Tour to Sapa discovering ethnic minorities in Vietnam

October 2014 

Sapa is located in northern Vietnam, near the border with China, and is known for hosting small traditional villages that are home to several ethnic minorities such as Muong, H'mong and Tay. The life here is simple and just among rice fields, farms, small family run business without too many gadgets. A train journey of 9 hours from Lao Cai, brings me back to Hanoi, where the trip to Vietnam will continue to other destinations.

The journey through the countryside of northern Vietnam continues from the valley of Mu Cang Chai to Sapa, a popular where visitors can meet different ethnic groups and see more rice terraces. The scenery along the way is relaxing and still dominated by lot of ripening rice fields.
Woman with buffaloes
Woman harvesting rice Woman carrying rice
The first days of October, at this altitude (about 1000 meters), the local farmers are engaged in harvesting rice along the steps of the terraces.
Tea field Harvesting tea
Tea plantation

Continuing the journey towards Sapa, the rice fields are gradually replaced by plantations of tea and it is not uncommon to find areas where the valley is planted with rice, while the sides of the hills are cultivated with tea plants whose leaves are periodically collected by farmers.
Collecting tea leaves
A farmer engaged in collecting tea leaves.
Silver waterfalls
Mountain pass

The trip to Vietnam continues through a mountain pass at nearly 2,000 meters above sea level, along Indochina's highest mountain range, near the Chinese border. On the left picture, the Silver Waterfall.
Plantation of roses

The hills around Sapa, city in northern Vietnam which lies at an altitude of about 1600 meters, home to vast plantations of roses.
Roses plantations
Rose terraces

Like rice, even the roses are grown on terraces carved out of the hillsides. Roses are mainly used for ornamental purposes, especially during the various festivals which take place in the city.
Sapa Sa Pa
Photos of Sapa in Vietnam. Sapa (also spelled Sa Pa) is home to about 140,000 residents and because of its proximity to China border, the city is considered a frontier town. Sapa is interesting because it is home to several ethnic groups, but the location gets much more visitors if compared to the more isolated Mu Cang Chai, Muong Lo and Tu Le, which offer a more authentic experience.
Traditional medicine products Market in Sapa
A classic market housed in the narrow streets of Sapa, where stalls sell all kinds of products, including products related to traditional medicine (left picture).
Sapa panorama
Ham Rong
Sapa offers the opportunity to take a leisurely hike on the Ham Rong mountain, from where visitors can have a beautiful view of the city and across the valley, through flower gardens. Obviously it would be better if the weather would cooperate in this regard, and we must remember that Sapa is called locally "city in the clouds" because it is often shrouded by clouds and fog, with total precipitations up to 2800 millimeters per year, distributed mainly between May and September (anyway, a trip to Sapa in the heart of winter, when weather is drier, is usually not recommended, again because of fog and low temperatures).
Sapa countryside
The next day the weather improves, opening up beautiful views of the valley below Sapa.
Sapa rice fields
Sapa is a city known as the "capital" of the rice terraces in Vietnam. As Sapa is located about 600 meters higher than Mu Cang Chai, here ripening of rice and its harvest usually happens 3 weeks before the places visited in the past days. Therefore, if you would like to visit Sapa when rice fields are yellow and farmers are busy in harvesting, the beginning of September is the best time to go (later, the terraced rice fields will be empty and brown).
Ethnic minorities Vietnam
Sapa city, as well as the surrounding countryside, is home to several ethnic minorities of Vietnam, such as H'mong, Dao, Giai and Tay.
Lao Chai
Around Sapa there are several traditional villages that can be visited with a short and easy trek, such as Lao Chai (not to be confused with Lao Cai, bigger city that I will visit later) and Ta Van.
Traditional house Traditional house in Vietnam

An example of a traditional house: in the photos above, the porch used as a working environment. Pictured in the lower left-corner, the kitchen.
Silk weaving
Indigo dye

A woman engaged in weaving silk. Once finished, the fabric is colored, for example with dark blue using an indigo-based dye, before exposing it for drying.
Husking rice machine
Husking rice machine
Elementary school in Vietnam
School in Vietnam

In the villages there are many schools like this in the picture. The schools are located throughout the valley to ensure that children do not have to walk more than a certain distance, as this will help to make sure that most children will actually attend the lessons.
Bamboo pipe
How to make pipes for irrigation avoiding any plastic? Simple... by using just empty bamboo trunks.
Weaver Weaving
Silk weaving is one of the main activities in the villages around Sapa, by various ethnic groups.
Ethnic groups in Vietnam
Tay house

Even in villages where most building materials come directly from nature, asbestos has unfortunately used to build roofs of houses and schools. Although it has been proven that this material is very dangerous because its dust can cause tumors, in Vietnam it is still widespread.
Hut with asbestos roof
A hut made of bamboo bark and... asbestos roof.

Photographs of the interior of a traditional Tay house. In the top-left photo, the kitchen. In the top-right picture, the living room. Bottom left instead, the entrance to the bedroom, protected by just a curtain.
Bamboo shoots
In the streets of the village, some ladies are working bamboo shoots.
Muong woman
Photo of a woman of Muong ethnic group, counting about 1.2 million people throughout Vietnam.

The journey continues from Sapa to Lao Cai, passing through other terraces of rice.
Lao Cai
Lao Cai is a border city and this bridge marks the line between Vietnam and China (the building on the other side of the bridge is the immigration and customs office of China).
Lao Cai - Hanoi train Bunks on Hanoi Lao Cai train
The journey through the mountains of northern Vietnam ends in Lao Cai, where an overnight train takes me back to Hanoi in about 9 hours. The bunks have 4 beds and are relatively comfortable, but the railway is a narrow gauge and therefore the train is unstable and noisy. In 2014 was inaugurated a new highway, letting to go back to Hanoi in just 5 hours by car.
Food in Vietnam
What to eat in Sapa? In this photo, steamed spring rolls served with soy sauce and salted spicy fish sauce. In the the background, sticks of rice cooked into bamboo pipes and served with peanut powder.

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English translation by Lorena Anzani.