After the adventures of Ha Long Bay it was straight onto another trip and up into the hills and to Sapa (North West Vietnam), a former French Hill station. Sapa started life as a French colonial retreat for the them desperate to escape the heat of the plains below. Once you arrive in Sapa its easy to see why they choose this spot as views of emerald green paddy fields are breathtaking.We hoped on a overnight train the day we arrived back in Hanoi after our little excursion in Ha Long Bay. The cabins were comfortable enough 4 small beds with a small table and close access to the buffet car. There were the three of us from our Ha Long Bay trip in one cabin and we eagerly awaited our guest for the night. We not disappointed as in strode a 6ft 4in Swiss guy called Andre, who strode in with a bottle of vodka. After the first hour of getting to know everyone the train finally left at 9.30pm and we settled down to some important issues – cards. We all retired around an hour later after a few more drinks and games in preparation for our very early morning arrival at 5.00am.
We were awoken at 4.30am to the sound of very loud Vietnamese music (lovely at normal times of the day but that early it sounded as though someone was strangling a cat) and some lady shouting “Coffee Morning”. We were pick up by a mini bus and then we traveled the next 45 mins uphill through the clouds and into Sapa. The views from the mini bus alone were beautiful so I was looking forward to the trek into the hills which was due to start in the next 2 hours. We arrived at the hotel where we could get washed and changed, prepare our small rucksacks and begin our trek.
The trek we were undertaking was on to another homestay and was an easy trek through the hills with a tour guide showing us the way. I was looking forward to this especially after my journeys in Laos. We were greeted at our hotel by a very small lady dressed in Jeans, 5 wholly tops and slippers. Yep this was our tour guide, it looked as though we were going to be put to shame by the locals again as we thought we had all the appropriate gear for trekking! Our travels which included an overnight stay and went through the main Sapa town. Whilst in town were greeted by some similarly small ladies from the Black Hmoung tribe, so named partly because their dress is black, ornamented with colourful brocade and silver jewelery, but mostly because of their black, fez-like headgear. they immediately tagged us (by putting handmade bracelets on us) and then proceeded to follow us everywhere. Since the advent of tourism these tribes have reinvented themselves as hawkers of handmade trinkets and retailers of goods made by the Flower Hmong, who live elsewhere in the province.
They are the genuine ‘native’ inhabitants of the area, and they clearly regard all of the political nonsense that has been going on for the past 1,000 years as background noise. People invading and leaving, governments coming and going hasn’t changed their lives in the least bit. Many tribes straddle the border with China, which they ignore, circulating freely on both sides. As far as they are concerned, the lowland ethnic Vietnamese who have shown up in recent years to make a buck are simply competition. And so were now had a group that initially started as 4 grew to 10, children (tied to the back of the women) included! We set off out of the market and onto the trek, which was very easy to start with 5 km on a road, then off the beaten track a little and into the paddy fields and down the hills. The views were stunning and although our new friends could not speak much English bar – “where you from” and “how old are you” they soon helped the ladies of the group negotiate the slippery surfaces of the roads ahead. We journey down hill all day to our lunch point where we were immediately mobbed by Hmoung tribes ladies selling handicrafts.
After a satisfying lunch of bread and cheese we were ready to hit the road and finish off the afternoon walk and to get to our home stay which we thought would take the the rest of the day, around 4 hours. In fact we walked another 2 km and we were there. However we hadn’t arrived at someones home more like a make shift hostel for tourists. we idled away the afternoon reading and chatting and soon it was dinner. We were in bed early enough as it had been a long day already and we were up early the next day in preparation of a full days trekking. Again we were disappointed as we only left the homestay at 10am and then we only trekked for around 3 hours before being put back on a taxi to take us back to the hotel to wash and change so we could catch our train back to Hanoi. The landscape was still amazing and the final day we managed to bag less additional townsfolk asking – “buy from me”. !
The fact that the tribes continue to live a very basic existence is partly economic and partly cultural. To them, a rice field, a garden, some cattle and a stilt house are all the prosperity they ever hoped for, going back countless generations. I had the feeling that our destination felt more like ‘theme resorts’ for tourists, where they get to rough it local-style, though technically they are real villages.Life is probably better for the tribes than it once was, but it still takes all day to make a few dollars profit. Despite the steady flow of tourists, supply far outweighs demand. When you wander beyond the last tourist-oriented business on any street, there are precious few businesses thriving on local dollars alone. In a sense, it’s not really a town at all — the tribes live elsewhere and come into town to do business — often trudging along on foot, six hours each way. Still all in all a beautiful place to spend a couple of days so long as you can get past the “authentic” tribes folk!!!