Only 36 km from the China-Vietnam border, and a overnight train ride from Hanoi, lies the quiet mountain town of Sa Pa, which straddles the misty, rice-terraced highlands of Vietnam. Sa Pa is home to migrant lowlanders and a great diversity of ethnic minority peoples, primarily Hmong and Dao. The villagers from areas surrounding Sa Pa live in extreme but extremely picturesque poverty. Electric lines jar unnaturally with the bucolic scenery of bamboo and wood homes nestled in the rocky valleys while water buffalo graze in verdant rice paddies. There are hundreds of miles of trekking trails between and around the villages of Lao Cai, Ta Van, and Ta Phin and hundreds more domestic scenes to witness. Naked little boys throw rocks into a stream. Teenagers go about daily chores of feeding the livestock. Women stand in doorways, their hands stained with indigo and busy with embroidery. Despite only being a stone’s throw from Sa Pa, these mountain villages seem a whole world away with their own languages, costumes, customs, and ways of life.
The best way to explore the breathtaking scenery of this rugged area is to hire a moped or a local guide. We loved trekking with Shosho Laochai! From the Black H’mong people of Lao Cai village, Shosho shares her home and culture with grace and a wonderful sense of humor. Should you decide to partake in a trekking excursion, and you should, you are sure to be joined by self-appointed escorts of the local kind. They may be wearing Nikes or plastic sandals, but they will be proudly dressed in the finely embroidered outfits of their tribes, carrying umbrellas and woven baskets on their backs full of handmade (mostly) knick knacks to sell. Throughout your trek, they will pose for pictures, smile sweetly, make grass sculptures for you, and sing. Then, at lunch time, they will harangue you mercilessly to buy their trinkets, and you will. You need two indigo hand-embroidered pillow cases, a side bag, a coin pouch, and a passport carrier anyway, right?
I loved seeing the distinct costumes of the locals, such as the intricate red, green, and blue stitching on indigo-stained cloth and hooped silver earrings of the Black H’mong. Or the partially shaved heads and bright red tasseled headdresses of the Red Dao. And I loved talking with them! Many speak English and are ready with a story or a few. One stunning Red Dao woman described her daily journey of many miles to walk to the local market in Sa Pa to sell her handicrafts. I made many friends and took many stunning pictures. I have always thought that my biggest regrets in life are the pictures I don’t take, but in Vietnam I learned a hard lesson when I accidentally left my camera on the bus to the train station. I found out that my biggest regrets in life are the pictures I have taken but will never see again! Luckily my husband had his camera, too, so we have a few pictures of our trip to share. Enjoy! Thanks for reading. 🙂