Sprawling rice terraces, plunging valleys, and rich green fields enveloped in a chilled weather. A quaint picture of a village with narrow roads and small markets, yet, nature only comes in second to the real wonder of this paradise: its people, the ethnic minority groups that turn Sa Pa into a place of refuge for those who wish to be unscathed by the grip of the modern world.
Xin Chao, nyoob zaw! Today I’ll take you through a laid-back, mountainous little town in northeast Vietnam, culturally rich with six different minority ethnic groups with each wearing traditional and colourful attire – H’Mong, Red Dao, Dzay, Giay, Phu La (Xa Pho), and the Kinh. At an elevation of 1,600 meters, Sa Pa is a delightful former French hill station situated on the east of Hoang Lien Son range, close to the Chinese border. The north is bordered by Bat Yat, the south by Van Ban, the east by Bao Thang, and the west by Than Nyen and Tan Nyen (Lai Chau province).
This trip assumes solo travel. Outbound and inbound flights to and from Hanoi is excluded, souvenirs & personal expenses are not included.
Total damage to the Piggy Bank per person: VND1,600,000-VND2,000,000 (USD$80-100)
VND450,000 (USD$20) Train & minivan to Sapa
VND40,000 (USD$2) Breakfast
VND200,000 (USD$9) Motorbike fees + petrol for 2 days
VND75,000 (USD$3) Entrance to Ta Van & Lao Chai
VND80,000 (USD$4) Lunch
VND100,000 (USD$6) Dinner
VND150,000 (USD$7) Accommodation at Ecological Ta Van
VND20,000 (USD$1) Entrance to Thac Bac
VND70,000 (USD$3) Entrance to Thac Tinh Yeu
VND80,000 (USD$4) Lunch
VND100,000 (USD$6) Dinner
VND220,000 (USD$10) Bus back to Hanoi
HOW TO GET TO SA PA FROM HANOI?
There are different sleeper train operators from Ha Noi to Sa Pa, most foreigners would choose Fansipan express, but you pay at premium. I chose the official sleeper Vietnam Railways which costs VND200,000 cheaper than the commercial operators yet have the same quality of bedding arrangements (bunk bed). At the time I was travelling, the ticket costs VND410,000. The train departs at 10PM from Ga Hanoi and arrive at Lao Cai station at 5AM. You can then opt for public bus for VND28,000 or take the minivan for VND40,000 (people will swarm you as soon as you arrive).
Sapa is at its greenest from July – November. Rice & corn planation starts in June and finish in October. This is the wonderful period to admire the green nature and some special rite which deprived from rice cultivation. Bear in mind though, it is rainy and foggy during these period. From December to April, the weather turns to be pretty cold but no rain. If you wish to enjoy an adventure without being interupted by weather, this is the good choice. The landscapes remains at their magnificience and awesomeness.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN SA PA?
For a DIY trip, you can hire motorbike for VND80,000/day. It costs me VND 200,000 for 2 days hire with fuel inside that lasts about 50km in distance. However, upon entering deeper villages like Ta Van, there is an entrance fees of VND75,000 which would have been waived if you hire a guide. Though I rode the motorbike, I actually trekked in-between villages on foot.
Sa Pa is well known for its trek, the most common route between villages (Sa Pa – Y Linh Ho – Lao Cai – Ta Van) is about 13km in distance. Typically, you would hire a guide which roughly costs VND 300,000 for 2days 1night itinerary whereby they will invite you to their traditional houses / villages and accompany you throughout the walking journey (whilst attempting to sell you local souvenirs!)
