This post on Sapa was more challenging to write than I had anticipated. Perhaps it’s because there’s so much to share. Perhaps it’s more than a post on a travel destination. Perhaps I’m still processing everything that three days in Sapa taught me. Regardless of how inadequate my words will be to describe all that we experienced. Regardless of how inadequate my photos will be to capture the breathtaking beauty of this region in Vietnam. I give you Sapa as we experienced it.
Mountains in the mist
Mountains and rice terraces
My photos don’t even come close to capturing the beauty of this region
Quintessential scene of the region – water buffalo, rice terraces and mountains
Sapa is reached via the loudest overnight train that I have ever experienced. Think squeaky wheels, shifting cars, and loud announcements in Vietnamese for every stop (for which there seemed to be many). All of this plus the fact that we allowed the children to eat a high liquid meal of pho (delicious Vietnamese noodle soup) for dinner resulted in a sleepless night with many trips to the toilet to pee. Thanks to a new highway, visitors also now have an option of a six-hour bus ride. Since we did not travel with this latter option, I cannot comment about its comfort or reliability.
Ready for bed in our deluxe sleeper cabin
Sapa is a mountain town and home to many of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minority peoples, among which are the Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho. And of these groups, there is further differentiation such as Black Hmong, Flower Hmong, Red Dao, Lao, Lu, etc.. The history of these ethnic groups and the available anthropological information are fascinating. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this blog (and this writer) to delve into this. I can simply share my experience and what I’ve learned.
We were fortunate enough to spend one day with a Black Hmong family and one day in the company of a Red Dao visiting a village of the Lao Lu people thanks to an amazing organization called Ethos. If you have plans to visit Vietnam, we highly recommend you make the effort to visit Sapa and book an experience with Ethos. And it certainly will be an experience that you will get with Ethos, not a tour.
Our day with our Black H’mong guide So and her family through photos:
Fruit stand at the market
Our guide So of the Black Hmong people selecting produce for our lunch. Normally So and her family would be eating what is available from their field. It is my impression that they will eat better today because we are visiting.
Walking for another kilometre up a steep slope in the rain after the hired car dropped us off. It takes So 2 hours to walk over the mountain (via her “short cut”) into town if her husband can’t take her by motor bike.
So’s home. Notice the construction. The Hmong use to be nomadic people so their homes are made to be easily dismantled and moved. With the help of the people in her village So moved this home from another village using nothing but the strength of their backs and legs.
The toilet. Those middle of the night bathroom trips would have to be really necessary.
The high tech stove designed by Swiss engineers and being tested by So. It needs to be able to cook, smoke food items on the top level, heat the home and vent the smoke so the inhabitants don’t breathe it in. Currently, the Hmong (and the other ethnic peoples) cook with open fire which creates abundant smoke that is inhaled day after day resulting in lung and other health problems, possibly early mortality.
So’s daughters’ room. Notice the rope to hold clothes and the gaps where the boards don’t reach the floor or ceiling. Notice the dirt floor. Imagine how cold and damp it gets in this region’s cold wet climate. Imagine the toll on the people’s health.
Bags of rice from So’s harvest this year. This will need to last her until next harvest. Most of the ethnic people in the region have only the food they produce as they have no means of earning money to buy food. So is one of the lucky ones as she earns some money guiding that she can use to purchase food should she run out.
Some of the menagerie that lives at So’s – there are goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, and dogs.
Kids around the cooking fire and the only source of heat on this cold wet day. We all enjoy campfires but would we enjoy them so much if they were our only method of cooking and keeping warm? You can’t tell in this photo but the “ceiling” in this room is completely black from the smoke. Imagine what the insides of the people must look like.
So dying fabric in indigo. The colour of the traditional clothing of the Black Hmong. The ethnic peoples in this region all make their traditional clothes from scratch – from growing the hemp to weaving, dying, sewing and embroidering. Notice the beautiful embroidery on So’s sleeve and on the ties that keep her leg covers on.
La, So’s 5 year old daughter, who can stay home by herself and cook on the open fire. Childhood is quite different in this part of the world.
So preparing our lunch with some supervision from her 3 year old son
So’s husband My washing the vegetables for our lunch. He would have normally been working in the fields but the rain has kept him at home.
A special bowl of rice. Grown and cooked by So and My. By the way, our lunch was delicious and one of the best we’ve had in Vietnam which is saying something as the food has been amazing.
My slicing the trunk of a banana tree as a food source for their pigs
Mashing the banana trunk slices which will then be mixed with cornmeal for the pigs. My never stopped working the whole time we were there, except to take a quick meal with us.
