Sapa : Mountains, Minorities, Mist & Mud

A visit to Sapa, about 4 hours motorway drive North-West of Hanoi, sitting at high altitude at the Eastern extremity of the Himalayas and close to the border with China, is absolutely right up there on the VN tourist “must do” list. Equivalent to visiting Ha Long Bay, but probably the more fascinating experience because of the 8 ethnic minority groups living a traditional lifestyle in surrounding villages, plying their distinctive clothing and handcrafts in Sapa streets and village markets.

This region was occupied by the Chinese during the 1976 war (at least 300,000 fatalities on both sides) so while the locals are extremely welcoming of tourists – with overseas tourism now being a main plank in the local economy – they are reputably not so hospitable to Chinese visitors. Sapa is also a major destination for VN’ese tourists from the cities, especially at weekends.

I’m so glad I didn’t take the overnight train from Hanoi to Sapa (thanks for the advice Anna) having chatted with some UK visitors with return tickets, who were not at all happy to learn there’s a better way to make this trip. Limousine coach services are so much quicker, more comfortable and relatively cheap – with door to door pick-up/delivery.

I was fortunate to have 3 nights scheduled here as for the first day and a half the town was shrouded in mist and cloud. While not actually raining, the very rough roads and pathways were consequently very slippery, being coated with a layer of wet orange coloured mud. The cloud layer cleared when one travelled down into the valleys to visit villages. When the cloud did clear from shrouding Sapa, it revealed spectacular mountain scenery, and then walking about the hilly town became less challenging as surfaces dried.

Many of the surrounding mountain hillsides are contoured with rice paddies, but at this time of year going into their Winter season, they are bare after harvest. The photo below is of hillsides planted with green tea, and the emerging blossom trees are peach – unlike in the Southern Hemisphere, here they flower and produce in Winter.

My guide in Sapa was the only one during my travels in VN who shared meals seated with me in restaurants, so of course we were able to develop a much more intimate understanding of our life experiences and respective families. Interestingly he was also the only guide or driver to actually buckle-up his seatbelt when travelling – including all of the other limo and taxi drivers in my experience. He isn’t religious, so firmly believes we only live once, thus is not prepared to risk adding to VN’s quite high road fatality toll. He, his wife and children also wear Western style motor bike helmets, as opposed to the flimsy helmets worn by most riders – if at all.

It’s a tough call selecting photos to include in this post. Here is a selection of ethnic group people – it’s the females and children who are the most colourfully attired. Some of the minority groups being : ‘Red Dzao’ – ‘Black Dzao’ – ‘H’Mong’ – ‘Zay’.


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