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Exploring Hill Tribes and Landscapes in the Sapa Valley

The Sapa Valley in the mountains of northern Vietnam is a great place for trekking. The landscapes and views are majestic, but it is also an opportunity to meet some of the interesting hill tribes.

Rice terraces in the Sapa Valley

In the mountains around the borders of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, a lot of hill tribes live their traditional lives. These ethnic minorities live in relatively primitive conditions, isolated from the rest of the population.

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Although the tribes are related to each other, they come in a lot of varieties, each with their own traditional clothes and lifestyle. We meet several of these tribes in the beautiful surroundings around the northern Vietnamese mountain village of Sapa.

From China to Vietnam

At the northern train station of Kunming, we notice a few familiar faces. Nick, Gemma, and Beck are also traveling to Vietnam today. We're glad because its always easier with people around with whom we can communicate. The train to the border village Hekou is different from other trains in China. It is old, and has only 4 beds per cabin. This railway is built by the French, and has a different gauge width then in the rest of China.

The train winds itself through the mountains and along the rivers. Just like the cars on the roads, the train uses its loud horn at every corner. We don't know whether this warning is necessary, but while we relax in the restaurant carriage, the train makes an emergency stop. Anyway, the horn is also used upon departure of every station along the way, which is useless if you ask us. It keeps us awake, and at a certain point we hear Nick shout "to shove that horn up that driver's ass".

Friendship bridge on the China Vietnam borderUpon arrival in Hekou, there is a lot of fog. We look around and are approached with all kinds of offers for breakfast, exchanging money, and etcetera. We ignore them, but at least we learn where to go for the border crossing. We have no problems handling the Chinese formalities, although our luggage is searched. Then we have to pass the bridge over the river (marking the border) for the Vietnamese formalities. Although these require a lot more time, everything is fine and we arrive on Vietnamese soil.

While we were waiting for our passports, a man approached us, offering a minivan service to Sapa. After some negotiation we agree to a price of $3 per person, and thus we loose no time searching for transport. After exchanging some money (cheaper here than on the Chinese side!!) we step in and move on.

Arriving in Sapa

Black Hmong girl with childDuring the 38 kilometers long winding and bumping road through Sapa Valley up to Sapa, the fog disappears and the sun arrives. When we arrive, it's nice and warm. The minivan drops us at a hotel from which the driver receives a commission, but we walk on to an area where more hotels are located.

While we are walking, we are approached by a number of nicely dressed girls of one of the mountain tribes (later identified as the Black H'mong). They offer us all kinds of souvenirs, but we decline. We do, however, have a nice conversation with them, and wonder about how well they speak English. In the following days, we will meet them very often. And each time, they will start with "Remember me?", followed by "Buy this from me?".

We find a beautiful room with a great view over the Sapa Valley for only $6 (barely negotiated), and have a nice meal at the lobby, also serving as a restaurant. Then we go out to explore the village.

After countering several attacks by the Black H'mong (especially the elder women are insistent) we walk to the main street and market. Besides the Black H'mong, there are also some women of the Red Zoa tribe here. Everybody tries to sell their goods to us, but we move on. At the other side of the main street, it is quiet again. We pass some kind of mini stadium where children are playing soccer. The other streets of Sapa are more or less deserted, although hotels and restaurants are being built everywhere. We assume Sapa is a crowded place in the high season.

Our search for money exchange, nice terraces or other things leads to nothing special, so we head back to our hotel. There we sit on the balcony, enjoying the warm sun and a great view. When the sun disappears behind the mountains it gets cold so we find a restaurant, where we book a walking tour in the Sapa Valley for the next day.

Traditional singing and dancing

Black Hmong man playing a traditional fluteAfter dinner, we head for a bar where different mountain tribes will perform some traditional singing and dancing. At first, there are more H'mong and Zao girls then tourists, but after a while, more and more tourists arrive. It has been a long time since we saw that many tourists together. We even meet Sandy and Alex again, two Scottish girls we met in Yangshuo. We expected to see them in Vietnam, but not so soon already. It appears that they are doing a tour through the Sapa Valley from Hanoi, that's where all the other tourists come from as well.

The performance starts with a man playing some kind of strange flute. After that, different nervous women of the H'mong and Zao take turns in singing songs and playing some other strange instruments. Musically not very good, but nice to watch. In the meanwhile, the funny H'mong girls are offering souvenirs again, but we are merely laughing with them. Al in all, we have a nice evening out.

Walking Tour

The following morning, we have breakfast at 9 AM, so we can start walking down to Sapa Valley at 9.30. The crowd on the streets surprises us, apparently there are a lot of Sapa Valley tours arriving from Hanoi for the weekend. During breakfast, however, the village empties again, they are not here for seeing the village.

