Rice terrace in Sapa

1 of 1000: The Mountain Landscape of Sapa

Sapa view
Rice terraces in Sapa

This post is one that I am genuinely excited about. Sapa is one of the regions not many people have ever heard of, yet with its fantastic rice terraces and the variety of different minority hill tribes, this was a very beautiful place to go to. As with most places not everything is golden around here, but this doesn’t stop me from telling you about this breathtaking place.

Sapa is a mountain city (1700m above sea level) in the north of Vietnam and back when the French controlled the region they wanted to turn this to a vacation destination within Asia because of its European climate. They failed miserably, mostly because of the lack of infrastructure and understandably so.

Getting To Sapa – Already An Adventure

Luxury cabin in the night train Vietnam
Luxury cabin in the night train

We bought our ticket to Sapa at the tours desk in our hotel and opted for the 3 nights/2 days package that is supposed to include some easy hiking through the mountains.

To get to Sapa, we took the night train again with a 4 berth soft sleeper cabin. To our surprise, the cabin looked much nicer than the previous one. There was complimentary water bottles and even a TV (that didn’t work, though).  I saw that the famous Orient Express had also wagons attached to the train and I really wanted to see what it would have been like to stay in the Orient Express. As it turned out, the Orient Express had the exact same cabins except there was “Orient Express” written on the pillows.

Because we we didn’t sleep well the night before because of the rats, we quickly were pretty tired, but the Australian couple in our cabin – I would guess they were in their 50’s) – was so nice and interesting that we kept on talking for at least 2 hours before we finally decided to get some sleep.

The train only brought us to Lao Cai, which is only a few minutes from the Chinese border and from there we got picked up in a small bus to Sapa. All of this happened at 6 am, so we could see the sun rising over the mountains as we slowly made our way up the mountains. It is only 30 km to Sapa, but it took us over an hour to get there. I can’t imagine how people got there without cars.

We checked in the hotel, ate breakfast and started our first tour.

Why are they following us?

Tay tribe in Sapa
Women of the Tay tribe

Besides the great rise terraces, Sapa is known for the 5 different minorities that have survived there. All minorities live from growing rice in these mountains and they managed to keep most of their culture alive, even though they adapted to the new tourism that came in the last 20 years.

It wasn’t to hard to spot the minorities. Their distinct outfits made it rather easy. Their names and clothes even help you to distinguish the different minorities, e.g. the Black H’Mong women wrap their long black hair around their head with a dark blue turban and the Red Dao women wear a red triangle shaped turban.

When our group of 7 people – the Vietnamese guide, a french couple, a polish women, an American and us – started our hike, this group of 6 women from the Tay minority kept walking with us. They weren’t trying to sell anything and didn’t speak to us at first. We actually didn’t understand why on earth they walked when we walked and stopped when we stopped. It was a bit freaky.

Hiking in Sapa

Our guide explained me that we would visit the Tay village today and they will follow us all the way there (8km) and then try to sell us some Tay crafts. It turned out to be quite pleasant and their English was even better than some of the receptionists’ we had encountered in Vietnam. They even made some little tiny animals out of grass and gave them to us as a gift.

Soni and I already felt sorry for them because we knew we wouldn’t buy anything from them. We weren’t going to take the souvenirs with us only to carry them around for the entire year. So we tried to avoid the ladies as much as possible, but that didn’t always work out. And the combination of the the view and the women in traditional clothes really made it a nice hike.

Marketing works, even for hill tribes in Sapa

View over the rice terraces in Sapa
View over the rice terraces

When we arrived at the Tay village we had some lunch and the women tried to sell us their hand made scarfs, hats and other stuff. We really appreciated the company of the women, but we told them we can’t take anything with us. We decided to give the women who talked to Soni and me most of the time 50.000 Dong, which is approximately 2€, as a thank you for the nice time we had. She was so grateful that she gave us two wristbands as a gift.

The other people in our group all bought something, even if it was something small. For the women of the tribes even 1 or 2€ is a lot of money, so they were very happy about it. The Tay women stayed in their village and the Red Dao women already waited at the Tay village for us to go to their village.

But somehow they didn’t understand the concept of being nice to us so we might buy something later. They much rather started to tell us things like “This morning one friend, now you have other friend”, implying that since we bought from the others, we should buy from them, too. They didn’t even bother to ask more than where we’re from and what our names were. And since we didn’t actually buy anything, the Red Dao didn’t even bother to talk to us. The Tay women actually tried to have a conversation with us. Not so much the Red Dao.

Tour guide in Sapa
Our tour guide

When we got to the bus to take us back to Sapa, they started to offer us all kind of things and nobody wanted to buy anything. They started to get mad at us and telling us that we have to buy something, because we bought from the others, too. We left without anyone buying anything.

On the second day, on our way to the Black H’Mong village, a Black H’Mong woman didn’t understand the whole idea of getting people to like you so they buy your stuff. She plainly asked us if we would buy something from her if she walks with us. After she had to repeat the question about 5 times until we understood her, we said that we wouldn’t buy anything and she starting running – literally – to the next group of tourists without even saying another word.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Tay tribe made the most money out of tourism. The best lesson in relationship marketing!

How on earth can they live here?

Water buffalo in Sapa
A very friendly water buffalo

The rice terrace are fascinating. Around Sapa, wherever you look, there is mountains with rice terraces around you. Even on the steepest mountains. They can’t use modern machinery so they rely on water buffaloes to plow the tiny fields. Those water buffaloes are supposed to be very, very friendly animals, but seeing one up close still made me feel a bit uncomfortable.

On our hike on the next day we visited a waterfall and some other villages. On our way we passed old, tiny women carrying large rice bags in the basket on their back. As we later found out, each bag contains 50kg rice. I am sure, some of those women didn’t even weigh 50kg!

50 kg rice bag
50 kg rice: enough for 2 months for a Vietnamese

I picked up one of the rice bags to get a feel for the weight and was instantly impressed by the strength of those people. We were tired just walking up and down those valleys and they do it with 50kg of rice strapped to their back!

It is understandable that they try to milk the tourism thing for as much as it is worth, because it is so much easier to walk along with some strangers and sell them something than working hard to grow rice. They do still grow the rice, but some women are working with the tourists exclusively. I guess if your English is good, you are excused from the rice fields. That’s what I call incentive to learn English.

You are not my friend!

On our second day, we stopped at a waterfall for 30 minutes and suddenly the french couple asked us if we knew where the Polish women is. We hadn’t seen her for more than half an hour. When we asked the tour guide he just smiled and said she probably was waiting somewhere ahead of us.

Waterfall in Sapa
One of the waterfalls

The trail was a loop trail so after another hour or so we came back to a house where we have been a few hours ago and we found the Polish lady again. It turned out that she was a few meters in front of us and didn’t realize that we made a left turn. The guide didn’t bother to check on her so she was walking up and down the hill trying to find us. She was angry, truly angry.

The guide tried to calm her down and started his sentence with the Asian “You know, my friend…”. She interrupted him right there and yelled at him that he is definitely not her friend and after a few more angry sentences she walked off and hired some other guy to drive her back to Sapa.

I keep wondering what would have happened if that would have happened on the first day when the hike wasn’t on a loop trail. And I doubt that there is much cell phone coverage in those valleys.

So it Sapa one of the places?

Yes, definitely! The views of the rice terraces in the mountains alone is worth the somewhat stressful trip to this northern region of Vietnam. In combination with the water buffaloes, the minority tribes, the amazing bamboo and the waterfalls, this might even be one of the most beautiful places to visit in Vietnam.

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