It’s a hazy July afternoon when I arrive in the village in the sky. From Hanoi I had taken an overnight train to Lao Cai, where I jumped on a mini bus which swirled me into the mountains and tumbled my stomach so I was sick out of the side of door. Still, as we arrived I knew that Sapa would be a place of dreams. Constantly shrouded in a layer of mist, the hills sculpted into terraces of rice, and the village full of rainbow ladies and their barefoot children.
I get off in the town square, and make my way towards a guest house which has been recommended by backpackers I met in previous towns. Out of the sweltering heat of South East Asia at this time of year, Sapa resembles a Himalayan hide-out with a distinct touristy edge. Once a market town for local tribal villages, Sapa has now become a hot-spot for hotels, restaurants and tourist shopping, although I find that much of the original charm still remains.
Green Valley Hotel resembles the ski lodges of Switzerland. It was built in dark teak wood and the dining room area serves apple and wild honey pancakes for breakfast, while backpackers play pool and plan motorbiking adventures into the mountains. My dorm bed costs me $3 a night for a $1 million dollar view. The window is constantly open, its blue frames welcoming the crisp air and evening dew. Each morning the mist gathers over the surrounding rice paddies and often you forget the grand scale of that view which lays before you, framed perfectly by the high peaks of the Tonkinese Alps.
But the mist creates its own magic.
I meet Song almost as soon as I arrive in town. She threads a hemp purse between her fingers and guides me to my guest house while telling me about her H’mong culture. H’mong people live in the mountainous areas on the borders of Vietnam, China, Laos and Thailand. They’re known for their distinct dress; a combination of deep Indigo and rainbow embroidery. All their clothes are made from Hemp plants which grow in the hills around the villages. They are woven, dyed and embroided, often by hand. Business has now taken over necessity, and as well as their own clothing these products are a huge attraction for tourists. Their bags, bedsheets and jackets can be purchased at the local market which sits on a series of platforms and buildings in the centre of town. Apart from the handicraft stalls and the standard South East Asia offerings of dried fish, the market is also the perfect place to get steaming bowls of Pho and omelette and chilli baguettes.
Song wears a traditional jacket, belted at the waist with leg warmers and flip flops. Her long, jet-black hair is pulled back into a ponytail and her face is darker than most in Vietnam, her features appearing more Tibetan in structure. She invites me to her home in a small village a day’s walk away, where she lives with her two children and husband who works away. As well as handicrafts, business for H’mong people often comes in the form of homestays, offering western tourists a glimpse of H’mong life in small villages. I accept her offer.
The next morning we meet in the town square, a huge grey structure backed by forests and an out-of-place church. We devour egg and chilli Banh Mis and begin our walk away from town, towards the footpaths leading into the surrounding hills. We cross rice paddies and take winding paths through H’Mong and Red Dao villages. As well as the H’mong people, Sapa and the surrounding hills of North West Vietnam are home to around 36,000 people, most of whom belong to minority groups. Each group has their own language and few speak fluent Vietnamese. Song confesses to me that she is able to converse in English much better than in Vietnamese, but thankfully it is an advantage for her work in the tourist trade. To me, this part of Vietnam seems very removed from the rest of the country; there are no glimpses of the rapid development of Ho Chi Minh City or the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.
Lunch is served on a mountain slope, as we look out to a view of rolling green hills covered in thick mist. Afterwards, we descend through rice paddies towards a small village framing a river. We find Song’s home just as the sun is setting.
She lives in a teak bungalow, with three rooms and a porch area where her children run around chasing the family chickens, screeching with laughter. She encourages me to head down to the river as she cooks dinner, and I dunk into the ice cool water as a the sun fades over pine trees and terraced hills. In Song’s tiny village there are only a few houses, and each owns a chicken as well as a buffalo. These wild children have no formal education, instead learning the ways of the land and speaking English and Vietnamese alongside their own dialect. Many learn to make handicrafts to continue the traditions of their ancestors, and the tribal culture is kept alive by these practices. Things are changing, Song tells me, and young men in particular will travel to Hanoi to look for better work. But many young people like her aim to preserve their way of life while making additional income from tourism. Through my eyes, in her simple village, in the mountains in the sky, she had everything you could ever need.
For dinner, she cooks a feast of tofu, vegetables and rice and we sit on the floor around the fire and devour it as the night turns cool. The next morning we complete the valley circle, visiting her sister’s home and returning to Sapa in the mid afternoon.
My days in Sapa are limited, as are my remaining days in Vietnam. I say goodbye to Song and spend my last day in the town at the Bac Ha market, the biggest in the area and a place also visited by the Flower H’Mong people who wear the most vibrant dress of all. The market is a mish mash of food stalls selling a lot of horse-meat, handicraft stalls and herbal medicine stands. It still feels authentic, but seeing the rows of tour-buses starting to park up outside the grounds, I’m unsure how long this will last.
Arriving back in Sapa, I spend my last evening up at the Tram Ton Pass, a short motorbike journey from Sapa town – with one of the greatest views in the area. Mist rolls in over the green valleys and the nightly chill rises and settles in town. That magic of Sapa exists in each crevice of the hills ahead of me; housing villages of rainbow ladies, teak houses and buffalo. This tiny segment of tribal life which remains in these hills might not last forever, but for now Sapa is a bubble of peace; a place to experience an authentic glimpse of the lives of the H’mong people.
I stayed at Green Valley Lodge which, in my opinion, is one of the best guest houses in South East Asia. To get to Sapa you catch an overnight train to Lao Cai, where you hop on a mini bus for the final 2-3 hours to Sapa town.