Black Hmong girl walking on a suspension bridgeWe meet our guide Mai, a Vietnamese girl, who speaks English fluently. With the four of us (Beck joins us) we leave our village via the road downhill. The view is magnificent, over the valley with rice terraces and small houses. Just as we get a little bored, we leave the road for a steep descent over a dirt road towards the rice terraces. We pass a few houses, buffaloes, pigs, and of course the H'mong girls trying to sell us their goods.

The rice fields are completely under water, which is refreshed continuously by the water flowing from the mountains. Via small canals the water flows from one rice field to another until it reaches the river in the valley. In some of the canals, a water driven device is used to grind rice. The rice is planted in April and harvested in October. Consequently, we are watching empty fields right now, the water is only meant to keep the ground in good shape.

The Black H'mong

After passing a river, we arrive in a small Black H'mong village with a small school. Here we take a rest and are immediately approached by the H'mong girls. Younger children are carried by the older ones, even 10 year old children carry a baby on their back. It is a social community where everybody looks after each other.

We learn how the Black H'mong find their wives. If a boy likes a girl, he kidnaps her. The girl will have to live for a week at the boys' parents' house. If she likes it, she stays and they marry within two weeks. If not, she is free to go home.

The Zai

Ritual at the Zai tribe in the Sapa ValleyWe walk on through the rice fields and over the paths, continuously being followed by the H'mong girls. Arriving at a village of the Zai tribe, we witness a strange ritual. An older woman is praying all day, surrounded by the women of a certain family. She appears to be some kind of priest, or medicine woman, who passes by when somebody is ill. During the ritual, the other women are just chatting with each other, and the man of the house is outside, reading a newspaper.

The Zai are richer than the H'mong , and live a bit more luxurious. The traditional clothes (with a lot of green and pink) is more often replaced by jeans and T-shirts. We would expect some rivalry between the tribes, fed by the change wealth. But it appears that there is none. When a house needs to be built (almost the only work done by men), the different tribes will work together. In the school of the Zai, we eat our lunch, surrounded by the H'mong girls. We do not see the children of the Zai, they don't need to sell their goods to tourists.

After lunch, we follow our route through the rice fields. At some point, we will have to cross the river, where some of the Zai children are playing and fishing. As we slip and slide with bare feet over the loose rocks, the children run past us, even with babies on their backs.

Later on, we pass the river again, this time via a rope bridge. Along the mountain we pass a waterfall before we reach a village of the Red Zao

The Red Zao

The Zao are in between the H'mong and the Zai when wealth is concerned. Zao women are selling clothes to tourists, but less then the H'mong. They live in big houses with complete families, sometimes of 5 generations. The men have separate tables and a separate fire, and get to choose their food first, the women get the left overs. Every two weeks, everybody takes a bath. The important people (the men) first, then the others. And you cannot refresh the water, that would be a enormous insult to your predecessor.

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Hill tribe trekking
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We say goodbye to the Zao (with beautiful red headscarves, the more fringes, the more important the person) and return to the rope bridge. Then we climb a steep path up to the road, where we are brought back to Sapa on the back of some motorbikes.

Cat cat

The next morning clouds are covering Sapa. With long sleeps we go for a walk to the village Cat cat. Walking through Sapa it seems like everybody is wearing their Sunday dress. But there is no special market, which they used to have in the weekends. When more and more especially Vietnamese tourists started making fun of them, they stopped their festivities in public.

At the far end of the village we walk down two hair pins when the sun comes through. Our long sleeves disappear in out backpacks as we leave the asphalt for a steeper descend. We pass houses and rice terraces again, only this time the path is paved. In fact, its just a very long winding stairs down. Eventually, we reach the valley and the purpose of our trip: the waterfall.

Waterfall in the Sapa Valley

The Waterfall

At this point, the water is flowing downhill from three directions. Only from one of these it results in a nice waterfall. Because of the dry season we are able to come close to the falls, where we sit down to relax and enjoy. In the meantime we see the H'mong passing the bridge with backpacks full of wood. After an hour, we have seen enough and start our walk back.

The walk up is tough, but not as bad as we expected. The only disappointment is that where we left the clouds earlier, we are entering them again. Sapa is covered in clouds all day, so we cannot relax in the sun. Instead, we have a quiet afternoon and book train tickets to Hanoi for the following day.

Change of Weather

The next morning the weather has completely changed. A thick fog covers Sapa and it's cold and wet outside. Our bus to the train station of Lao Cai leaves at 3.30 PM, so we have some ours to fill. We decide to walk to the park of Sapa, with a botanical garden, a rocks park and beautiful views. The fog prevents those views, however, and we assume the flowers look better in another season. Still, it is a nice walk, especially through the rocks.

After our walk we have our last meal in Sapa before we move on to Hanoi. Unfortunately, the fog is too thick to see the magnificent landscapes in the Sapa Valley for one last time.

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