into the hinterlands: Sa Pa, Vietnam

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Vietnam is a beautiful country with sprawling coastline, bustling cities and agrarian villages.  It’s a very popular destination amongst travelers for its hospitality, great food and historic value.  And while Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Halong Bay, and its venerable beach cities are probably the main draw, consideration should also be made for its Northern Highlands.

Sa Pa is a city in the northwest of Vietnam, very close to the China border.  Inhabited by indigenous tribes of Hmong, Tay and Dao, this area is surrounded by rolling green hills noted for their rice field terraces and petroglyphs.  It’s a photographer’s dream, and totally worth the arduous journey to get there.

Sa Pa away, doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore?

Sa Pa used to be considered off the grid in terms of travel due to the difficulty in reaching it, however due the aforementioned culture and scenery, it’s becoming increasingly more and more popular.  Some might even say it’s become too touristy, but any light that is shed on ethnic minority groups is a win in my opinion.

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It takes about 8 hours from Hanoi via train (it’s actually not that far distance wise, but these trains are not Amtrak).  It is completely worth the splurge to book a package including room and travel at the Victoria Sapa Hotel as it includes the Victoria Express Train (not so Orient Express if you ask me).  The best way to travel to this region is by sleeper cabin, and those reserved for guests of this resort are very classy with full beds and toiletry kits.  It is a rickety railway, so comfort is key.

You’ll reach the Lao Cai Railway station, which is about an hour from the main city itself.  This city is on the border of Vietnam and China, you’ll hear more about it on part 2.  You’ll want to make prearrangements to have a guide or car, or you can take public transit by taxi or bus.

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Through the Hoang Lien Son Mountain valley, you’ll catch a glimpse of pastoral life at its peak (pun intended).  There are lush, green terraced rice farms for miles, and it’s not uncommon to see water buffalo and cattle at the roadside along with friendly villagers.

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This area has been settled by ethnic tribes for eons, Hmong-Mien people originated in the Yellow River valley of China thousands of years ago and have been migrating over SE Asia.  The largest populations are still in Southern China and Vietnam, but also Laos.  The subsets of these groups do not get along, and so each tribe has their own personality and way of life.  The Flower Hmong of Vietnam, so-called because of their colorful clothing, are most populous in this area.

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You have to plan your trip to coincide with the timing of the Sunday Bac Ha market in order to see the spectacle yourself.

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There are several large scale swap meets (basically) drawing people from near and far, but this is the granddaddy of them all (kind of like the Rose Bowl flea market).  In rural communities all around the world, market days are an opportunity to obtain supplies/food, sell your wares, socialize and gather all the happenings about the region.  Plus, there’s usually moonshine!  Drink at your own risk.

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I’ve been in markets around the world, but Stephon voice: this market has everything. An array of sights, it’s dizzying.  Flower Hmong adhere to a tradition of brightly patterned embroidery, so it is a panoply of color.

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Don’t worry, they sell everything from wall hangings to stuffed animals made in these motifs, so you can bring a little Sa Pa home with you.

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If you’re an animal sympathizer, may be best to skip this next part.  This market has a large area for the selling and trading of animals, both for eating and as livestock.  There are huge corrals of ducks and chickens, and of course, the ever present water buffalo.

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After a long day of haggling (and you definitely should bargain at these flea markets), you’ll want to escape to somewhere quiet and luxurious.  As mentioned earlier, Victoria Sapa Hotel is probably one of the more spendy hotels in the city, a favorite amongst Europeans as it is styled like a Swiss chalet.

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It legitimately feels like the Sound of Music when you go out on your private terrace.  A four star hotel, yet very affordable in comparison to US prices.  The views are worth the price alone.

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This resort has gigantic, tastefully decorated rooms and is located centrally in town, so you can roam about at your leisure.  There’s a ton to see in town, lots of shops, smaller open bazaars, restaurants and cafes.  Try the famed “Evil Chicken,” foul little fouls who have bluish-black skin and five toes.  They are free range in this region, and are bad to the bone.

I’m sorry for the bad jokes, but am I?  Too much to fit in one post, we’ll head even further into the hinterlands in part 2…

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