North Vietnam

We took an overnight bus to Sapa in North Vietnam. Sapa gets a reputation for being the tourist gateway to the Northern hill-tribes and a good base to start trekking in the surrounding countryside. The center of Sapa is literally over-run with hill-tribe women in traditional garb, trying to get you to buy any manner of handicraft that they claim is “hand-made.”

Red Dzao

Kelly with a Black Hamong tribeswoman

We mostly saw Red Dzao and Red and Black Hmong tribes people in Sapa. Their clothing is gorgeous and they are beyond friendly, but most of the friendliness is to rope you into buying something from them.  They say, “where you from? You have sister and brothers? You want to buy from me?” They give you a free “Vietnam friendship bracelet” which is actually code for marking you as their territory. Regardless, you can learn loads about the hill tribes if you try to direct the conversation to them rather than you. They always begin conversations asking about where you come from, but the more interesting topic is where they come from. Many of the tribeswomen walk for many hours a day to get into Sapa to sell their goods because it has the highest concentration of tourists. It’s a matriarchal society and the men take care of the children and home while the women are entrepreneurs. The women while interesting, can get incredibly pushy, demanding that you buy from them and whining when you refuse. A group of young girls waited on our hotel steps to try to get us to buy from them when we came out. We learned never say “Maybe.” Just say “NO” from the beginning because otherwise, you’ll have the same group of girls following you around the whole time.

Playing hide and seek with pushy 8 year-olds is actually pretty intimidating. Most of the time, the youngest girls carry their little siblings on their backs all day.

Sapa as a town is cheap and absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous. It’s much cooler than other areas of Vietnam because it’s at high elevation. The rice terraces of Sapa are one of the most breathtaking sights I have ever seen. We were there in the rainy season so everything was bright green as far as the eye could see. We did a short day trek from Sapa through a couple of pretty touristed Hmong villages, but completely worth it for the scenery.

The hilltribe children were also amazing. They are so poor, but still seemed to be having fun in the village while their moms sold their wares. Really beautiful kids.

This poor child was put here by her brothers and sisters who wanted to collect money for photographing her. We didn't pay them, but did feel bad that after we walked by, they just forgot about her and kept on playing until the next tourists came along. Sitting on a logpile all day doesn't look very comfortable.

For some reason, this kid was really busy moving this old tire from one spot to the next. I couldn't decipher if this was his toy, or he was actually doing manual labor, but he was all business. He handled this tire with more dexterity than more childre his age could.

Many of the hilltribe woman will ask if they can take you to their village as a tour guide. If we had more time, we would have taken them up on the offer to see some more authentic villages. I think it’s a great way to support the women and their families without buying overpriced, low-quality souvenirs. But a few tribeswomen walked with us for part of our trek and we took the opportunity to learn a little bit about them and their everyday lives.

Our hotel in Sapa was only 5 USD a night because we were there in the monsoon season and it was a gorgeous room with our own balcony overlooking the main street and mountains. It was really foggy at some points, but it made it even more beautiful.

View from the room

There were also some really nice places to eat in Sapa. The baked goods at Baguette and Chocolate were delicious and the menu seemed really inspired. We had breakfast at the Sapa Boutique hotel and I can not praise this restaurant/hotel highly enough. The breakfasts are inventive and the hotel is gorgeous with all the paintings and goods made by tribes people. I had corn fritters with a creamy tomato sauce and a fancy mixed fruit shake. Ellie had some fancy French toast with passionfruit and coconut.

The owner is a huge supporter of helping the hill tribes out of the huge poverty that most of them live in. All of the employees are employed from hill-tribes and on Sunday, there is a soup kitchen for the young girls and children who make the trek with their families to sell the crafts. The soup kitchen focuses on teaching the girls good hygiene and gives them soap and toothbrushes for their homes. You can also “sponsor a family” by helping purchase a water buffalo to give to a family as a gift for helping with crops. If in Sapa, you must check it out.

From Sapa, we took a very long bus ride to Bac Ha which is a small village that doesn’t have very many tourists aside from the Sunday market where the tourist buses come in droves from Sapa after lunch time. We decided to arrive Saturday night to get to the market early. The bus ride to Bac Ha was a twisted, turning nightmare of a road but with some of the most awe-inspiring scenery of the mountains I have ever seen. I was really frustrated initially because the buses in Vietnam often drive around until full which could mean waiting an extra hour or two, while circling the town while someone yells the destination to pedestrians. The whole thing is annoying. They then load everything they can find on to the bus, including, on this particular ride, chickens, pillows, brooms, and a table saw which was at least a ton and got loaded to the top of the bus. Halfway through the ride, after stopping 20 times along the way, the young boy who works on the bus, sweaty from lifting the table saw off the roof of the bus, hands me a present. A stick of cinnamon pulled from a tree. It was amazing and I instantly felt like a jerk for being so impatient when all I had to do was stare at the scenery whizzing by my window and chew cinnamon.

Ellie eating the cinnamon bark with the goods piled high behind her head.

That Saturday night was pretty boring since Bac Ha really isn’t a happening town. We went to the restaurant across the street and ate delicious Vietnamese food. After our meal, these young Vietnamese guys asked us to sit around their hot pot with them on the floor and chat. We sat around a steaming bowl of some indiscernible brown jello-esque substance. Upon asking what it was, we received the answer that the hotpot was a horse bone marrow hotpot. They added tofu for us to the horse hotpot because they knew we were vegetarians, but it still felt a little odd eating horse-bone marrow flavored tofu. They asked us questions about the US and talked a little about the war with us. I apologized, feeling ashamed for my country’s past antics in this beautiful part of the world. The guy looked me in the eye and assured me that it was all water under the bridge. That’s when I knew that the Vietnamese have learned to accept what happened and move on from it. They kept giving us shots of something that tasted like fire all the way down. When we realized the shots weren’t ending any time soon, we excued ourselves to our hotel to wake early for the market the next day.

The Bac Ha market is where many of the hill-tribe women go to buy material needed to make new garments, fresh vegetables for dinner and wares for their homes. We were the only foreigners there at 8 am, which was amazing, because it was possible to watch the hill-tribe women go along their daily activities. Around noon, all of the tour buses from Sapa began arriving and the women switched from buying to selling mode. Suddenly, we were getting bombarded by women selling stuff and decided that we had seen enough of the market and should get back to the train station, 3 hours away, to prepare for our night train back to Hanoi.

There are 10 Montagnard ethnic hill tribes around the area of Bac Ha. Most of these ladies in these photos are Flower H’mong and their colorful clothing reflects their tribe name.

Just bringing home the groceries.

The best pho I've ever had was 30 cents at a stall populated by hill-tribe women. It was spicy and incredible.

My breakfast companion looks on, probably confused, wondering what is so momentous about market pho.

An amazing drink of black beans, coconut, lime, peanut and passionfruit. It sounds gross but was incredible and sweet.


2 Responses to “North Vietnam”

  1. 1 ravenouscouple February 19, 2010 at 7:32 am

    great photos! the seeing children really makes us sad…pretty sure the kids don’t have any toys…so they make up games or play with odd tires..we saw a girl carrying around a dead dragon fly on a was like her kite!

  2. 2 Mom z February 21, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    I loved North Viet Nam! What you wrote is more than I have ever learned about the country in my life time! I found it very interestng.The photos were beautiful!!!
    Thanks for sharing your amazing experiences!! LOVE TO YOU BOTH!!!

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