We were lucky enough to enjoy a three day weekend this past week, due to veterans day, and we chose to do some exploring of the northern provinces of Vietnam. Sa Pa is a small town in Lao Cai province, located in northwest Vietnam. It sits in the Hoang Lin Son mountain range, which forms the eastern cusp of the Himalayas. This town is home to several ethnic minorities, including the Hmong Den, Hmong Hoa, and Red Dao. It’s about a 5 hour drive from Hanoi. Since we have an antsy little one, we chose the most direct and flexible mode of transportation – private car. We also decided on a tour package with a guide who accompanied us for the three day journey.
Our adventure started out early Friday morning, around 7:45am. Ok, I’ll be honest, we were late starting off because it’s early and we have a one year old. I’d hate to give the impression that we’re the perfect family, always on time. We’re not. But we did eventually get on the road and we arrived in Sa Pa around 1:30pm. The thing about paying for an organized tour is that we got to see some really neat things but we were taken to tourist restaurants with food that was good but not great.
After we checked into the Sapa Dragon hotel, our initial plans changed a bit due to the rain and we decided to go to Thac Bac waterfall just outside of town and then visit Cat Cat Village. Cat Cat Village is home to families of the Black Hmong ethnic minority and is known for it’s hand crafted fabric and dyes, as well as stitching. Unfortunately, it quickly turned to night as we walked down into the village, so we didn’t spend much time looking around because we had to get back up the slippery stone stairs in the dark. It was quite a hike and I’d warn anyone looking to descend into the village that you have to walk all those stairs back up, so don’t wait until dark.
Saturday was another misty day, but we trekked back down the mountain to visit the Can Cau market. It was about a three hour drive to the market, but it is an experience you won’t forget. Our guide said that its a gathering place for all the different ethnic minorities, where the young people can meet and drink together. There are tons of stalls selling local food, jewelry, hand sewn clothes, and much more. We also looked at the livestock for sale, including the water buffalo and goats. I’ve encountered some pushy sellers while here in Vietnam, but none compare to the women at the Can Cau market. Grabbing my arm as I walked by to steer me towards their goods and showing me different items was a new experience. But they do know how to bargain, and hubby loves a good bargain. Family and friends, you can expect hand made presents from Sa Pa for Christmas.
On our way back to Sa Pa we went on a private boat ride down a river nestled in the mountains. This allowed us views into untouched landscapes, homes and people that live off the river. However, I’m glad it was short because Oliver can only sit still for so long on a boat ride. The last stop we made was in the town of Lao Cai. We were dropped off at the Red River to see the border between Vietnam and China. Looking at the friendly bridge, it was hard to imagine that this was one of the crossing points of the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979.
Sunday was a beautiful morning. The fog had cleared on top of the mountain and we had a beautiful sunny last day. We took the lift up to Fansipan Mountain, the tallest point of the mountain range at 3,143 m above sea level, also known as the roof of indochina. The views from the car were breathtaking, and the fog only blocked our view when we got to the final stretch. I thought we’d have to climb a few steps to see the top of the mountain. I was wrong. It was not a few steps. I couldn’t even make it to the top. Somehow hubby made it to the top with Oliver on his back, but I swear it was like that movie Everest. People were dropping like flies, huddling together in the biting mountain wind. I am glad hubby made it, but also that he quickly came back down with Oliver who was wet and cold.
Our mountain adventure was over with Fansipan, and we headed south back to Hanoi. It was a wonderful trip, and I’m glad we had a driver and guide to show us the way. Next time, I think we’ll try and guide ourselves, and visit when the rice is in season so we can see the colorful rice paddies.