48 HOURS ITINERARY IN A JIZZ!
0630-1200. Sa Pa museum
0630-1200. Cat Cat village
1300-1500. Ta Van Village
1730-1900. Lao Cai Village
1900-2400. Dinner, rest at guest house
D A Y O N E
06.00-12.00 – SA PA MUSEUM, CAT CAT VILLAGE
As soon as you landed Sa Pa, you will be greeted with Black H’mong women who are famous for making cloth from hemp and dying it a deep indigo blue. They wear long blouses decorated with batik flowers over short trousers, and wrap long scarves around their legs. They also wrap their long hair around their head and wear a blue turban. They will attract you with some short conversations and try to persuade you to buy something for them. Be firm with your choices, before you get followed around by a mob of them 🙂
My first recommendation if you know nothing about Sa Pa is to visit Sa Pa museum. The place is definitely insightful if you are interested to learn about the culture and history of Sa Pa. The ground level house all the local souvenirs and handmade products, at the back porch, if you are lucky you can catch a glimpse of tribe villagers weaving handmade materials into usable goods and/or stitch any other handmade crafts. The museum is located on the second floor, it’s quite rusty and not well-maintained, but should give you sufficient basic information enough if you have zero background knowledge about Sa Pa.
After an insightful trip to the museum, I made my way to the nearest village from town centre, called Cat Cat. It is about 30 minutes (3kms) in proximity which explains the abundance of tourists. Established in 19th century, the old village of Cat Cat is characterised by its distinctive customs and daily ritual life of the H’mong tribe in the mountains.
After walking around 30 minutes, you will then pass the tourist information centre gate of Cat Cat Village. After grabbing a free map, I cannot contain my excitement to witness the information I have absorbed from the museum. Now, if you see the map given by the Information Centre carefully, there are 2 routes after you reach Ticket Station No 1 – you can turn left to enter the village which attracts fees or keep going straight for 600m (it’s more like 1.5km) to reach Ticket station 2B. I went for the latter of course, reaching station 2 near the carpark. The walk is around 40minutes and it was an easy descent with big streets path. Upon descending, you will have a bird eye’s view of lush greeneries, stepped paddy fields, and blotches of villages against a background of rugged mountains. This is a typical view that you will always indulge throughout the village stretch, even in Lao Cai and Ta Van.
Keep on descending until the path becomes narrow and you will reach ‘H’mong Cat Cat essential oil workshop’ where you can see signs for local stalls selling on natural products such as herbal baths and natural essentials. Keep going, and you will pass the red Cat Cat bridge. The trek is clearly path-ed, though the cobbled stone paths may be a bit slippery. On the left, you will see a peaceful stream called Suoi Hoa (Flower stream) which leads up to the Cat Cat waterfalls at the end of the trek.
After about 30 minutes walk in the drizzling rain, finally I reached a path where I can descend down to the stream. Near it, there are huge wooden rotating wheels which I think it is used for irrigation and to organise flows of water. There are also 2 resting huts where the indigenous tribes can relax and socialise. I can actually picture myself inhaling those fresh climate air with coffee on hand. The end of the stream is connected via the man-made logs of wooden bridge which leads to a small waterfall. The sight is so pretty, but it is quickly dissolved as heavy downpour of rains started to fall on me. I then took a shelter at the Cat Cat Performing Arts – a small area where you can sit and watch a short documentary on Cat Cat village. Next to that is the Cat Cat Waterfalls. After seeing grandiose of waterfalls scale in Da Lat though, the waterfalls felt somewhat simple and small.
I continued my way through and it will be an ascent up to the village. My shoes and feet by now were literally soaked with mud as heavy rain forces the water to drain downwards to the waterfall. After passing several shops, there were signs of ‘H’mong traditional houses‘. The walls are made of sawn timber and roofs covered with Pomu wood. H’mong men and women were everywhere, attending to every chore from drying clothes to selling handmade products.
The path also lead up to the shaman’s house. Though most have adopted Catholicism, some of the villagers still practice and believe in shamanism. Obviously with no guide, I wasn’t able to enter inside the shaman’s premise. The house is clearly marked with the 3 torn paper painting hanged outside the entrance and also on the home’s altar, which symbolises the 3 dimension of shaman cosmology.
Continue your way up, passing more souvenir shophouses and you will reach the start of route 1 I have mentioned earlier, thus concluding your trek inside Cat Cat village.
As I exit the village, managed to grab a selfie with this ridiculously photogenic village girl. Clearly someone steals the show!!!
