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When it comes to bucket list destinations, a lot of people would more than likely choose Europe, Canada or South Africa. Being Australian means we are far away from everywhere when it comes to travel destinations. Fortunately however we’re in close proximity to South East Asia so this is extremely popular with most Aussie travellers. We can jump on a plane and be in Bali in under 6 hours or Vietnam in just under 9 hours. So on my second trip to Vietnam I opted to cross off a bucket list experience that I have been longing to do, and this was trekking into the mystical clouds of Sapa in Northern Vietnam.
Sapa is a small, mountain town in Lao Cai Province that is located about 350 km northwest of Hanoi, close to the Chinese border. Here’s where you’ll find the Hoang Lien Son range of mountains, which includes Fansipan – the country’s highest peak. You can imagine just how scenic and relatively untrodden this part of Vietnam is. In fact the hill tribe (Hmong) ethnic people that are native to Sapa are different to the rest of the Vietnamese race. Hmong people lived in China for 2,000 years before generally migrating south in the 1700s. They moved to escape the oppressive Qing Dynasty and although they have maintained their own language, customs, and ways of life, they have adopted the ways of the Vietnamese culture.
The scenery in the mountains of Northern Vietnam is breathtaking and the hill tribe (Hmong) ethnic people are beautiful. The mountain village of Sapa is a popular trekking base, as it overlooks the terraced rice fields of the Muong Hoa Valley. It is a colourful and vibrant village with heaps of accommodation choices, restaurants, markets and shops.
I guess the downside to getting to Sapa is that it involves a lot of narrow windy roads on the incline to the mountainside town. You can either get a private driver, catch a bus or get the train from Hanoi to Lao Cai City, where it is another 1.5 hours bus ride to Sapa. We chose to book a tour from Hanoi that included bus transport, accommodation at a basic hotel, most meals and our own local guide. However there are organised Vietnam Tours that take in Sapa that take the headache out of making your own arrangements.
During our two day stay in Sapa we spent our time trekking through the tiny villages and the hillside terraced rice fields of the Muong Hoa Valley. Although it was somewhat challenging and the weather was not favourable, it was one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of my life.
Our Sapa Tour itinerary included:
We set off to explore the Muong Hoa Valley, by following the main road through Sapa village, heading south for about an hour before descending down a track through rice fields to Muong Hoa Valley. This section of the trek offered spectacular scenery of the highest part of Hoang Lien Son mountain range and Fansipan Peak.
We were accompanied by some friendly local Hmong ladies in traditional dress with baskets on their backs laden with handicrafts. As we trekked down some of the steep hillsides they assisted us by holding our hands and making sure we didn’t slide down on the slippery grounds beneath us. Without a doubt the trek was made a lot easier with their help.
Eventually we came to a bridge across a river, and continued our trek uphill to Y Linh Ho village. Here we visited some Hmong families, watching them go about their daily chores. We set off again until we reached Lao Chai, a large village of the Hmong people and then followed the river bank to Ta Van of the Giay ethnic people in their stilted houses.
The weather had closed in. It was now raining heavily and we were all wet and cold. After saying goodbye to our escorts, the lovely Hmong ladies, and haggling with them over the exorbitant prices of their handicrafts, a bus came to pick us up to return to our hotel.
The next day we arose early, had breakfast and met our tour guide, Zhung, a local resident of Cat Cat Village. We were embarking on a short hike to Cat Cat village, the home of Black Hmong ethnic people, located near the bottom of a deep valley at the foot of Fansipan Peak. The rain had intensified over night, so with raincoats, umbrellas, and in my husband’s case gumboots, we set off.
The spectacular scenery of mountains and terraced rice paddies unfolded before our eyes, (although somewhat obscured by low cloud and heavy rain) as we walked downhill. Once we reached the quaint Cat Cat Village the water was forming rivulets down the main street of the town.
Cat Cat Village is dotted with shops and market stalls and as you continue down the stairs into the valley they also line the side of the Cat Cat trail. The wares that the local villagers try to pedal range from food to clothing with a lot of emphasis on hand-woven textiles in bright colours and some indigo-dyed dark blue.
We paid a visit to some of the local homes, witnessing their daily life activities and enjoying their hospitality. At the bottom of the village there was a beautiful lake with gorgeous mauve and white flowers surrounding it, that we never did find out the name of. There was a walkway made out of bamboo that we could stroll out on one side of the lake.
After a quick stroll around the the lake we continued walking down numerous stairs to the valley bottom, to the stunning Silver Waterfall where the French built a hydraulic power station. The river here was thundering down the valley due to the high amount of rainfall we’d experienced. We walked across a swing bridge to more markets and a restaurant with lovely views over the waterfall. There were waterwheels in the river that we learnt are only here for show.
Once we’d had a look around the waterfall and markets we walked uphill in a loop around the valley and ended up at an alternate entrance to Cat Cat Falls. After a short walk we stopped for lunch at a what looked like a farmhouse – come cafe. Here we enjoyed a well-earned large bowl of Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, a few herbs, and meat. With tummies full and looking like drowned rats, a mini bus arrived to take us back to our hotel.
Our two day stay in Sapa culminated with a morning trip to the bustling Bac Ha Markets, a distance of 107 kms across rolling hills, rural villages and more narrow windy roads. The colourful and vibrant Bac Ha markets happen every Sunday and are more like a social occasion for the local Hill Tribe people to come to shop, meet and eat.
The Flower Hmong people, who are native to the district, sell everything from handicrafts, food, water buffalo, poultry, pigs to hardware. It was a mish mash of women in beautiful bright-coloured clothing, livestock, aromas of different foods, handmade goods and men smoking out of thick long pipes.
After a few hours here it was time to drive back to Lao Cai City to catch our bus to return to Hanoi, with a quick stop to check out the border between Vietnam and Hekou in China, with the Red River forming the border. Lao Cai is a market town for timber, lying at the junction of the Red River and the Nanxi River and is the regional city for the Lao Cai province.
Vietnam is a country full of staggering natural beauty with white sand beaches, a verdant and lush interior, the mighty Mekong River, the magical monoliths of Halong Bay, ancient Buddhist Pagodas, Hill Tribe villages, bustling cities and a calamitous history. As a travel destination it has everything to offer and I could not recommend it highly enough.
Kathy was a 50 something year old when she started up this blog 6 years ago, but has since turned over another decade and is now in her early 60s. She is married with two adult children and lives on the Tweed Coast of New South Wales, Australia. Kathy enjoys living life to the fullest and loves to keep fit and active by maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Some of her interests include reading, photography, travelling, cooking and blogging! Kathy works part-time as a freelance writer but her real passion is travelling and photographing brilliant destinations both within Australia and overseas and writing about it.