Sapa, nicknamed the ‘Tonkinese Alps’ by the French, is a wonderful destination if you want to experience any combination of trekking (or light walking), photography, minority village markets, and generally explore a region that’s stayed relatively untouched by modern life.
Located in the far north of Vietnam, just a few miles from the Chinese border, Sapa and the surrounding region offers a completely unique holiday experience, not to be found elsewhere in Vietnam. When you realise that the highest mountain in Sapa, Fan Si Pan, is actually the final significant peak in the Himalayan chain, you’ll understand how far you’ve come.
This is where those misty, pastoral images of traditional Vietnam are still a reality. Traditional dress is still worn here, with colourful outfits identifying each different hill tribe. Buffalo are farmed in the valleys, while the mountainsides are terraced for miles with lush green rice paddies.
Although most visitors are aware of Sapa’s hill tribes, fewer realise that the region is also home to diverse wildlife. Many rare and unique species live here, in habitats that range from alpine forest to acres of dwarf bamboo, the only vegetation that can survive here above 3000 metres.
During your visit, you’ll travel to remote hillside villages and local markets, which are an essential part of mountain life. Visiting is always a pleasure. Don’t be surprised to find villagers from several minority groups bartering hard over a basket of hens whilst sipping locally brewed rice wine.
Sapa can be reached by overnight train (Hanoi to Lao Cai), which takes approximately 10 hours. At the beginning of 2016 a newly opened expressway made driving a viable alternative, with the journey taking around 5 hours. Either way, it’s well worth the effort: the view en route is wonderful enough, and once you’re here you’ll discover a constantly stunning landscape.
The colourful markets of Sapa
Almost every day of the week, somewhere in the area around Sapa the local hill tribes will be gathering for their weekly market. As well as providing the opportunity to buy and sell anything from vegetables to buffalo, these are also important social occasions. Those who live in the region’s more isolated villages have the chance to meet friends and family, exchange news, eat, and even indulge in some of the locally brewed spirits – which can be up to 55% proof!
Some of the most popular markets are:
On Tuesday you can visit Coc Ly Market, a small gathering of the Flower Hmong, Black Zao, Nung and Tay minorities. Among the goods for sale you’ll find vegetables, livestock and local textiles, all the subject of some lively bargaining. We also recommend a boat ride along the Chay River followed by a short walk to the Tay minority village of Trung Do, although in July and August the boat ride is often not possible due to high river water levels.
Wednesday is market day in the hamlet of Cao Son, in the Muong Khuong District of Lao Cai Province. An early start is a must to reach this market, but we think it’s worth it. The trip takes you through beautiful scenery ranging from tea plantations to pine forests, and on arrival you’ll find a bustling market packed with buyers and sellers from all the main communities who live in this area, including Flower H’Mong, Phu La, Dao and Tu Di.
Relatively inaccessible until recently due to its remote location, the small Sin Cheng Market in Si Ma Cai District is arguably the most unspoilt of the markets in this area, and so comes highly recommended by Selective Asia. What it lacks in size is certainly made up for by the stunning rural location close to the Chinese border, along with the extremely photogenic display of traditional costumes from the White H’mong, Flower H’mong, Black Dao, Tay and Giay who live in the area. This is also one of the best places to gain a true sense of the importance of the social role of these markets, as young and old take the opportunity to catch up on all of the local news and gossip.
An option for Thursday is a trip to the small Lung Khau Nhin Market, travelling via the Tram Ton pass, which at 1900 metres is Vietnam’s highest. This tiny market is another of the most traditional in this area, and a variety of minority tribes people gather to sell their wares. Expect to meet the friendly and hospitable Tai Lu, Tai Laos, White Tai, and H’mong amongst others. After exploring the market, you’ll have the chance to visit the Black Dao village of Sin Lung Chai.
The alternative to Lung Khau Nhin is the Thursday market at Tam Duong Dat, which is usually attended by a very photogenic mix of White H’mong, Flower H’mong, Lu, Phu La, Black Zao and Giay – often sporting their traditional dress. Once again, visiting this market involves crossing the Tram Ton pass, offering beautiful views on a clear day. The market has a very authentic feel, and serves as a centre for those who live in the many small villages in this area.
One of Vietnam’s most interesting markets, the small but unique gathering at Can Cau takes place every Saturday. Groups such as the Flower H’mong, Black Zao, Tay and Phu La come from near and far to trade and socialise with each other, and with their neighbours from across the Chinese border. The Flower H’mong in particular are known for their elaborate costumes, which ensure the market is always a riot of colour. Keen photographers will enjoy the chance to capture the picturesque scenes of local life, as well as the beauty of the surrounding landscapes.
Saturday is the day of Sapa’s famous ‘love market’. In the past this was where boys and girls from the surrounding valleys would have come in search of partners, and whilst it’s not really the genuine article anymore, it’s well worth a visit. Young Red Dzao and Black H’mong girls still arrive every weekend to sing songs, although mostly for the tourists it has to be said!
Finally, the week ends with perhaps the most famous of all the markets of this region, held at Bac Ha, around 3 hours from Sapa. This huge gathering of minority people offers everything, from local produce to some of the intricate textiles and handicrafts for which the area is so well known. You can also see many other interesting facets of local life, such as the practise of traditional medicine. This area has a particularly large Flower H’mong community, so called due to the bright and striking colours of their traditional costumes.
The hill tribe people of Sapa
Some of Sapa’s surrounding villages, especially the more remote ones, are still largely untouched by modern ways of life. During any visit to the region you will have the opportunity to learn about the various hill tribe cultures, and meet the indigenous Vietnamese people.
There’s the Red Dzao, who live mainly in Dong Van and Tam Doung. Their red hats indicate how “wealthy” the wearers are: the bigger the hat, the better off the person! “H’mong” means “free people”. The H’mong came from China, and their different tribes can be identified by the colour of their clothes.
One of the best places to meet with likes of the Flower H’mong and Red Dzao is at one of the local markets, which take place each week in-and-around Sapa. While the markets are a little more commercial than in times gone by, they still form an important part of weekly life and are vital to ensuring that the rich local cultures are preserved. Bac Ha’s Sunday market is especially good, and perhaps the least touristy, although you will need to rise early and catch a minibus to get there.
The village of CatCat is within walking distance of Sapa. It’s hard to get lost – just follow the road out of Sapa, perhaps with some of your new tribal friends, and take the road that goes downhill to your left. It’ll cost a few dollars to enter the village but you’ll be able to see traditional farming and tremendous views.
Avoid taking photos of the tribespeople without asking their permission, but don’t be afraid to strike up conversations with them. You may be surprised to discover that they have an excellent grasp of English – after all, they’ve been exposed to visitors for years, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to interact, and strike a bargain. Bracelets and little fabric items can be bought from them for very little. Children here learn to earn their living as young as five, by selling trinkets and generally being adorable.