Hiking the Hills of Sa Pa
Fri 4 Sep 2015 - Sat 5 Sep 2015
Sa Pa, a hilly region in the Northwest of Vietnam, that is littered with scattered towns and rice fields carved out of the hills in layered terraces of rice that sway in the wind like seas of grass. Arriving just at the start of the harvest season, the region is just beautiful, and while we only spent two days here, this post has taken forever to create due to the time spent going through photos. Every time I turned around I was greeted with a new greater sight than previous, which added to the large photo count. Most do not come close to portraying the stunning environment and people that live within the area; it is a culturally diverse area, containing large portions of the minority groups within the country.
Corey and I started the first day in Hanoi, making the drive to the town of Sa Pa by lunch time. It is a recurring theme through these posts on Vietnam, but like all other days the food was great. Today we washed down lunch with a local rice wine, which was tasty but potent, being closer to a liquor than a standard red or white wine. From there we hiked down the hill that the town of Sa Pa sits on (I should point out that Sa Pa or Sapa is both a town and one of the districts of the Lao Cai province, and going forward I may use the name for either town or district and expect you to figure out which I refer to). The hike down took us through a village or two, giving an opportunity to see how some of the different ethnic tribes prefer to construct their homes.
Quick side note: While most of Vietnam is from the Viet tribe, there are many different ethnic minorities scattered throughout the country, and most have a unique method for constructing buildings. While in Hanoi I was at the Ethnology Museum which has reconstructed around 20 structures indicative of what the associated group would construct. I will go into more details while discussing Hanoi, but to be brief, the scope of size, shape and method of construction across the groups is astounding.
Along the walk down we came across one man with his rice crop, as we passed he appeared to be more standing guard versus working the field. From the photo below it almost looks as if he were standing on a cliffs edge, and he may have been, I’m not really sure now that I think about it.
The bottom of the hill took us past a nice waterfall and into a small theatre housing a production of local plays. We only had 10 minutes to spend here, mainly we watched a man and woman dance and move to choreographed movements with music, telling a story. It seemed most sets were 5-10 minutes in length and if you stayed for an hour you would be able to see all of the plays. We however were on a timeline, so before long we were back out the door to start the real hike.
After a quick motorcycle ride back up the hill, and a five minute drive out of town, we were dropped off on the side of the road to begin our walk. Our afternoon was spent hiking down the hills into the valley and along the paths that connect the towns that dot the area. Once outside of the rural area of Sa Pa, it is quickly apparent that life has continued on, relative unchanged, over the past generations. While electricity does have its use, and the odd motorcycle can be seen racing from village to village, most people still seem to be working the land manually, living in the same style houses their ancestors did.
We were told in advance that once we start walking through the valley ladies from the Hmong tribe would likely walk the trail and chat with us. This day was no different, as Corey and I had three ladies (one with a young baby on her back) spend the afternoon walking with us. They were all very friendly, curious to know where we were from and how long we would be in the area etc.
We walked 15km or so this day and the ladies stayed with us the whole way, taking some of the steep down sloping trails that had been washed away from rain, with much more ease than us! At the end of our hike they tried to sell us some local handmade souvenirs, but were not trying to hard to make the sale. I don’t think they were too pushy anyways, Corey was more interested in getting some things than me, and so I ditched him for the sales portion to go take a picture of a bridge
So I add the photos in after writing, and I realize now I never mentioned the random Wifi cafe in the middle of some rice fields....so here it is!
As I said earlier, we arrived in the region just as the harvest was beginning. In most of the pictures you see lots of lush green rice fields, however some you will see the brown patches were harvest has begun. Everything from the rice plant is used. Once all of the rice grains have been harvested, much of the grass is stored for future use. They seem to have multiple uses for the grass stalk - such as roofing material. Whatever grass stalk is not needed for future use, is burned in the harvested fields to create fertilizer for next season’s crop. Walking by a couple of fields with smoldering stalks gave the feeling of walking through a movie set with blowing smoke rolling over rice fields.
Late afternoon we arrived at our destination for the night. Our lodging that night was in a home belonging to one of the local families. The house has been turned into a hostel of sorts for visiting hikers. We had a great evening, all of the family we met were extremely friendly, and the food was great! The patriarch of the house was in his early 70's (at 22 he was drafted into the North Vietnamese Army and had to leave his pregnant wife of 19 to head to Laos; it was almost 4 years before was able to return home and see his family again). He ran the place with his wife and eldest son, and it seemed other members would pop in from time to time to visit and assist. With supper we were given a bottle of homemade rice wine to drink, like the drink in the restaurant the local moonshine had some kick. After all the hiking that day we had thought to take it easy on the drink, but we couldn’t go 5 minutes without a family member or our guide coming in to toast us and have a shot. While each member may have had 2-3 shots, our total quickly skyrocketed until the bottle was gone! It may have all been a calculated move as we passed out in bed around 8pm and didn’t stir until morning!
We continued our hike the next morning, passing further along the valley, taking a trail maybe a quarter of the way up the hill from the valley floor. As we started to depart for the day, the patriarch announced he would walk with us, as our ending point was at a village one of his daughters lived in. Certainly was an eye opening experience, as multiple times Corey and I would have to resort to almost sliding down parts of washed out trail using our hands to help keep us from falling head over heels down the slope, while this elderly fellow would practically hop down without missing a step. I think in one particular stretch, a cautious 5 minute decent by us was accomplished in about 15 seconds by him.
Sorry for the massive bunch of photos at the end, the second day was better for photos, but not much new to share. Going through you will see we past some rocks and water (really a little waterfall area) and saw some more rice fields. I think if you click on these little thumbnails a larger image will pop up, other wise just skip it all to read my kick ass finale (not overselling at all).
Having him along provided another benefit, as we reached our final town we stopped by his daughters house (her family has set up their house in much the same way as he has to allow for tourists to spend the night) and had a nice cup of tea as we unwound from the walk.
Unfortunately this was the end of my Sa Pa experience (aside from a last lunch in town). It was short but great fun, and given the chance I would love to spend more time in the region, walking between the valleys. I know my photos don’t do the area justice, it wasn’t just the stunning colours and views, but the gentle movement of everything from a light breeze, a sea of green just swaying to and fro.
On the road back to Hanoi, we took one quick detour to see the border with China, the bridge is the dividing line (well I guess the river is the divider, the bridge the connector) between the two nations. You can see the large China Duty Free building across the way, apparently the Vietnamese are allowed to cross over for the day without issue, and take advantage of the shopping!