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el2995 Sapa - A travel report by USC
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Sapa,  Vietnam - flag Vietnam -  Lào Cai
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el2995's travel reports

Sapa and the Bac Ha Sunday Market

  9 votes
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During a recent (05/10) stay in Hanoi, I took a two-day side trip to Sapa and the Bac Ha Sunday market. Despite some not-so-restful sleep on the Hanoi - Lao Cai 'Livitrans' night train, the trip was the highlight of my 5 days in northern Vietnam.

Black H'mong Kids Near Ma Tra Village
Black H'mong Kids Near Ma Tra Village
Located in northwestern Vietnam and situated on a steep scenic slope above terraced rice paddies and scattered hill tribe villages, the former French hill station of Sapa (elev. 1650m) is a popular tourist destination, with the main draw being trekking and interacting with the local ethnic hill tribes. The rather laid-back town is somewhat hilly, with the streets running parallel to its 'main drag' (P Cau May) connected via quaint cobblestone stair stepped walkways (the most interesting of which passes through Sapa Market). P Cau May Street, given its sloped grade, surrounding mountainous natural beauty and the assortments of establishments that line it, has a vibe reminiscent of Ubud's Monkey Forest Road, though the number of Black H'mong and Red Dzao hill tribe vendor girls that work the tourists on the street or seated at curb-side restaurant tables to make a sale is somewhat reminiscent of the transplanted Ahka vendor girls encountered on Bangkok's Khaosan Road. Sapa does see a lot of fog and drizzle at times, and can get very cold in the off-season. The night train from Hanoi (the Fanxipan Express was a bit more comfortable than the Livitrans Express) leaves about 8 PM and arrives in Lao Cai on the China border about 5 AM; the drive from Lao Cai to Sapa is 34km. Note that if you want to check out the fascinating and photogenic Bac Ha Sunday market, you can take a Saturday night train from Hanoi, grab a quick breakfast in front of Lao Cai Station at Hiep Van Terminus restaurant, then drive to Bac Ha (70km) and arrive in good time at the market (passing along the way a lot of colorfully-costumed Flower H'mong women trekking along the side of the road into the market with their goods carried in large wicker baskets strapped to their backs, and men in indigo-blue clothing leading their tethered water buffalos, horses and dogs to the live animal section of the market.) Note that by car the travel time on the Lao Cai - Bac Ha - Sapa loop is about 2-1/2 hours.

Favourite spots:
Cat Cat Black H'mong Village, Near Sapa
Cat Cat Black H'mong Village, Near Sapa
In town, the Sapa market (P Cau May and D Tue Tinh) was quite interesting, with the dry good, fruits, vegetables meats and fish generally laid out along and perpendicular to D Tue Tinh, and the hill tribe (Black H'mong, Flower H'mong, Red Dzao) handicrafts upstairs on the left fronting P Cau May. Continuing downhill through the market, D Tue Tinh joins D Phan Si, which soon becomes D Cat Cat and, 3km later down a marginally-paved road, leads to the Cat Cat Black H'mong Village. The village (VND $60,000) is tailored an easy self-guided day trek for tourists and feels as such (cobblestone-paved walkways, museum, souvenir stands), but is interesting & a scenic must-do if it will be your only trek while in Sapa, with some decent terraced rice paddies and some nice waterfalls. The Sapa town square features a number of Black H'mong and Red Dzao vendors that sell their tribal handicrafts laid out atop blankets on the concrete, with the Vietnamese vendors' goods set up beneath tarp canopies.

What's really great:
Terraced Rice Paddies and Crop Field Near Sapa
Terraced Rice Paddies and Crop Field Near Sapa
The highlight of my time in Sapa was my 2-1/2 guided trek to the hill tribe villages of Ma Tra (Black H'mong) and Ta Phin (Red Dzao). Starting a short drive outside of Sapa, we trekked along a gravel road that winds its ways down the mountainside to soon reveal an expanse of beautiful terraced rice paddies in various stages of the growing cycle: some appear as verdant stair stepped bands of lush emerald and lime green, some dry or fallow that stripe the mountainside in earth tones, others flooded and awaiting planting that look like stacked curved ribbons of white fringed in brown as they reflect the low fog shrouding the ridges and overcast skies above. Down in the paddies, Black H'mong women wearing indigo-dyed, embroidered hemp jackets and conical hats work the rice paddies, some of them with babies secured to their backs, as older children play amid grazing water buffalos to the sound of water trickling down the terraces. Our visit to a Ma Tra village home was also quite memorable.

Family Matriarch, Ma Tra Black H'mong Village
Family Matriarch, Ma Tra Black H'mong Village
I did not make the Sapa radio tower trek, which is said to offer a good view of the valley, given that the top of the hill was already covered in fog. You should allow about 4 - 5 hours for a leisurely Cat Cat Black H'mong village trek if you don't plan on using a motorcycle taxi up and back (I did a 2-hour rushed roundtrip trek because I had to head back to Lao Cai at 5 PM, and only got as far as the waterfalls.) Saturday is said to be the best day for the Sapa market, as well as for the Sapa hill tribe speed dating 'love market'. There is a small Sapa hill tribe cultural museum northwest of the town square behind the Sapa Tourism office (free admission), but when I was there they were in the process of changing the exhibits, so very little remained on display. The Ma Tra village trek is a good one; during our home visit, I was able to meet with the family's 92-year old matriarch and try some locally-grown tobacco through Auntie's bamboo water pipe (would that make it a 'Viet-Bong'?)

