Sapa and Villages
Sa Pa is a lovely mountain hill town which now fully embraces tourism.
Climbing Fansipan is not for everyone and many people go just to enjoy the views of waterfalls and rice growing on steeply stepped hills.
Small villages dot the valley floor, farms sit like cherries on strangely distorted wedding cakes. Each ethnic group has their own traditional costume and women and children in particular wear wear it for working in the fields, shopping, weekend evenings or simply for selling to each and every tourist they meet.
I have read irate reports, intolerant westerns complaining about the pestering locals. Though the dress may look exotic these are really poor people in a country with no government handouts. We are the visitors, some may say intruders. Many of the villagers have never travelled further than Sa Pa town.
A young teacher I met from Ha Noi earns less than £60/$100 a month so it is no wonder that our travelling half way across the world to Sa Pa indicates unimaginable wealth. Buy something small, talk to these friendly vendors. Their command of languages will put you to shame and you’ll learn more from them than from Lonely Planet.
One day I just wandered through the villages with a map, another day I took a guided walk down to the valley. The guide was really superfluous to requirements. And he was in far too much of a hurry. So much so it was he who lost his footing and went tumbling rather unceremoniously down the hillside just when a group of villagers turned from raking their plot. Great hilarity followed. The local maps show the small trails around the villages, far better to wander at your own speed a if you get tired, plenty of local bikes to pick you up and take you back up the hill, for a small, negotiated fee.
Streets are lined with shops selling hiking kit. Well known brands of dubious authenticity. They will probably last a hike up Fansipan if you didn’t pack for the cold. In between the shops and foot massage parlours restaurants serve everything fro pizza to pho but it’s worth wandering in the markets or the side streets South of the lake to find delicious and far cheaper, street food.
ancient and modern
On Sunday’s there’s a thriving market in near by Bac Ha. Full of hustle. A working and local market. Sales of ploughs and buffalo accompanied by the usual tourist tat and some genuine, beautiful locally embroidered or hand made textiles. I bought a pure silk sleeping bag liner for less than £3, now in Hoi An the same ones are £10. Sadly I did not have the room to pack several in for UK resale!
Bac Ha market
Check how long your trip allows for the market and how long for travel. I did it on the return to the train. Our ratio of bus to market time was definitely wrong. The driver was on a different time scale and he drove like a mad man and deposited us back in Lau Cai, two hours early. There is not a great deal to do in Lau Cai bar wait, and wait, and wait some more until it is time to depart for Hanoi by train.
If you want to climb the highest mountain in Indochina, simply love looking at hills, are intrigued and interested by different people and have tolerance of those who’s lives and values are some what different, then go. If not….