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Sapa

Experience the highlights of Sapa

Sapa, also nicknamed the ‘Tonkinese Alps’ by the French, is a fascinating destination if you want to combine trekking, village markets, culture, photography, and discovering a region that is relatively pristine.

Situated in the far north in Vietnam, just a few miles from China’s border, Sapa and the region provides a magical and unique vacation experience, not to be experienced anywhere else in the country. Sapa is the place where those images of mountains and villages wrapped in mist are still a reality. Traditional clothes are still used in the region. The colorful clothes determine the tribes they are from. The mountainsides are terraced with rice paddies and buffaloes are farmed.

When you discover that Fan Si Pan, the highest mountain in Sapa, is the last peak in the Himalayan peaks, you’ll realize how far you’ve gone. The most common way to reach Sapa is by train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, which is around 10 hours. The fantastic views en route makes you’re the trip worthwhile.

Several travelers are aware of Sapa’s hill tribes, fewer realize that the area is also home to diverse wildlife. Several unique and rare species live in the region, in habitats from acres of bamboo to alpine forests.

During your trip, you’ll get visit remote villages and local markets, which are a vital part of mountain life. Villages from various ethnic groups bartering over fruits, vegetables, and a basket of hens while sipping rice wine are regular scenes in Sapa.

The colorful local markets of Sapa

Somewhere around Sapa the local tribes will gather for a weekly market. Aside from the opportunity to sell and buy anything, the markets are vital social occasions. Villages living in the more isolated villages will have the chance to meet family and friends, eat, be merry, exchange news, and drink locally brewed spirits.

Here are some of the more famous markets:

Tuesday:

On Tuesday you can go to the Coc Ly Market, it is a gathering of the Black Zao, Flower Hmong, Tay, and Nung minorities. Among the items for sale are livestock, vegetables, and textiles, all of which are subject to bargaining. A boat ride along the Chay River followed by a trip to a Tay village of Trung Do is recommended. The boat ride is  not possible during the months of July and August because of high water levels.

Wednesday:

Wednesday is market day in Cao Son, located in the Muong Khuong District of Lao Cai. It is best to travel early to get to this market. The trip to the market takes you through breathtaking sceneries from pine forests to tea plantations. Upon arrival a lively market packed with vendors and shoppers will welcome you. The hill tribes that inject life into the market include the Phu La, Tu Di, Dao, and Flower H’Mong.

If you are looking for an authentic market experience in the region, look no further than the Sin Cheng Market in Si Ma Cai District. The market was relatively inaccessible because of its remote location. The small market compensates for its small size with a breathtaking rural location close to China’s border. There are also photogenic displays of traditional clothes from the Giay, Black Dao, Flower Hmong, Tay, and White Hmong who live in the region. A visit to this small market is one of the most ideal places to gain knowledge about the importance of social roles of the tribes in the area. Both young and old take the chance to update themselves about the local gossip and news in the market.

Thursday:

You can go on a trip to Lung Khau Nhin Market as an option for your Thursday excursion. You can get to the market via the Tram Ton Pass, which is 1900m high. This small market is one of the most traditional in the area, and many minority hill tribes gather here to barter their wares. You will meet the amicable and hospitable tribes of the Tai Laos, Hmong, Tai Lu, and White Tai among others. After touring the market, you will get the opportunity to go to the Black Dao Village of the Sin Lung Chai.

Aside from the Lung Khau Nhin Thursday market, you can also visit Tam Duong Dat, which is normally visited by a photogenic group of Flower Hmong, White Hmong, Giay, Black Zao, Phu La, and Lu tribes. These tribes often visit the market dressed in traditional clothes. Once again, a trip to this market takes you through the Tram Ton Pass, providing you with magnificent views along the way. The market offers an authentic experience and serves as a hub for those in the surrounding small villages.

Saturday:

One of the country’s most interesting markets, the small market of Can Cau is held every Saturday. Tribes such as the Black Zao, Phu La, Flower Hmong, and Tay gather in the market to socialize with their neighbors. The Flower Hmong are renowned for their elaborate and detailed traditional dress. Enthusiastic photographers will have a blast capturing picturesque landscapes and local life.

Saturday Evening:

Saturday is the day of Sapa’s renowned ‘love market’. Back in the day, this was the location where girls and boys from the surrounding areas would come in search of love, and while it is no longer true, the trip is still worth it for the nostalgia it brings. Black Hmong girls and Red Dzao boys still come every weekend to sing songs not for each other but for visiting tourists.

Sunday:

As a final act, your week ends in probably the most recognizable market in the region --- the Bac Ha market, which is approximately 3 hours from Sapa. This large gathering of minority tribes provides everything from local produce to textiles and handicrafts which the region is renowned for. You can also get a slice of local life such as the use of traditional medicine and traditional dress. This region is known for having a large Flower Hmong community which are known for their striking and colorful traditional garb.

The hill tribe people of Sapa

Some of Sapa’s surrounding villages, especially the ones in remote locations, are still widely untouched by modernization. During your trip to the region you will have the chance to discover the ways of life of local hill tribes and meet with the indigenous people of Vietnam.

The Red Dzao who mainly live in Tam Duong and Dong Van, wear red hats that signify how wealthy they are; the larger the hat the wealthier its wearer is! ‘Hmong’ translates to ‘free people’. The Hmong originally came from China and their various tribes are indicated by the color of their clothing.

The ideal place to meet the Red Dzao and Flower Hmong is at one of the local markets, which occur each week in Sapa. While the markets have been commercialized, they are still an important aspect of weekly life and are vital to the preservation of local cultures. Bac Ha’s Sunday market is good and not as touristy, but you need to wake early and ride a minibus to reach it.

CatCat Villge is just within walking distance of Sapa. It is difficult to get lost; all you need to do is follow the road out of town, travel with your newfound tribal friends and take the road downhill. It will cost you a couple of dollars to enter the village but you will be rewarded with splendid views and traditional ways of farming.

It is best to avoid taking pictures of the tribes without seeking permission, but don’t be shy to start conversations. It is a pleasant surprise to discover that they can communicate in English. The tribes have been exposed to tourists for years and it is an excellent opportunity to interact and learn to bargain with them. Small fabric items and bracelets can be purchased from the vendors for a small fee. Children as young as five must learn how to make a living by selling all sorts of trinkets.

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