A week in North Vietnam : Part II - Sa Pả

Part 2: Sa Pả

Words by George Tsangaris


After a day of walking through the streets of Hanoi we boarded the night train for Sa Pả. The train would take us from the capital to Lào Cai, a town on the Vietnamese-Chinese border and from there it would be a 30km bus drive to Sa Pả. 


The train wagons, divided into cabins, had flowery curtains that were tidily bunched at the sides and a small light topped with a pleated lampshade. Though it was April some of the cabin windows had Christmas decorations on them or a Santa Claus sprayed on in fake snow. We could see people settling into their cabin, either with a book, snuggling up in the fluffy duvet or uncorking a bottle of wine to enjoy during their journey. 


On our first day in Sa Pả we joined a tour group for a visit to a traditional H’Mong village. There are around nine million H’Mong people worldwide of which roughly one million live in Vietnam and are considered are a minority group. We followed our guide, Nhu (pronounced ‘new’) as we strolled through the village, greeting people and waving at the young kids who giggled when they said hello. We strolled by the local kindergarten where the kids were playing on the climbing frames and walked by fences made of bamboo with cobwebs so thick they looked like cotton wool. Pigs lay in the mud sleeping, the little ones nuzzling against each other. Roosters hopped from tin roof to tin roof. 

Eventually we found ourselves in the far end of the village in front of someone’s garden. 
‘Come in please’ said Nhu. We followed her into a courtyard and were then stepping into a family’s home.
‘Is this allowed?’ I asked Nhu.
‘Yes. Of course. This is part of your tour’ she laughed as if going into someone’s house was completely normal. The house was made of planks of wood nailed together. Gaps between the wooden beams allowed rays of light to shine through and small holes made sunlight looked like twinkling stars. The ground was flattened earth, which had been made hard by the countless footsteps. The kitchen was an area with a lit fire, the red fire gently glowing, and next to that was a small room next which belonged to the grandparents. A mezzanine of wood above the kitchen was the sleeping area of the parents while the children slept in the middle of the house where we were standing.
We spoke to the grandmother who held her grandson, a toddler, lovingly. Being uncomfortable with people in his home he began to tear up. By western standards the home was poor but it did not feel that way. There was an elegance and deep sense of pride emitted by the grandmother and newly-weds whose house we were in.

Sa Pả Gardens

Sa Pả Gardens


The following morning we walked through Sa Pả. Strolling through a street selling tourist knick-knacks and souvenirs we discovered a park. Not knowing where we were or where we were going, we paid, entered and walked around aimlessly passing a garden with rows of small fluorescent plants and trees of large mossy leaves. On one unused pond sat a statue of a large frog.

There were willow-y trees, its rope-like branches swaying in the breeze just above wooden stools. The whole place had an eerie feel and the fog only made it seem more atmospheric. 
We made our way through the park to discover a number of oddities. There was a statue of a snake wearing a red cowboy hat, a two-metre statue of Tom from ‘Tom and Jerry’ and my personal favourite, a statue of a dragon that was reclining on an island in waterless pond, which was easily over four metres in length. It was kitsch to the core and I could not help but love the place. 

We walked through the park, amid mossy rocks and small crevices to reach the summit, which had stunning views of Sa Pả. The weather was temperamental so the lush green hills that were covered in sunshine were shrouded in mist in the space of 15 minutes. After leaving we discovered that the park is called Ham Rong Mountain, meaning Dragon Jaw, and within Sa Pả town was the best thing we experienced.

Sa Pả village

Sa Pả village

The following day we had a walking tour of the village of Cat Cat and Sa Pả’s rice paddies. Our guide Chi explained that the word for Cat Cat came from cascade, the French word for waterfall, which was village’s main focal point. Along the river were bamboo walkways and windmills made of corn. 


We walked along a wide road flanked by large bamboo trees growing to the height of a five-storey building. As the road narrowed we found ourselves walking amid the rice paddies, climbing over the dried earth and jumping from rock to rock. It was the beginning April and the soil had not yet been prepared for planting meaning we were not destroying any crops. 

We stopped for a moment to take in the view only to be disturbed by an odd squelching sound. It sounded like someone walking slowly in mud. Up ahead we spotted four water buffaloes grazing.

‘Water buffaloes are intelligent animals’ Chị explained.  ‘They understand instruction and recognise your voice.’
We watched them graze but avoided them. 
One Australian man on the tour, who sensed our hesitation, told us that ‘water buffaloes have always been around humans, I doubt they would pay any attention to you.’ 
He made a fair point. They did ignore us as they masticated calmly on the plants and placidly plodded through the mud. Still, we kept our distance. 


As we neared the end of our tour we were suddenly surrounded by small children, some as little of five or six, who were making their way home from school, having walked an hour each way. Next to our bus some boys were climbing up the side of the mountain. It was as steep as it was beautiful. An old lady walked up the hill carrying a basket on her back. She wore colourful clothes and light green boots that protected her feet from the mud. One girl rushed to us selling us woven bracelets of H’Mong patterns. We all bought one. How could we not? 


Once aboard the bus, we slowly made our way back to Sa Pả; the bus weaving through the curves and rattling along the road. It was effortlessly overtaken by a young lady on a motorbike. She wore a helmet and her red dress fluttered in the wind as she zoomed by. She waved at us through her helmet and smiled. To me she was a symbol of Vietnamese resilience and hospitality and was, without a doubt, the coolest lady in Vietnam.


Find out everything about HANOI inside Part I