I rode my bike for another 13km from city centre Sa Pa to reach my next destination, Ta Van village. You will pass approximately 3 lookout points which offers you bird-eye’s view on the village and greeneries. unfortunately, for the two days I was in Sa Pa, the magnificent view is impaired with cloudy weather and the rain. but that didn’t dampen my spirit. Ta Van is definitely less commercialised than Cat Cat, though you still meet the usual “you buy, buy from me, cheap cheap..” villagers offering their local produce. The typical souvenirs are handmade pouches, jewellery, keychains, and or weaved clothing.
Ta Van, which means ‘huge arch’ is located in front of Muong Hua river and surrounded by terrace fields that is shaped like arches to the mountains. There is a vestige of old Viet’s stone worshipping and on the other side of the river there is an ancient carved stone with around 200 different stones of different sizes displaying Lac Viet ancient cultural images. Vast terrace fields with unique position of a big turning road become a landscape and a destination of Ta Van.
The village sit near the stream and has a lot of eateries as well as school and wet market. The meat are displayed in a small wooden table with rotating fan on the top to prevent insects from infecting the flesh. At the intersection, the path can either lead you to the main road or a trek about 4km through Lao Cai village. Lao Cai, closer proximity to Sa Pa centre, is more touristy than Ta Van. Most of the H’mong tribes occupy this village and the amenities such as school and eateries are more sophisticated and bigger. There are more souvenir shops as clearly this is the second and/or third designated village after Cat Cat and Y Linh Ho to visit due to promixity to town centre.
18.00-24.00 – Dinner & mingle with villagers
The village is quite serene and there is not much activity you can do at night except making new friends at either the bar or the local guesthouse you are staying at. So after an onerous trek, I’m sure you deserve an early night!
D A Y T W O
06.00-12.00 – Giang Ta Chai Village
After a fulfilling breakfast of pancakes and Vietnamese local coffee the next morning, I headed for a short 2 hour trek towards Giang Ta Chai, home of the Red Dzao. The entrance is definitely way off from Google map grid, so it is quite misleading. The entrance for this trek, if you are coming from Ta Van, is a small alley next to the LuckyDaisy Bamboo Bar. The trek is more challenging especially with the muddy terrain and rainy weather. Upon trekking I was approached by a 12 years old H’mong girl who lives in Giang Ta Chai village. In the end, she was accompanying me throughout, helping me when I lost balance upon walking in the muddy rice fields. We bypassed the small villages, witnessed kids working on their farms as young as 5 years old! Buffalos ramming the narrow path, it’s just a stunning sight to behold.
We chatted throughout the journey, and I learn that the kids are not taught English at school and only pick up the language from the Internet and on-the-spot training upon tour-guiding foreign tourists. Amazing huh! I teased her whether she wants to have a foreigner handsome boyfriend, and she sheepishly grinned and rejected the notion, uttering that she would “only be interested in another Hmong if not other Vietnamese city boy”.
We passed through a lush bamboo forest for another 20 minutes, a waterfall and a suspension bridge (which overlooked the old and rickety Cloud Bridge) before (of course I saw this coming) arriving at her home which is also a shophouse selling clothes and local souvenirs and with puppy eyes, she managed to convince me to buy one or two things.
Exiting the village towards the main road, another beautiful capture of native kids and family as well as the buffalo ploughing the rice paddies.
12.00-18.00 – Thac Bac (Silver Waterfalls), Thac Tinh Yeu (Love Waterfalls)
Post lunch, I rode my bike up north for about 45 minutes to reach Thac Bac (Silver Waterfalls). It is tucked in nicely along the Tram Ton Pass, Vietnam’s highest mountain pass. The road on the way up was super dusty as there were heaps of trucks passing by, so I recommend you to prepare a mask before hand! Located 13 kilometers from Sa Pa center of town, the waterfall is known as the white dragon who looks down from the sky to the locals. Here you can admire the mountainside and lush vegetation surrounding you on your walk, and snap photos of the bridge stretching over the water and the scenic views of the national park.
