Hill Tribe Encounters in Vietnam
Established as a hill station by the French in 1922, Sapa today is the tourism centre of the northwest.
Sapa is orientated to make the most of the spectacular views emerging on clear days; overlooking a plunging valley, with mountains towering above on all sides. Views of this epic scenery are often subdued by thick mist rolling across the peaks, but even when it's cloudy, local hill-tribe people fill the town with colour.
If you were expecting a quaint alpine town, recalibrate your expectations. Sapa's French colonial villas fell into disrepair during successive wars with the French, Americans and Chinese, and modern tourism development has mushroomed haphazardly. Sapa today is undergoing a construction boom and, thanks to rarely enforced building height restrictions, the skyline is continually thrusting upwards.
But you're not here to hang out in town. This is northern Vietnam's premier trekking base from where hikers launch themselves into a surrounding countryside of cascading rice terraces and tiny hill-tribe villages that seems a world apart. Once you've stepped out into the lush fields you'll understand the Sapa area's real charm.
2. Sapa Market
Unfortunately turfed out of central Sapa, and now in a purpose-built modern building near the bus station, Sapa Market is still a hive of colourful activity with fresh produce, a butcher's section not for the squeamish and hill-tribe people from surrounding villages heading here most days to sell handicrafts. Saturday is the busiest day.
3. Bac Ha Market
This Sunday market is Bac Ha’s big draw. There's an increasing range of handicrafts for sale, but it’s still pretty much a local affair. Bac Ha market is a magnet for the local hill-tribe people, above all the exotically attired Flower Hmong. If you can, stay overnight in Bac Ha on Saturday, and get here early before hundreds of day trippers from Sapa start arriving.
Flower H’mong women wear several layers of dazzling clothing. These include an elaborate collar-cum-shawl that’s pinned at the neck and an apron-style garment; both are made of tightly woven strips of multicoloured fabric, often with a frilly edge. Highly ornate cuffs and ankle fabrics are also part of their costume, as is a checked headscarf (often electric pink or lime green).
4. Can Cau Market
This Saturday market, 20km north of Bac Ha, attracts a growing number of visitors. Some tours from Sapa now visit Can Cau on Saturday before moving on to Bac Ha for the Sunday market. A few Bac Ha stallholders also make the journey to Can Cau on Saturdays. It’s still a magnet for the local tribal people though, including Flower Hmong and Blue Hmong (look out for the striking zigzag costume of the latter).
The market spills down a hillside with basic food stalls on one level and livestock at the bottom of the valley, including plenty of dogs. Locals will implore you to drink the local ruou with them. Some trips here include the option of an afternoon trek (for those still standing after ruou shots) to the nearby village of Fu La.
5. Coc Ly Market
The impressive Coc Ly market attracts Dzao, Flower Hmong, Tay and Nung people from the surrounding hills. It’s about 35km southwest of Bac Ha along reasonably good roads. A day trip can arrange if you take a tour to Bac Ha.
6. Son La
Son La has prospered as a logical transit point between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu. It’s not a must-see destination, but the surrounding scenery is impressive, and there are a few interesting diversions.
The region is one of Vietnam’s most ethnically diverse and home to more than 30 different minorities, including Black Thai, Meo, Muong and White Thai. Vietnamese influence was minimal until the 20th century, and from 1959 to 1980 the region was part of the Tay Bac Autonomous Region.
7. Sin Ho - Lai Chau
Sin Ho is a scenic mountain village, home to a large number of ethnic minorities. It should attract more tourists, but when you visit, there is a ‘you ain’t from around here’ look on the faces of many locals.
However, a decent hotel and improving road access means it’s an interesting detour if you’re keen to see an authentic local market very different from those at Sapa and Bac Ha, which are now firmly on the tour-bus route.
Sin Ho has markets on Saturday and Sunday; the wildly colourful Sunday market is the more impressive of the two. Just don’t expect trendy ethnic handicrafts: you’re more likely to be confronted with a full-on mix of bovine moos and porcine squeals.
The best (only!) place in town that accepts foreign travellers is the Thanh Binh Hotel, a surprisingly comfortable spot comprised of 17 decent rooms. Meals (120,000d) are available.
Note: there are no ATMs or banks in Sin Ho.
It’s definitely slow getting to Sin Ho by public transport, but achievable with a flexible attitude. A bus to Sin Ho leaves Dien Bien Phu daily (120,000d, six hours) at around 5.30am, transiting through Muong Lay around 8am. These times can be flexible, so check at the Dien Bien Phu bus station the day before you want to leave. From Sin Ho, buses then trundle downhill to Lai Chau (45,000d, three hours) at 7am and 1pm. Heading south from Lai Chau to Sin Ho, there are four buses per day and a daily departure from Sin Ho to Dien Bien Phu (120,000d, six hours). Note that the road linking Sin Ho to Lai Chau was not in great shape at the time of writing.
If you’re travelling on two wheels, the turn-off uphill to Sin Ho is 1km north of Chan Nua on the main road from Muong Lay to Lai Chau. Definitely ask about the state of the road from Sin Ho to Lai Chau before you leave Hanoi.
8. Mai Chau
Set in an idyllic valley, hemmed in by hills, the Mai Chau area is a world away from Hanoi's hustle. The small town of Mai Chau itself is unappealing, but just outside the patchwork of rice fields rolls out, speckled by tiny Thai villages where visitors doss down for the night in traditional stilt houses and wake up to a rural soundtrack defined by gurgling irrigation streams and birdsong.
The villagers are mostly White Thai, distantly related to tribes in Thailand, Laos and China. Most no longer wear traditional dress, but the Thai women are masterful weavers producing plenty of traditional-style textiles. Locals do not employ strong-arm sales tactics here: polite bargaining is the norm.
Mai Chau is a successful grassroots tourism project and the village homestays here are firmly stamped on the tour-group agenda, as well as being an extremely popular weekend getaway for locals from Hanoi – try to come midweek if possible. Due to its popularity, some find the experience too sanitised. If you’re looking for hard-core exploration, this is not the place, but for biking, hiking and relaxation, Mai Chau fits the bill nicely.