Posted by: vlibrizzi | October 20, 2009

Southeast Asia Trip: Sa Pa, Vietnam

DSC_0774C. and I have spent the last two days in what we believe to be one of the most beautiful, inspiring, and thought-provoking places we’ve ever visited: Sa Pa, Vietnam.

This mountain town, which is only a few miles from the Chinese border, is, sadly, becoming overrun with tourists, but with a guide, you can access the national park area which is home to many different villages of minority peoples, get away from the crowds, and see their beautiful rice paddies built high up on mountain terraces.

But first, we needed to get there—not an easy task!

DSC_0740We took a night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, which wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be. We shared our cabin with two very quiet Vietnamese people both ways, and slept the whole night while being rocked to sleep by the movement of the train. We arrived in Lao Cai at 5 am (!), and took an hour-long bus ride to Sa Pa. Since Sa Pa is in the mountains, there are no trains that go directly there.

DSC_0766Once in Sa Pa, we had breakfast, freshened up a bit, and had some time to visit the famous Sa Pa weekend market. The minority people from the remote villages walk (yes, walk…over miles and miles of mountains) to Sa Pa each weekend to sell what they have harvested in their fields. There are hundreds of people crammed in the stalls selling or buying fruits, fish, birds, cows…you name it. It felt like a zoo, especially because not all of the animals being sold were dead yet!

DSC_0850Then, at around 9 a.m., we met our private trekking guide, Chung, whom we reserved with Topas Tours (we highly recommend it),  and we began our walk through the minority villages  and through the rice paddies for two days. The paddies look like psychadelic shapes from up high, and stretch as far as the eye can see. The view alone made us breathless.

DSC_0863On the first day, we took a five-hour hike to visit three different miniority groups: the Black H’mong, the Zay, and Red Zao. Chung taught us how to recognize each group by the way they dress (Black H’mong in black clothing that they make from the indigo that they grow, Zay women with plaid scarves on their heads, and Red Zao women with shaved scalps and a red head covering which you can see in the photo to the left).

DSC_0899He also taught us how to distinguish among the different minority peoples by the style of their houses. The Black H’mong, who only immigrated to Vietnam from persecution in China 200 years ago, live in more primitive, smaller houses. The Red Zao are one step above, with bigger houses and more equipment (some even have electricity).

DSC_0902You can see a Red Zao home on the inside and outside in the photos above and to the left.

Finally, the Zay people live in the least primitive manner in close-knit villages, as opposed to the other groups who live much farther apart from one another. Their homes are closest to western homes (in terms of the functions they have, if not the level of refinement), and they also seem to be progressing the most rapidly.  Many homes have electricity, running water, doors, windows, etc. We ate lunch on the first day at a Zay home, sitting at a makeshift outside table with a basic picnic Chung had brought along, watching the family work and go about their daily lives.

After our tour through the rice paddies and villages (luckily we didn’t get too muddy and it only rained a little bit at the end of our hike), we were really tired. So, as our guide brought us to our hotel, we really felt as if we were in a (very humid) desert and found an oasis: the hotel was amazing!

DSC_0871We stayed at the Topas Ecolodge, a hotel thta is only a few years old, and that was built with local materials and which is staffed almost completely by local people from the minority tribes. Even better, the hotel is extremely environmentally friendly: they use solar panels to heat the hotel and provide electricity, and they don’t have air-conditioners (only mosquito nets above your bed as you can see in the photo of the interior of our private bungalo to the left), and no TVs or internet. It was the ultimate get-away vacation!

DSC_0865We put down our bags, sat on the patio, and admired the view of the miles and miles of rice paddies from atop a mountain (with a steaming cup of locally made cinnamon tea in our hands). Then, after we had showered, we had some dinner at the hotel (there’s nothing else for miles around so the hotel food, which was pretty good, was our only option), and then spent the next few hours playing cards while sipping on some wine.  The next morning, we slept in…our bungalow was perfectly quiet, and we were so relaxed!

DSC_0860We met our guide, Chung, again after lunch for our second day of trekking to the minority villages. This time, we visited a remote Red Zao village, the name of which translates to the Needle (after the tall, needle-like mountain in the village). You can see C. and Chong on a bridge as we entered the village in the photo to the left.

DSC_0809It was a little bit foggy on our second day, so we were able to get some great photos of misty, wet rice paddies, which were harvested just a few weeks ago. But it was also really wet, and rainy so we had to be careful not to slip in the mud while we hiked.

 Unfortunately, we have so many photos that I don’t think I’d be able to post them all on this blog, but if you’d like to see more of our photos, I’ve included some of the best of our trip (with captions from C.) in my google photo album at:

DSC_0779The whole trip made us really think about the way we live our lives, but, more importantly, whether we think it is good that tourists should visit these villages. Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely loved our hikes, and learned a remarkable amount in a way that only a first-hand experience could supply.  But many times we felt uncomfortable going into people’s houses (although they welcomed us with open arms), and were bothered by the fact that the influx of tourism has so clearly affected the local culture.  According to our guide, tourism has greatly accelerated progress in the region, but also seems to have cheapened the culture. For instance, many of the minority peoples will follow you for miles down the roads trying to sell you trinkets (as some Black H’Mong and Red Zao people are doing to this tourist in the photo above). Also, there are increasingly more and more motorbikes and televisions in the villages—which made us think that in a few years these villages will no longer be the same. But is that a bad thing? Should we not want them to be able to progress? On one hand, the huge rice surpluses they produce provide the basic living they’ve become accustomed to, and the government is generous to them.  On the other hand, they still live in incredible poverty, with little education and often apparently unhealthy conditions.  Which way is better for them to live: in a more modern society, or the way that they have for centuries?


  1. Nice post, Val! I often wonder about these same issues…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: