As a nation inundated in impressive natural beauty, cultural complexities and a fascinating history, planning a trip to Vietnam can cause a few headaches if time is a factor. With 3,260km of coastline, this tall, skinny nation naturally puts some considerable distance between some of its highlights. With the likes of Phu Quoc Island, the Mekong Delta, Dalat and Mui Ne surrounding the metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City in the South and fan favourites such as Hoi-An, Da Nang and Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park along the central region, it is no surprise that many visitors rarely venture any further North past Hanoi or Ha Long Bay.
Although the country’s southern fascination offers little disappointment, the remote mountainous Northwest, nicknamed “the Tonkenese Alps”, does offer a unique charm and an alternative appeal which stems out from a small exuberant town known as Sapa. At just over 30km from the Chinese border and around 350km from Hanoi, a 8 hour bus ride back in 2014 was probably enough for most to second guess its worth. Despite no quick means of getting there, today there is however a much more direct motorway which does supposedly cut the journey between Hanoi and Sapa down to a more bearable 5 hours.
Nestled amongst the Hoang Lien Son mountain range and beautifully perched overlooking such a dramatic valley, this small mountain town is at the heart of some of the country’s most admirable landscapes and the ideal gateway to some of Vietnam’s most awe-inspiring hikes. Although Sapa itself has lost its original quaint charm that once radiated from this pleasant hill station, visitors today use this modern town more as a base from which they prepare to launch themselves into the surrounding countryside.
Amidst its dramatic scenery, the natural beauty and prevalent cascading paddy fields is coupled with its diverse cultural beauty. Home to a number of traditional ethnic minorities, the challenging terrain is scattered with many of their small hill tribe villages and is part of what has become an ever imposing fascination to visitors and a major draw to the region. Worlds apart from the modern society we are so used to, the opportunity to join guided hikes to a number of these local villages is what has attracted so many visitors over the years.
Historically, the majority of these ethnic groups will have migrated from Southern China at some point in time, taking up the fertile valleys to nurture the oddly satisfying distinct organisation of vaulting rice terraces which dominate almost every square inch of arable land. Easily recognisable from their characteristic attires, minorities such as the Red Dao and the Black H’Mong comprise the majority of inhabitants in the area, considerably outnumbering the Vietnamese who have traditionally preferred the warmer lowland climate. An explosion of colour amongst their accessories is a common feature across most of the women, however each tribe does have their own specific clothing and colours. From scarlet headdresses and silver trinkets on those from the Red Dao, to the long dark blue waistcoats with detailed embroidery worn by those of the Black H’Mong, it is part of what makes Sapa so culturally diverse and fascinating for visitors.
Although many of the hill tribes will congregate in Sapa to offer trade, they do also hang around for social gatherings, building relations with the other groups or perhaps even to find themselves a sweetheart. In the past men and women from different tribes were prohibited to marry but today is now more acceptable. With foreigners also now on the scene, it is likely that women from the Black M’Hong communities will join groups of organised hikes to offer a lending hand along the way with the hope of a little tip or making a sale at the end of their commute.
In addition to their agricultural way of life, tourism has offered them with opportunities to further support their communities. Whether it be working as a guide or opening their doors to welcome guests to stay the night, these ethnic minorities have become an ever increasing presence in the industry. Easily organised from either Hanoi or once in Sapa itself, overnight treks is undoubtedly the most valuable way of enjoying the supreme beauty whilst being able to truly appreciate the local way of life. Able to venture out beyond the limits of day-trekkers, predominantly ladies from Black H’Mong tribe lead groups up the heights of the valley, along the edges of hundreds or rice paddies, down through pine forests and through thickets of bamboo to make your way between the many small isolated villages. Invited into one of the family homes to spend the night with them offers the chance to be able to experience a number of their customs and traditions whilst also appreciating the simplicity of their lives. Such a unique opportunity is an incredibly captivating experience and is in our eyes part of what travelling is all about.
Whilst guided trips are not always something you are after, this is one that is more than worth it. Along with the fact that you will avoid getting lost across the rugged terrain, having a local guide has that beautiful mutually beneficial relationship; whilst us visitors have that unique opportunity to learn about such alternative lifestyles, we are however also able to give a little back as we financially support these local communities. In addition, hiking alone is supposedly slightly frowned upon with locals likely to be a little less welcoming. At the end of the day, to us foreigners the costs of these guides are fairly insignificant, whereas to them this fee may go a long way. It always feels good and significantly satisfying when you are able to support sustainable tourism!
At 3,143m, climbing “The Roof of Indochina”, better known as Mount Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng), is one of the most popular alternative hikes in the region. Prior to 2016, the only way to summit the highest peak in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was an arduous three day round trip on foot, however following the completion of the Fansipan cable car, the ascent will now take you a mere 15minutes.
Nicknamed “the Tonkinese Alps”, the alpine like nature of Sapa’s surrounding landscape frequently draws in a cool mist which settles in the valley offering a refreshing climate. Having visited at the end of winter, it must be said that the temperatures were rather chilly and things did get a little wet, however such weather felt true to the surrounding landscape and was a welcome change from the hot and dusty coastal plains. At around 1,650m high, the winter months are suggested to be avoided as heavy mist and persistent rain could potentially wipe out the most worthy vistas. In addition, the freezing temperatures mean the valley does also lack those verdant rice fields that are ever so characteristic to the region. In contrast to the duller months, September and October are said to be the most favourable as the weather is pleasant with all the plantations a radiant golden yellow prior to the harvest. Despite all this being said, we were far from disappointed during a late February visit, albeit we got fairly lucky with the weather.
Whether in search of those cultural differences, the vaulting rice terraces or even the remote nature and towering heights of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, there is one thought that resonates as we say our goodbyes; “Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labour in freedom” - Albert Einstein