Our journey from south to north Vietnam is almost complete. We arrived, on the sleeper bus, in Sapa near the Chinese border. It is a town at 1500m above sea level in the beautiful mountainous northwest of Vietnam. The area is home to several hill tribes, Black H'Mong, White H'Mong and the Red Dzao. The tribes people make their way every day to Sapa to follow the tourists round trying to get them to visit their villages and buy their hand crafted blankets, jewellery and handbags. Our hotel Sapa House is another great choice - see video. Our room has a mountain view, the changing light and cloud / fog coverage provide us with endless hours of atmospheric visuals. We took a tour on our first full day - $15USD each to trek down to Lao Chai, home to the Black H'Moung tribe. The weather in Sapa was foggy and damp. We walked down through the main H'Mong Hoa street towards the trek. We had a gang of around 7 H'Mong women following us. They made us little gifts from ferns - a heart for the women and a horse for the men. The views from the road were unbelievable, sky scraping mountains and endless valleys of rice paddy fields and vegetable terraces. Just 30 minutes from town, downhill, the weather became brighter and warmer (around 25 degrees). The tour guide stopped to pay the 40,000VND (per person) entrance fee to the tribal village. I'm not sure how much of this money goes to the tribes. We soon left the road to trip and slip our way down the mud track towards Lao Chai. I was helped down the track by a woman wearing plastic sandals and carrying a two-month old baby on her back... very embarrassing. Paul and another member of the tour group (10 including the guide) kept falling behind as they were taking advantage of the numerous photo opps. We saw beautiful landscapes, traditionally dressed tribes, water buffalo and numerous Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs and piglets. We stopped for lunch at Lao Chai and saw women from the Red Dzao tribe wearing traditional red costume and headdress. The women who had followed us along the three hour trek from Sapa now tried to get us to buy their wares. I felt awful, on a 16 month adventure we just don't buy souvenirs, the extra weight would be a burden. I don't think these women made a single sale out of the whole group. I was thinking of giving some money to the girl with the baby for helping me along the trek but as soon as we showed no interest in the wares they all disappeared from the restaurant. These are very poor tribes people. Young children gather round the table while you are eating too to sell you weaved wristbands for 5,000 VND (14p). You are warned (by Lonely Planet and by Government posters) not to buy
from children as doing so perpetuates their exploitation and keeps them out of school. The whole experience had me feeling so down about our impact as tourists. After the 9km walk through the valley settlements, we got the coach back to town. On another day, we set off on our own tour to Cat Cat tribal village, another trek downhill into a different valley towards Phan Xi Pang (Fansipan) mountain. Fansipan is 3143m high, but with the cloud that day, we never saw it. After a 3km walk down to the village, we paid the 40,000 VND entrance fee and walked down the winding path through foggy Cat Cat. Rather than complete the loop back up to the waterfall, we followed a village dirt track down through the valley. Thankfully we had happened upon a well-known trek through Cat Cat valley. The cloud and cool temperature made for perfect weather for our trek. The trek took us through farmed terraces and along jungle mountain paths. We saw a great variety of hillside scenes, forested valleys, winding rivers, waterfalls and farming settlements - see photos. The path was a bit tricky and narrow with boulder climbs and muddy tracks. We felt intrepid again. After a three hour trek we headed back along the same path to complete the Cat Cat loop and see the waterfall (see video). We then had an exhausting 3km walk uphill back into town. We were revived by a Vietnamese set menu of pumpkin soup, fried vegetable spring rolls, chicken curry and rice and fruit salad all washed down with ginger tea at Buffalo Bell restaurant. The set menu was a bargain 90,000 VND (£2.60 each). We ate this every day!
Another adventure took us west along the main QL 4D road out of Sa Pa towards Lai Chau. We took a 135cc Yamaha ($5 us) and 5 litres fuel (150k VND) to get the 2 of us out along the Tram Ton pass and further. The roads were thankfully quiet, only the occasional bike and lorry passed us. There was a climb up to the Tram Ton pass which is at 1900m above sea level. It was cloudy and foggy as we set off on our 100km circular ride, the valleys were filled with clouds so we couldn't see much, although we did get great views of the silver waterfall above the road. As we descended after the pass, the plains below us did not look too exciting as the land was flat, developed or cleared. We saw a sign for community tourism and followed a path through a beautiful valley filled with rice terraces with a river running through it. Unlike the paddy fields back in Sa Pa, these had been recently planted. We saw the community working away in the fields. It's great to get off the beaten track and find a hidden gem. We came out the other side of this community and tried to find our way back to the pass. Paul's lodestone helped us get our bearings and we headed back to SaPa. By now the clouds had lifted from the valleys and the views down were amazing - see vids and photos - my writing can't do it justice.
The final day trip was a walk east through town for 3kms to a trek to another hill tribe village Ta Phin. We passed through a lovely hill tribe village, very compact and picturesque. Paul caught some great photos of tribal life. We were stopped many times along the way by women hoping to guide us. "hello Sir, where are you from?", "Madam, are you shopping today?" Once we made it clear we weren't shopping today, they soon left us. Other groups of tourists hadn't managed to shake off their entourage. We climbed up as far as an old abandoned French monastery then headed back. It was an 18km round trip and the walk back into town was all uphill - we certainly needed our Vietnamese set menu that day!