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Thursday, 19 January 2012

Sa Pa - Vietnam's Far North

Sa Pa is located about a 10 hour train ride - if you don't take the local train that stops at all towns. It is just a few klicks from the Chinese Border and you will see shots below of Monica and Joe arm in arm just across the river from China.

Sa Pa is unique in that it is home to many "Tribal" people. There are 54 tribes in Vietnam with 87% belonging to the KinhTribe. In Sa Pa there are 5 local tribes of various Hmong people including the Black, Flower, Green, Red and White based on the unique clothing of each group. For the most part these tribes are subsistence farmers living at the edge of poverty. They cook and heat with Charcoal and mostly have no running water or bathrooms. The government of Vietnam has many programs to help them develop new businesses and education, including University,which is free for these tribes; although most do not go beyond primary school. Women are even less likely to go to school, marry as early as 14 and belong to their husband's family after marriage. We were told and observed that women do almost all the hard labour, both in the fields and at home. Monica observes that this is just like Canada :)

The Train:

Imagine getting on a train in a busy city 45 years ago; people everywhere, steam and dust rising from the narrow tracks and much confusion. These trains are not the UK, Amtrak or Via Rail. Our guide shepherded us to our compartment on the "Best Western" Sapaly Train Car (And Joe could not stand the idea of staying at a Best Western). Our tour company wisely booked all 4 beds for us in our compartment and the beds were quite comfy. The train literally bounced along the tracks, making loud clanking and thumping noises like an old water buffalo.

Arriving in Sa Pa:

Imagine waking up to loud glaring musac and announcements to wake up at 6:30 AM. We were greeted by our bubbly tour guide - a small young woman, named Ha, with GREAT English skills and endless energy. Our one hour trip from the train to Sa Pa was made through mist and clouds with fleeting visions of rice paddy terraces alongside amazing Mountain vistas. An occasional Buffalo and motorcycle were barely missed along the way. After a quick breakfast and exchange of business cards with a group of Academics from South Korea we were off on our day long hike.

Day Long Hike:

Our guide asked us if we would like to take the very slippery trail or the simply slippery trail. We think she saw us as "old" like her parents (which we are) and wanted to take care of us. The less slippery path proved challenging for Joe's New Balance Cross Trainers and Ha was called upon to rescue him many times at extreme risk of being squashed if he fell on her. To help Joe "Save Face" occasionally Monica also needed help; and the Hmong people following us were glad to help. It seems that the women are most busy in the rice fields only part of the year and in-between planting and harvesting they have taken to following tourists on their hikes to try and sell goods for money. The government has been trying to get them to sell their wares in collective stores for more money, but they still persist in following the tours. We had two adult women (one with a baby on her back) and a pre-teen girl silently following us.

The mountain trails revealed vistas of breathtaking beauty - no we were not breathless from the hike itself. We travelled through 3 villages and saw how people lived their daily lives. Our guide bought us Ponchos to protect us from the downpour and we were quite a sight in our torn polka dot outfits.

We arrived at local home where Ha prepared a sumptuous stir fry. Very basic house open to the environment. Note the picture of the 12 year old boy tending "his fire" which he carried from room to room to stay warm. Joe kindly ratted him out for smoking in the bathroom. When admonished by his mother he claimed "I do not know who smoked in there!" Of course there was no one else in the house :)

Going to Market:

We were fortunate to find our way to a local market where we saw many tribal people on their weekly shopping excursions. They wore brightly colored traditional outfits that they normally wear and make themselves. Despite the mud and constant downpour there were literally hundreds of people selling and buying and socializing. Some of them had travelled 16 klicks by foot, over mountains to this weekly event. True to form the women worked and the men enjoyed themselves drinking local corn whisky. Some of the motorcyclists looked a little shaky as they left the market burdened with family, goods and "drink".


  1. Great photos and travel log! This is truly a cultural experience. Happy to hear you are both safe!

    Caroline (Hugs)

  2. This looks like a fantastic day.