This idyllic town nestled in the ‘Vietnamese Alps’ has until lately been beyond reach, except to the most intrepid of travelers
I might have been in Grasse on the scent of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille or engulfed in the View of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the Mediterranean trying to see through Vincent Van Gogh’s eyes. But I was on a patch of lavender fields on the highlands of Vietnam.
I was, in particular, at Cat Cat Village, a Hmong settlement in Sa Pa cradled on the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwestern Vietnam, overlooking the rice terraces of the Muong Hoa Valley.
If it had been three decades ago, I could have been where not many had been. Although Vietnam opened up to tourists immediately after what they would call the “American War” (Vietnam War) in 1975, it wasn’t until 1996 that foreigners had been able to travel freely across the country. Even then, North Vietnam and its mountainous, forested terrain dotted with picturesque rivers, waterfalls, deep valleys, rice terraces, and hamlets and villages were beyond reach, except to the most intrepid of travelers scaling high mountain passes. In fact, before the French missionaries and colonizers arrived in the late 1800s, this part of Vietnam did not exist on any map.
That’s why, to this day, increasing tourism aside, much of its unique culture remains intact, just barely giving way to the aggressive approach of modern, convenience-centered living.
Before the French missionaries and colonizers arrived in the late 1800s, this part of Vietnam did not exist on any map.
Sa Pa is home to the Hmong people, an ethnic group native to many countries in Southeast Asia, such as Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar, as well as southern China, between the Yangtze and the Mekong rivers, where the Hmong are believed to have originated over 4,000 years ago. It’s also home to the Dao and other ethnic minority groups like the Tay, Xa Pho, and Giáy people.
At Cat Cat Village, attracted to such exquisite and intricate prints, patterns, weaves, and embroidery, visitors often rent the ceremonial garbs of the Hmong to fully immerse themselves in the culture, but members of the tribe are mostly still clad in traditional clothes. It’s still their everyday wear.
Most of the ethnic minorities, despite the influx of migrants from the lowlands, which the socialist government encouraged in the 1960s, and despite growing tourism, have clung to their age-old customs and traditions. Le cap sac, for instance, an important rite of passage among the Dao men, through which a boy turns into a man, is still practiced. Without passing this coming-of-age ritual, during which among other things he will have to answer questions like “Do you dare to go if the river or stream water is rising,” a man, no matter how old, is still considered a boy. He will have to sit with the children on every important occasion.
I took a two-hour trek, over 7,000 steps, through Lao Chai, the Black Hmong village in the Muong Hoa Valley in Sa Pa, trudging along a meandering and narrow path through terraced rice paddies, lined by crafts stores, stoneware workshops, homestays, and coffeeshops with a view.
The long walk was a lovely, immersive experience, the kind people like me, who are trapped in cities, only daydream about, with locals in traditional wear farming on the terraces, carabaos trudging through the paddies, a gaggle of geese following me around.
I took a brief break for ca phe, Vietnamese for coffee, in a two-story homestay village house that protruded out of the edge of a hill. My corner of it seemed to float above the rice paddies, with large windows all around opening wide to spirit-stirring views of the hills carved with rice terraces. Even the coffee break was a meditation, the coffee served as coarse beans in a French drip filter called phin sitting on top of a cup. Drip after tiny drip, I waited for the cup to fill with patience and contemplation.
At the end of the village, I was rewarded with a lunch al fresco—and completely farm to table—at a place called Dao ensconsed in a valley surrounded by terraced hills. The meats, because they were from free-range cows, pigs, and chickens, were a little tough, but the vegetables, even the steamed carrots and chayote, were TDF, though it never crossed my mind that a carnivore like me could ever use this expression for vegetables.
Sa Pa is made for walking.
On average, Cat Cat Village is a two-hour trek downhill into the bottom of the Muong Hoa Valley, through Hmong houses, including exhibition houses, waterfalls, watermills, streams, and the ubiquitous rice terraces. Outside their homes, the Hmong also keep on display stuff you can buy for a taste of village life like thit trau (buffalo jerky), thit long ac bep (smoked pork belly), and grilled eggs. Clothing is among the many crafts you can bring home as souvenirs, as well as traditional woven fabrics in natural colors, such as yellow from turmeric and the blue Hmong embroidery is famous for, which is achieved through the use of indigo leaves. There’s also gold and silver jewelry.
It takes more or less two hours to walk through Lao Chai from end to end. This village is less of a hike, with no steep inclines or sharp drops. It’s less touristy, too.
And then there’s Fansipan, the highest peak at 3,147 meters not only in Vietnam, but in all of French Indochine, the continental portion of Southeast Asia also composed of Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Thailand. Romantically called the “Roof of Indochina,” this mountain is not hard to climb. It used to take two to three days of a journey on foot to reach the summit, but now, after it was installed in 2016, the Sunworld Fansipan Legend cable car can take you in 15 minutes to a base where you either walk up 650 steps or take the Do Quyen funicular near the Ha Pagoda to get to the very top. Needless to say, the views above the clouds are stunning, but there are many other attractions, such as the statues of the Guanyin and the Great Buddha, the Bao An Zen monastery, the grand belfry, and the 11-story stupa. Plus, in winter, it snows, the only part of Vietnam where it snows in winter.
My itinerary in Sa Pa was arranged by Travel Warehouse Inc.’s Jaison Yang in collaboration with Hanoi’s Viet Unique Travel and Cebu Pacific, which now flies to Hanoi four times a week. From Hanoi, Sa Pa is a little over five hours away by car, but there is also an overnight train, if you prefer the more romantic route.
All that walking would be rewarded by the return to my hotel, the Silk Path Grand Sa Pa perched on a hilltop, surrounded by what many refer to as the “Vienamese Alps.” The luxury resort in the style of a French manor is an homage to Vietnam’s colonial past, when Sa Pa was a hill station the French would retreat to every summer away from the heat of Hanoi, just as I too, legs aching for relief, retreated after each day of explorations on foot.
Morning, noon, and nighttime, Sa Pa is a trip back in time.