The Jewel of the Far North: Sapa
Sapa: Hilltribes & Rice Terraces
Situated along the northern border between Vietnam and China, Sapa is one of the most famous mountain regions of the country, housing the nation’s tallest peak, Mt. Fan Xi Pan.
While Sapa is famous for its mountains and rugged landscapes, there are more things to do here than just trekking. However with a nickname of the “Tonkinese Alps” coined by the French during their occupation, a bit of trekking is certainly in order! Home to some of the country’s most colorful ethnic groups, Sapa is also a famous place for minority villages and hill tribe regions. A combination of these attractions in addition to Sapa’s iconic terraced rice fields, also make this region one of the most unique places in Asia for photography… so don’t forget your cameras!
Sapa is marked by a busy central town, with a bustling central market at its hub. Development in Sapa has brought an excellent range of hotels, restaurants and cafes to the scene, which are juxtaposed by the colours and traditional lifestyles of the hill tribe people inhabiting the town and its surrounding hills.
Traditional hill tribe dress is observed by each individual group, and the vast array of different ethnic minorities bring a mesmerizing amount of colour and tradition to the area. Still subsisting off agriculture and trade, visitors are always surprised to find a way of life in the Sapa area that seemed long-since gone.
For all visitors, spending some time in the central town area is a must. Explore the streets, visit the local markets and make a few unique purchases before taking off for some of the other main attractions. Partaking in a trekking experience, whether a half-day, full-day or a multi-day trip is essential, not only for exploring the landscapes, but also for getting to know the surrounding hill tribes.
With 54 recognized hill tribe groups in the surrounding regions, there are ample opportunities to encounter, meet and even stay overnight with the indigenous population. These locals employ a traditional way of life that is truly unique to encounter. Additionally, a visit to the outlying hillsides also reveals the range of wildlife and landscapes of Sapa, which also make for a memorable experience.
For those looking to visit Sapa, the best point of access is via Hanoi. While the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cao used to be the only practical means of access, there has been a new highway built connecting the two, which makes for quicker access and flexibility in departure times. For those pressed for time, the drive may be a better option. For the classic Sapa experience, however, taking the overnight train is a unique experience all in itself.
More on Sapa’s Hill Tribes The majority of people inhabiting the areas surrounding Sapa are hill tribe peoples. Coming from a range of different backgrounds and cultures, these ethnic minorities often live largely traditional ways of life. A local guide can help to describe more about the local hill tribe people and what makes up their unique cultures.
Among the hill tribes, some of the most well known are the Red Dao and the H’mong. The Red Dao are characterised by their red hats, which signify their personal wealth and success. These people are generally found in the Dong Van and Tam Duong areas of Sapa. The H’mong people originate from China (just to the north of Sapa), and their different tribes are signified by their clothes’ different color patterns.
One of the most ideal places to meet the largest variety of different hill tribe peoples is at a local market, where they all congregate to buy, sell, barter and also meet up with fellow locals. Markets take place each day of the week in Sapa, in alternating destinations. These weekly markets are an integral part of their life and offer a unique glimpse into a lifestyle seldom seen.
While it is a bit touristy, the Bac Ha Market is a great place to meet some of the local hill tribes. It is possible to hire transport or catch a local bus from Sapa to the market early in the morning. Despite the early start, it’s well worth it for the experience! Another unique way of meeting the local hill tribes is connecting with them in town and embarking on a trek to their villages. No one knows the areas like the locals, so it makes sense to accompany them on a trekking experience of your preference.
Please note, that while it is possible to meet and chat with the local hill tribes (many have an excellent grasp on English), photography of them should be minimised. If you do want to take photos of them, be sure to ask beforehand, as they may not approve.
Sapa’s Markets: A Daily Marvel
Nearly every day of the week, there is a new market popping up somewhere in the Sapa region. These markets act as not only a place for commerce and trade, but also as a social setting where various hill tribes gather to meet up. Many of the hill tribe people live mostly isolated lives, so these markets provide the opportunity to chat, socialize, eat, drink and more. While they are on constant rotation, generally the markets observe the following schedule:
The first market of the week starts on Tuesday, and is usually held in Coc Ly (the market being Coc Ly Market). Among the hill tribes that gather here are the Flower H’Mong, Tay, Nung and Black Dao minorities. A range of goods are on sale here, but generally include livestock, vegetables, local textiles and other regional specialties. An interesting way to view and access this market is via the Chay River, which connects to the nearby Tay minority village (on foot).
The next market is on Wednesday, and is held in the Muong Khuong District’s Cao Son hamlet. While this market starts off early in the morning, the beautiful scenery and unique items for sale make the journey out well worth it. For those seeking a more remote market on Wednesday, the Sin Cheng Market is a fantastic, yet difficult to reach option. For those who don’t mind the rough road out, this H’mong, Black Dao, Tay and Giay minority market is very rewarding.
Thursday’s market is famous for being the region’s highest market. Sitting at 1,900 meters above sea level (accessed via the Tram Ton Pass), this small village market (located in the village of Lung Khau Nhin) is truly extraordinary. From the the Lu people to the H’mong, this popular market is always thriving with color, activity and welcoming locals. Alternatively, the Tam Duong Dat market is another Thursday option, which is also accessed via the Tram Ton Pass.
There are two different Saturday markets that are worth visiting. The first is held during the day in Can Cau, where Black Dao, Tay and Flower H’Mong gather to buy and sell a vast range of items. The colors of the market are extraordinary and the traditional is ever present. The second market on Saturday is held in the evening, and is known as the “Love Market.” A famous market in Sapa, the (former) purpose of this market (not really observed any more) was for young men and women of outlying villages to come in and search for their future partner. Despite the love being no longer, the market still makes for a unique and cultural visit for anyone, with the Red and Black Dao performing beautiful songs.
Sunday’s market choice is the most famous in the region with the Bac Ha Market- located around 3 hours outside of Sapa town. This grand market is a colossal gathering of ethnic groups from all around the region, coming in to sell produce, textiles, handicrafts, traditional medicine and much, much more. The most notable visitors to this market are the large numbers of Flower H’mong, whose traditional attire really stands out in the crowds. If there is one market that simply must be experienced, this is a great option.