After the long train trip from Hanoi as described in one of the previous posts, we eventually arrived at Lao Cai Train Station, the nearest station to Sa Pa, which is at some 4 km from the Chinese border. Once arrived there, we realized that almost all the people on the train were tourist and the station was filled by tourist guides patiently waiting for their guests. We took a while before spotting our local guide, Miss. May Cham belonging to the Red Dao ethnic group, who immediately started briefing us about the plan of our stay and anticipating the singularities of the place, its cultural back-ground and history.
Sa Pa as an unique climate that changes during the day in what looks like a predetermined fashion. A tourist information panel in the town reads: “there are four seasons a day: cool spring in the morning, sunny summer in the noon time, cloudy autumn in the afternoon and cold winter in the night time” and I can assure that it is true. Sa Pa was a very small village inhabited by local tribes that moved from north to find arable land and conducting a very simple life based on rice and other vegetable cultivation. For this reason the village remained basically unknown to most of the people living outside the Lao Cai province for centuries. Only when the French came in this part of the world and conquered Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia creating the so called “French Indochina” in the late 19th Century, SaPa started being known to foreigners because of its favorable and curative (the French thought so) climate. For this reason, soon Sa Pa started appearing in the national maps and became destination for those people affected by chronic illnesses and bad health conditions. The WWII and the three sino-vietnamese wars mined Sa Pa ability to attract people, condition that remained unaltered until the ’90s when the doors to international tourism were definitely opened and thousands tourists started flowing in the little city to enjoy the particular weather, the breathtaking landscapes and wonderful trekking paths between the different tribes’ villages and rice paddies.
Once we arrived in the little lovely town, we were literally ‘assailed’ by many Hmong women colorfully dressed greeting us with a ‘Xin Chao’ (Hello in Vietnamese) and a lots of questions like “Do you buy from me?”, “Maybe Later?”, “Maybe Sure?”. Our local guide told us that the women work represent the major source of income in the household and they soon learnt that tourists have money and they are pretty much willing to spend it in souvenirs. For the local minorities used to work the land and not having electricity at home, even few dollars could be a significant amount, allowing them to buy some goods from the neighboring cities.
With this crowd of Hmong women following us (see the photos above) and continuing begging to buy something from them, we visited Sa Pa town first and then Cat Cat (Black Hmong) and Ta Phin (Red Dao) Village by amiably trekking through the rice paddies. During our stay we noticed that only women were around with their colorful dresses, different hats (red, black, big, small), some with black teeth (they believe it is sexy) other with big earrings. All dedicated to the fields work, taking care of the children and the household, selling products and souvenirs to tourists . . . we were told, indeed, that men are quite lazy and willing to drink and relax only.
We had the possibility to visit some houses in the mentioned villages and found them very different from our comfortable-provided-with-everything modern apartments. They have a big room where they cook, enjoy their meal, store corn and rice and take a rest. The proper bed room is in another space well isolated from the ‘common’ area. The various minorities follow Confucianism, Buddhism and Catholicism (imported by the French) but the majority of them believe in the Ancestors that continue living in the same house protecting the families.
The environment is quite in danger being a common practice to burn the forest in order to increase the arable area to grow rice and corns. We were told that the Government started implementing adequate information campaign with the hope to stop the deforestation in progress. Another curious thing is that the government has provided each and every local community with a clinic with qualified nurses to guarantee an adequate first aid and medical coverage but the local people do believe in the traditional Chinese medicine (based on the use of roots and other natural products) and for this reason the clinic are always empty.
The restaurants available in Sa Pa are generally very good, being the ingredients very fresh and directly available from the local farmers. However I would recommend you to enjoy a dinner at Little SAPA Restaurant where the massive presence of Vietnamese people indicates the food is really Vietnamese. The simple life that the Vietnamese have is a kind of assurance that each and every food you are going to enjoy, either it is a local pig or vegetables, it is made with 100% organic products.