Day One: Heaven’s Gate, Silver Waterfall and Sa Pa Town
On Monday, March 6, we left the hustle and bustle of Hanoi for Sa Pa, a city in the Hoang Lien Mountains of Northwest Vietnam. The journey is now possible by car, and is a five hour drive from Hanoi on the new highway that opened up two years ago. Prior to the highway, tourists had to make the journey on an overnight train ride. With the highway, Sa Pa is now accessible and is becoming a more popular tourist destination. This, of course is a double-edged sword. Tourism is resulting in Sa Pa and the surrounding village towns making more money which is great, but they are also slowly losing their way of life and their vibrant and rich culture. Sa Pa’s landscape is changing with the addition of high rise hotels and restaurants and the villages are building restaurants and homestay places where tourists can dine and stay with a local family. Despite the changes, Sa Pa is still a very charming place and no visit to Vietnam would be complete without coming here.
Sa Pa reminds me of an Alpine ski town with hotels and restaurants among the mountainous inclines and around a Catholic church in the town center aging back to the Vietnamese occupation. The area around Sa Pa is renowned for its location overlooking the terraced rice paddy fields of the Muong Hoa Valley and the villages of hill people with their vibrant native dress which farm the land.
We stayed at the 5-star Victoria Hotel in Sa Pa, an easy staircase away from the center of town. Before we checked into the hotel, we had lunch at the Red Dao restaurant, named for the tribal hill people that run it. The Red Dao are the second largest minority group in Sa Pa, eclipsed only by the Hmong people. The Red Dao are known for the bright red head scarves that the women wear. In this region of Vietnam, the weather is cooler, as we are in the mountains, and the food reflects this. We had warm pumpkin soup, papaya salad with sweet potato fritters and grilled pork. This part of Vietnam is known for its pork and it’s fresh salmon.
After lunch, we visited the Silver Waterfall, a beautiful waterfall in the heart of the mountains and then to the lookout point at Heaven’s Gate, where you literally feel like you are on top of the world. The mist and fog made it difficult to see, but it added a mysterious quality as a backdrop to the beautiful view among the mountains at Heaven’s Gate. We checked into our hotel and then walked to the village for dinner at Indigo, a local restaurant. We had duck with honey and spring rolls filled with pork. Fabulous.
Day Two – The Village People
We walked this morning for approximately eight miles to reach a Black Hmong village and then another village which has a mix of Hmong and Tay hill people. The villages are characterized by homes on stilts, made out of wood, with the first floor for their shop, restaurant or tools and the second floor is where the families live. They farm around the village and the women make and sell handicrafts, including scarves, pillowcases, blankets and other textile products by hand, using the colors from the local flowers and plants to dye the thread. Indigo is especially popular.
After touring the villages, we walked to the outskirts of town, where we toured and ate lunch at a local family’s home. The family was of the Tay tribe, and grandparents, children and grandchildren all lived together in a modest, but quite efficient home. They cooked for us a great lunch, including tofu with a tomato sauce, chicken with ginger, fresh spring rolls filled with pork and mixed vegetable stir fry. The head of the household came out with a carafe of rice wine, (basically moonshine made with rice) and poured us shots. We raised our glass to our hosts, and not to be impolite, we raised it a few more times too (LOL). Let’s just say that we were defenseless from the sales tactics of the village women who came to sell us the scarves and purses we bought! We returned to Sa Pa in the late afternoon, and had dinner in the hotel.
Our guide told us about a Black Hmong marriage tradition. If a boy falls in love with a girl, he can kidnap the girl and lock her in a room at his family’s house for three days. He cannot see her during that time and the girl is taken care of by his sister or mother. At the end of three days, he asks the girl if she will marry him, and, if she says yes they will marry, if not, he has to set her free.
Day 3 – The Red Dao
Before our journey back to Hanoi, we journeyed about an hour by foot to visit a Hmong village and a Red Dao village. The mist had lifted somewhat and we were able to see the terraced rice paddy fields and some of the women from the Red Dao village planting corn. There was a family of pigs trying to eat the corn as fast as the women were planting it. It was a very funny sight watching the women trying to get the pigs to go away.
As we walked past a middle school, a teacher for 5th graders came out and asked us to join her with her class so they could practice their English. The children were 11 years old and they asked us our name and how we were doing. They are learning basic English to help them with the tourists and to get a job. They were incredibly sweet. Tim taught them how to pump fist and blow it up. So cute. We also took a picture with the class and sent it to the teacher for a keepsake.
No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to this lovely awe-inspiring mountainous region. It is so beautiful and the workers in the hotel are from the local tribal people that live in the mountains. They love to practice their English with us and they speak very good English. We left around noon from the villages outside Sa Pa to make the journey back to Hanoi. I will always remember the time I had here. Watching the hardworking women from the tribes, I was reminded that it was International Women’s Day. I feel a kindred spirit with these women and with women all over the world today. FK