Kids playing like they would anywhere when there’s mud, water and freedom.
Our kids and So and My’s daughters. The oldest is 9 and she wakes up at 4:30 to make breakfast for the whole family before she goes to school.
Our day with our Red Dao guide Man May and our visit to a village of the Lao Lu people through photos:
Our Red Dao guide Man May on a tree over the side of a cliff picking fruit for us to try. She tells me, “don’t worry, I’m mountain people”.
Trying the sweet fruit Man May picked. We are still unclear what the fruit is called. It tasted similar to a wine grape but it’s not a grape.
Marc and I in the company of the mountains before we descend into the valley to the village of the Lao Lu.
Following our Red Dao guide Man May through a corn field. Notice her traditional clothing and how it differs from So’s indigo dyed clothing.
Our other leader
Lao Lu woman with her water buffalo walking through a rice paddy. Here in the valley where the Lao Lu live, the climate is warmer so they can have 2-3 crops per year and their buffalo thrive better than their higher elevation brethren. Buffalo is highly valuable. In Sapa they can fetch between $2500-$3000 usd which is a lifetime of savings for a family.
A view from the valley
If water buffalo could gawk this would be the expression they would have on their face. Marc was the lucky recipient of the look until we could no longer see him. Hard to blame him. I would be suspicious of Marc too.
Lao Lu woman with a full basket on her back. This is the main mode of transporting goods amongst the ethnic peoples. One time, the car we were in drove past a girl not much older than Isabella and a woman with their baskets full of wood. Isabella said she didn’t think she could have carried even one of the pieces of wood;)
These woman are picking weeds growing in between the rice plants to cook for dinner. Their children are accompanying them.
A boy and his loaded down water buffalo. As I indicated earlier childhood is different in this part of the world.
Boy about 8 or 9 years of age riding an adult bike loaded with crop from the field
Walking in the Lao Lu village. Marc said it reminded him of the villages in Madagascar when he was there over 15 years ago.
Our Lao Lu host in front of her home where we visited and shared the fruit we brought. Notice the construction of these homes is quite different from the homes of the Black Hmong. These homes have one story and are elevated off the ground. In the Black Hmong homes, they build on the ground using the dirt as their floor as they need to add a second story for storage of the rice since one crop needs to last a year. Here in the valley they produce 2-3 crops per year so no need for long term storage.
Back of the Lao Lu home
Inside the Lao Lu home. The floor is constructed of wood boards. The cooking fire is on a bed of mud/dirt placed inside a wood frame. Notice there’s more ventilation in this home than in So’s Hmong home. I’m curious to see if the rate of lung problems is lower here than in homes where there is less ventilation.
The Lao Lu weave their beautiful traditional fabrics.
Sharing snack with the Lao Lu family and one or two curious neighbours
Our host adored Dominic
Our host in full traditional Lao Lu clothing
Our host teaching her grandson how to skip a rock in the river behind their home
Red Dao and Lao Lu. Note how different their traditional clothing is. Compared with the Black Hmong who are not allowed to wear long pants or skirts. Instead the Hmong wear leg covers tied with beautiful embroidery (see photo of So from earlier in the post).
Marc and Dominic’s entourage. We found the children friendly and curious.
Traffic jam in Tam Duong after we left the Lao Lu village
As I hinted at earlier, many ethnic peoples in the region provide for themselves by farming the land and few earn any money. With the explosion of tourism in the region, many of the women (and often the children) are making handicrafts to sell to earn a bit of money.
The Hmong artist and the wall hanging we purchased
This adorable lady with the elephant she made which Isabella is taking home.
Trying to improve their lives through their art and handicraft. Before coming to Sapa, most reviews I read spoke about the aggressive and persistent tactics of the ethnic woman. After seeing first hand the quality of their life I can see the reason for their desperation. I can see how they believe a purchase of $5 for someone who would spend that on coffee but could mean food for a family for a month was a fair trade.
Ever since we left Sapa, I’ve been thinking about what I learned and what I’m taking with me from our three days there (other than some beautiful handcrafted wall hangings). The ethnic people that we came into contact with were strong, warm, artistic, intelligent, and resilient. But their plight is mighty. I learned that they have lost their written language. I learned that they are separated from their people across four countries (Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and China). I learned that many of the girls and women are easily trafficked across the border (to China) as they have no paper identification. I learned of how the living conditions of the ethnic peoples impact their health and mortality. I learned of what it’s like to live in real poverty, one without societal safety nets.