The splash from the waterfall may cause the path to be slippery, so bear in mind. From the height of 100m, the waterfall races down in a series of cascades in the midst of lush foliage. The like-silver-color water, originating from the source of water in Lo Sui Tong mountain summit, streams down all year round, which explains the name of the waterfall. At the foot of the waterfall, listening to the sound of water falling and birds singing while seeing the picturesque nature around you will make you feel closer to nature than ever. Even inhaling cool and fresh air there can bring a peaceful feeling to you, the perfect escape from hustle bustle of Vietnam capital cities. The trek is super easy as there are only stairs to ascent/descent, you may finish within 15-20 minutes.
Continue your way up for another 10 minutes (3km), and you will reach the charming Thac Tinh Yeu (Love Waterfalls). From far sight, the waterfall looks like a twinkling pyramid under the sun. With a height of about 100m, it starts from the peak of Fansipan Mountain and rush noisily into the Gold Stream like a never-ending song. Under the waterfall, the Gold Stream runs along with green grass plots and bamboo clusters, forming a poetic image.
In order to get to the falls, you must trek alongside a stone-based path that overlooks the mountain and lush vegetations that leads up to the waterfall’s streams. The trek is slightly longer than Silver Waterfall, but you will be rewarded with prettier sight that will leave you with serenity.
Love Falls is the name by which it kept the area a romantic love story. The story tells that long time ago, this waterfall was the bathing place of fairies from heaven. One day, a fairy was mesmerized by flute sound of a young boy near the fall, so she spent every night listening to his melodies. Not long time after, her parents came to know the secret, and forbade her from coming back to the fall. The passionate fairy transformed herself to a bird so that she could live with her love forever. From then on, the name Love is born.
18.00-24.00 – Sa Pa town centre, depart to Ha Noi
Before you depart to Ha Noi via bus or train, you can make a pitstop for dinner whilst explore the town centre. The main landmarks are Sa Pa Lake, Sa Pa Cathedral, and main town area where you get to see daily activities of native Sa Pa-ers in the evening – playing volleyball and biking in the main foyer. It’s refreshing to witness the contentment on villagers’ eyes on the concept of simple hapiness.
WHAT TO EAT?
Bamboo sticky rice (Com Lam) in Sapa is an abnormal version of rice. Different from others, it is absolutely cooked in bamboo sections. Local people spend spend hours on collecting the bamboo then cleaning and chopping them into small sections at about 30 centimeters in length. The locals mix rice with a little bit of salt then they stuff up bamboo with salty rice. Don’t forget the water used to cook this dish. It’s brought from the streams which is fresh and a little bit sweet.
Thang Co is the traditional food of Hmong people and it has been cooked for hundreds years. Made of horsemeat, horse’s viscera and horse’s bone, you’d be blown away with the taste. Cooking this dish not only requires time but also the skill of cooks. The seasonings comprises of 12 spices from cardamon, ginger, citronella, anise to cinnamon twig. The locals stew horsemeat with these 12 spices in a big pot within a couple of hours. To elevate the flavor of Thang Co soup, they serve it with fresh vegetable and a special red hot pepper name Muong Khuong.
Simple pho (beef noodles) cooked by your guesthouse is the perfect remedy to cure Sa Pa’s chilly weather. It’s warm, flavourful, and so light and delicious!
WHERE TO STAY?
My favourite stay is at Ecological Ta Van Homestay, ran by family of 4. The family are incredibly hospitable and friendly. They hosted roughly about 10 beds on the 2nd floor, big king size bed with mosquitos net, breakfast and dinner are amazingly scrumptious (plus with a view of open fields)! They even lend me boots for free as my trekking shoes are completely soaked upon exploring Cat Cat due to rainy weather. The stay costs me as budget as USD$10.
RANI’S TRAVEL TIPS:
- If you are travelling during rainy season, make sure you bring raincoat with you. Proper trekking shoes are advised. You can also borrow boots at your guesthouse.
- Double up on water! On average you will be trekking around 4-5 hours per day.
- Say “no” very firmly when the native villagers offer you something you do not want to buy. If you show the slightest interest, they may well follow you all the way up the road, until they find anther likely target.