Asia,  TDM,  Travel Journal,  Vietnam

Sapa (Vietnam): Rice Terraces and Minority Ethnic Groups (travel book + guide)

We continue to discover Vietnam through the photos of my trip in 2010 with JB. With the Ha Long Bay, Sapa is a must-see destination in the North of Vietnam. For this trip of 3 days 3 nights (including two in the train), we went through one of the many tourist agencies.

Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips

Part 1: Travel Diary

Day 1: Departure from Hanoi

By reserving the tour, our agency gives us two train tickets and we manage to go to the station and take the SP3 train which leaves for Lao Cai at 9:55 pm. No meal is proposed, the train is comfortable (and air-conditioned) even if the berths are a little small for JB.

Day 2: Arrival at Sapa

Morning arrival at Lao Cai at 6:15 am. Anyway, it is the terminus, there is no risk to fall asleep and end up in China. A controller comes to check and wake everyone. The guide of our agency is already waiting for us, a sign in hand. We are several to follow him and get on a bus. Direction Sapa.

We are in a correct hotel, but you can’t expect luxury in Sapa, it doesn’t exist! The hot water is rather tepid and the pressure non-existent. It isn’t very serious, we stay only one night. We leave at once towards the village Cat Cat.

Compared to my visit to Sapa in 2000, the city has become much more touristy, with more hotels and fewer ethnic minorities. You should know that Vietnam is composed of 53 ethnic groups, of which Kinh is the majority ethnic group (I am one of them). The minority ethnic groups live mainly in the mountains and they have a different culture, dress differently, speak their own language. The Vietnamese government strongly encourages them to integrate, gives them scholarships, money, add extra points when they pass their bachelor’s degree or take the university entrance exam… but their culture is quite different from the Kinh ethnic group, so they aren’t that integrated and prefer to live their very zen life in the mountains.

We recognize the minority ethnic groups by their round faces, their slightly Mongolian features, and especially their clothing.

Our walk in the village Cat Cat isn’t as nice as before. We are followed by the children, during several hours. They know how to speak all the languages, to say “1 dollar please”, “buy me” (rather buy for me in fact loool).

The houses on the way have turned into trendy cafés that are too well decorated. What is interesting is the visit of a beautiful waterfall, in fact, at the very bottom of the valley.

We go up to Sapa for lunch and then we go to visit the mountain “Ham Rong”. It is just a big garden arranged rather kitschy which gives sight on all the city of Sapa

Next to the entrance of Ham Rong, there are several signs inviting to take baths full of herbs and medicinal herbs. It’s very good for health apparently. Vietnamese women of the Kinh ethnic group, after childbirth, avoid taking a bath for several days (apparently it would prevent urine leakage years later), but the minority ethnic groups have a secret to allow these women to take a bath right after childbirth and regain their strength. It’s this herbal bath I’m talking about. You can also buy ready-made solutions and mix them with the bath water, no need to do it only in Sapa.

Day 2 :

The next day, a guide comes to pick us up at the hotel. Surprise, she is from a minority ethnic group! It is very rare that minority ethnic groups work in tourism like that, so I tell JB to prepare a big tip for her to encourage her. It rains so I refuse to make this 5h trek with them, but JB decides to go anyway, in sandals, and equipped only with a small rain poncho.

JB almost fell down several times because of his sandals not adapted at all and he reproached me for not telling him to bring his walking shoes from France, but the landscapes are so extraordinary that he doesn’t hold it against me anymore 😀 This time, contrary to the Cat Cat village, everything is still authentic, wild. We are in August and we can see the rice fields on the terrace, in the shape of a staircase.

Sapa is also well known for its corn, if you come here, choose boiled corn (take the white ones, not the yellow ones). It’s really Sapa’s corn that made this city unforgettable. Yes, I came back here for the corn (not even ashamed to admit it) hehehe.

We have dinner then a guide comes to pick us up by bus to take us back to the train station of Lao Cai.

The train starts at 9pm and we sleep peacefully in a (air-conditioned) bunk to arrive in Ha Noi at 5am.

Part 2: Practical Tips

  • It is quite possible to visit Sapa in backpack mode, but in this case, please contact a travel agency for transportation (Hanoi => Sapa, Sapa => Hanoi) because they have already bought all the sleeping places on the train and it isn’t easy to find a bus from Lao Cai to Sapa like that (unless you travel with the chickens and goods).
  • I recommend you to make at least one trek in the area, and not to be satisfied with the Cat Cat village which has become too touristic. The farther you go, the more you will have authentic landscapes and meet real scenes of ethnic minority villages.
  • My friends, who are traveling with a child, recommended this lodge, in the middle of rice fields and ethnic villages, breathtaking, the lodge is called Eco Palms House (link Booking) it isn’t in Sapa itself, but the experience is extraordinary.

If you want to opt for an all inclusive tour (except meals), here are the rates I was given in 2012:

  • 2 days 3 nights: 2* hotel (Royal, Grand View or homestay in a village), sleeper train 6 persons/air-conditioned cabin: 115usd/person
  • 2 days 3 nights: 3* hotel (Holiday, Bamboo), sleeper train 4 persons/air-conditioned cabin: 145usd/person
  • 2 days 3 nights: hotel 4* (Châu Long), train sleeper 4 people/air-conditioned cabin: 215usd/person
  • 3 days 2 nights: 2* hotel (Royal, Grand View or homestay in a village), sleeper train 6 persons/air-conditioned cabin: 155usd/person
  • 3 days 2 nights: 3* hotel (Holiday, Bamboo), sleeper train 4 persons/air-conditioned cabin: 185usd/person
  • 3 days 2 nights: hotel 4* (Châu Long), train sleeper 4 persons/air-conditioned cabin: 355usd/person

If you wish to address your request (transportation, organized tours, car rental with driver…) to a French-speaking person, please contact Huong, my friend from high school, who currently works for the Vietnamese agency Terre Annam. Here is her email : indochina @ Tell her that you come from Anh from tourdumonde5continents. I don’t get any commission, tell him that you come from me just so that your request will be treated with even more attention.

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