Chau Long Hotel in Sapa
Chau Long Hotel in Sapa
I stayed at the Chau Long Hotel, which is located a short distance from P Cau May on D Dong Loi. The hotel was quite nice; though I requested only a 'middle-of-the-road' hotel through Exotissimo Travel (which did a stellar job of arranging my 5 days in Vietnam), Lonely Planet lists it as a 'Top End' four-star hotel (USD $125-185). The hotel is built on the mountainside, with my fourth floor room actually being one floor below 'ground level'. Some remodeling work on the older wing was in process during the day during my stay, but the room had a nice balcony that provided a partial view of the mountains when the fog allowed, and a small paved road below appeared to lead down the mountain to some crop fields and villages below, as Black H'mong villagers could be seen walking up the road with goods on their backs in the morning. I was a bit warm in my room, but as the room had only a radiator-type heater, I had to leave windows open, which invited mosquitoes. The breakfast buffet was good.

P Cau May, Sapa's Main Drag
P Cau May, Sapa's Main Drag
Sapa's laid-back vibe definitely carries on into the night (at least on a Sunday night, anyway). As I left my copy of Lonely Planet's Vietnam sitting on the coffee table at our daughter's place in Singapore, I didn't have any club recommendations. There is a bar that offers pool and karaoke on P Cau May near Fansipang Restaurant, a karaoke bar on D Phan Si, and near the Chau Long Hotel on D Dong Loi there was a new basement-level, concrete bunker-like club that was theoretically open based on the sign outside, but was empty despite the sound system playing and a compact disco ball running. There was some live tradition Vietnamese music that I heard being played in the vicinity of the Sapa Church and town square that prompted me to investigate the scene. As I approached the source of the music I saw the stairs to an outdoor beer garden and, hearing the sounds of a crowd, thought that I had finally found a hot spot; it turns out that it was a funeral party in process next to the church.

Ha, A Friendly Black H'mong Vendor Girl
Ha, A Friendly Black H'mong Vendor Girl
There is a park north of the town square that I did not get to check out that would be a likely hangout spot. In addition to the limited number of bars and cafes with which to hang out in, the open-air seating in front of some of the restaurants along P Cau May seems to function as de facto hangouts, with people dwelling after a meal for conversation over coffee or drinks in the evening (this would be a weather-allowing proposition). Note that this type of hanging out will likely invite visits from numerous Black H'mong and Red Dzao hill tribe vendor girls, who can be pretty persistent but are generally quite friendly. Without a doubt, the friendliest, funniest, most entertaining and engaging of all the vendor girls encountered was Ha, a Black H'mong girl (I think she hails from Cat Cat village) that dresses in the traditions of the Chinese H'mong to be unique. She is a very sharp girl, with a quick wit, a lot of street-smarts and a great command of English, and is a joy to chat with.

Black H'mong Vendor Girl and Child in Front of Fansipang Restaurant
Black H'mong Vendor Girl and Child in Front of Fansipang Restaurant
There were a fair number of restaurants along P Cau May. I ate at Fansipang Restaurant (23 P Cau May, next to the Buffalo Bell Restaurant), which was a decent and reasonably-priced place to eat, with entrees running about VND $50,000 (my beef fried rice was VND $47,000, and quite tasty) and a bottle of Lao Cai Beer costing VND $20,000. Similarly, there were also a number of coffee shops, some with bakery counters, along P Cau May. Though I didn't try anything beyond a Tiger Beer, I did check out a lengthy string of conjoined, tarpaulin canopy-covered barbeque food stalls near the north end of the town square behind the Sapa Church that offered a variety of grilled meat, fowl, fish, sausages and skewered vegetables. Although I was the only foreigner there (knowing a few Vietnamese words & phrases) and hardly any English was spoken by the locals, the people around me were quite friendly and seem to enjoy seeing my Bac Ha market digital videos shot earlier that day.

Other recommendations:
Flower H'mongs at Bac Ha Sunday Market
Flower H'mongs at Bac Ha Sunday Market
If you travel to northwestern Vietnam, the Bac Ha Sunday market, with its large number of local Flower H'mongs (especially the women with their colorful traditional costumes) in attendance, is a must-do. Get there around 7 AM when the water buffalos & horses are still being brought in to the live animal section and watch some of the animal bargaining (and where you step); there will be some annoyed squawks and squeals in the live (though restrained) fowl and pig area. Try some Flower H'mong 'happy water' (corn moonshine), sold out of 5-gallon plastic jugs. If you get your moustache trimmed by the open-air barbers (like I did), be aware that the scissors and combs are really grungy, so a bit of hand sanitizer will be required afterwards. Take lots of memory cards for your digital cameras, as countless photo and video opportunities abound. UPDATE: Bac Ha market and Sap trekking video clips have been uploaded to my EL2995 You Tube page. A very special thank you to my guide, Mr. Hue Hoang.

Published on Thursday July 1th, 2010

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Thu, Nov 25 2010 - 09:46 AM rating by bootlegga

An excellent travel report!

Mon, Aug 30 2010 - 01:05 PM rating by eirekay

You have some marvelous descriptions! Very nicely written report on a trek I would love to take!

Mon, Jul 19 2010 - 10:13 PM rating by krisek

A very nice report, with plenty of detail, practical information and great photos. Indeed, most definitely a great Report of the Month candidate!

Mon, Jul 05 2010 - 10:52 AM rating by jorgesanchez

Beautiful report.
It looks like a Report of the Month!

Sun, Jul 04 2010 - 10:56 AM rating by pesu

Interesting report, very nice pictures. Thank you!

Fri, Jul 02 2010 - 12:52 PM rating by mistybleu

An insightful report - thanks for sharing your experiences.

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