we had instant noodles with fresh vegetables. We had been walking for three house and were so hungry we just gobbled everything up. A few meters after the restaurant was the Sapa O’ Chau cafe and restaurant which I had come across from one of my internet researches.
I couldn’t really say that the walk was spectacular because fog mostly kept whatever terraces or valleys could be seen. Or maybe because it’s something I’ve seen before back at home. Or maybe because there were just so many people treading on the same path. I liked that I was hiking at least and able to see the traditional wooden houses of the Black H’mong. There wasn’t much gains in elevation and in spite of some slippery and steep descents to the valley, particularly in Y Lin Ho, it was a really easy hike that anyone without any experience or regardless of age (as long as reasonably fit) could take.
Y Lin Ho
Houses in Lao Chau
The walk to Ta Van was less interesting. We passed by some home stays that looked like they were set-up for tourists. I boarded a van that was to take me back to Sapa as the two girls were going to overnight at a home stay.
Cat Cat is the nearest village to Sapa. I went to the place twice— on my first and last days at Sapa. Very touristy with stone steps that led into and out of the valley, Cat Cat seemed more like a park rather than a real village with real people going about their daily existence. Tourist stalls lined the path but at least the vendors weren’t very persistent. There was a 10,000 admission fee collected about 10 minutes to the village entrance.
A traditional clay house had also been converted into a workshop but there wasn’t any activity going on. The Black H’mong are famous for their blades and it would have been interesting to watch someone at work.
Shake your booty shake your booty c'mon!
Steep steps led all the way down to the waterfall, the focal point of the village. Food stalls surrounded the viewing deck. Steps behind the small theater led to Fairy Stream which made for a nice walk away from the crowd though there’s nothing much to really see except the water that wound itself around some cliffs and lots of vegetation. Maybe I should have joined the three H’mong guys I met at the trail who with their bows and arrows looked like they were heading out to hunt. The apple wine being sold at the small eateries near the waterfall was deliciously sweet and tangy and cost 20,000 a shot.
Cat Cat Waterfall
A better hike was at Ma Tra and Ta Phin with a private guide–a local Vietnamese who was a former elementary school teacher. He picked me up at the hostel and we made our way to the main road past the lake where we abruptly turned right to a trail. My guide was a cool guy but not as chatty as the previous one. He did walk quite fast and at times I had to catch up with him lest he disappears in the thick fog. It took about an hour and a half before we reached the first village in Ma Tra where we visited a house. An old woman was cooking some pig food in a large vat in a corner of the house near the doorway. We sat around a fire while my guide made conversation with her. I was a little embarrassed as I had nothing to offer to the woman as a gesture of thanks. My guide assured me however that it was okay.
The house was dark and smoky and I was seated near an alcove which functioned as a bed. It was a one-room place where eating, cooking, and sleeping was all done on the ground floor as the second level was used for storage.
Food for the pigs
Hopping on stones in Ma Tra
The walk along the rice fields and the stream that led out from one of the villages to the main road was beautiful. With the thick fog, it looked like a scene from “Lord of the Rings.”
It’s amazing how the guides could lead the way out from the maze-like stone paths in the middle of the fields. I was alone most of the time especially in Mantra and it was only in Ta Phin where I came across other tourists. The feel was more authentic and there wasn’t any of the strong-arm tactics I experienced in Sapa.
We stopped at a Vietnamese house in Ta Phin for lunch. I was served noodles with fresh vegetables again. I sat at one of the benches and tables outside gracefully carved from large trunks of trees . Three Dzao women came-up to me to sell me some stuff . Hearing my protestations that I had already bought some Dzao stuff at Sapa, they insisted that I buy from Ta Phin for more authenticity. They did have a point. I bought a small pouch from each of them. Two others came along but I politely declined saying that I had already bought earlier. “Here in Ta Phin?” they asked. They sure do know how to sell. But they were also very polite and didn’t bother me. “It’s okay if you do not buy. Enjoy your meal,” one said as they bade farewell.
Red Dzao women at Ta Phin. The one on the left showed me how the head dress is worn. A more modern head dress is the one worn by the woman on the left. She says it's less cumbersome.
The Dzao house we visited was larger than the H’mong house in Matra. There were wooden tables and chairs though we all sat on low plastic stools around a cozy fire where a pot with some innards was simmering and above it a piece of meat was being smoked. A couple of vendors had followed us inside and we all sat around the fire with the elderly woman who owned the house. Her son and his wife with their two little kids were also there.
The house had all the features of a Dzao house which I would later learn at the Sapa Museum. On the wall were two scrolls with the Chinese-looking Dzao script and some faded paper buntings stashed in a corner. If my guess is right, those were left-overs from an adulthood ceremony.As our visit neared the end, the vendors started selling me stuff. They pointed out my H'mong cap and said I ought to buy a Dzao. They caught me off-guard there. They were right. So I bought a nicely embroidered one for 20,000 VND. The elderly woman also brought out some stuff to sell which I didn't mind as buying from her would be a way of repaying the opportunity to visit her place. But what really shocked me was when I inquired about a male head wrap like the red one that the women wore. She offered her husband's which was hanging to dry to sell to me! It was a long piece of indigo-dyed cloth with brocade sown at both ends. Her son demonstrated how to wrap it around the head.From the clothesline to my shopping bag
I was hesitant to buy it as it could be irreplaceable and her husband might get angry. The other women, however, assured me it was all right as she could make another one for her husband. I wonder how he would react when he gets home later in the day and looks for it. I asked to see a musical instrument but they didn’t have one. The guide said another family had a large flute but it was not for sale. I told him I had no intention of buying it if it was the only one they had.
It was a short walk to what seemed to be a village square fringed with souvenir stalls and a parking area. A large crowd of women were there ready to pounce on tourist-laden vehicles that were arriving.