SaPa – The village of Tribes

SaPa – The village of Tribes

SaPa is a Vietnamese frontier township in Lao Cai province in the far Northwest of Vietnam, bordering China in the North.
It stands in the shadow of Vietnam’s largest mountain, Fansipan (locally known as Phan Xi Pang). Also the largest mountain in Indochina (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) at 3,143 metres.
Its population is approximately 60,000. Consisting mainly of indigenous highland tribes such as the H’mong and Dao (D’zao or Yao). It’s estimated about 15 percent of the population are Kinh Vietnamese(lowland or native Vietnamese).

SaPa was a French colonial town until WWII complete with its military barracks. Most colonial buildings have been bombed, either by Viet sympathisers in the 40’s or by the French in the 50’s in the first Indochina war (fighting for independence from French colonial rule). For those with some knowledge of military history, Dien Bien Phu is a tortuous 7-hour road trip but only 270Km.

SaPa had a sleepy existence after the independence of 1954. There was a brief spell in 1979, when the Chinese invaded for a month during the Sino-Vietnamese war, in retaliation for invading Cambodia.
It has become a magnet for tourism since the early 1990’s.

Unfortunately, this means that the number of tourists is pressuring the town to such an extent that it will be unrecognisable in ten years time as high rise hotels get built. It already has the World’s largest three wire cable car will take you up near the summit of Fansipan, a span of over 6km.

The Black H’mong

make up one of the majority tribes within SaPa. The women dress all in black and generally live in wooden huts tending the rice fields. As with all H’mong tribes, they come from Southern China, where they have moved from to find Arable land and over the years escape persecution.
They don’t speak the traditional Vietnamese language and are famous for their dyeing of clothes with Indigo, hence the black clothes.

The Red Dao

(Yao or D’zao) women wear a distinctive red head dress with tassels and ornaments hanging from it. Their clothes are very colourful with both men and women usually dressed with a square of embroidered cloth on their back. The symbolism is such that they believe they are the Children of God. They believe in a mix of Confucianism (the majority Buddhist sect in Vietnam) Taoism and Buddhism.
Again they speak a different language to the Vietnamese called Mien based around the ‘Kim Mun’ language. A dialect spoken by approximately 200,000 people in Southern China.

Bac Ha Market

We went to SaPa at the same time the annual horse racing festival was on during the Sunday market at Bac Ha, a three-hour drive. This is a once a year event where the leading horse race breeders race their horses by bareback riders. It’s an amazing spectacle.

The Flower H’mong

are similar to the Dao and Black H’mong, living in other villages such as Bac Ha. They are named because of their brightly coloured costumes. However, they speak similar languages to each other and are also derived from Southern China.

The history of the H’mong peoples is a potted one across South East Asia, as they were persecuted in Southern China, have been persecuted in Laos and Vietnam, as part of some of their tribe siding with the US during the ‘Secret War’ in the 70’s in Laos. There are many refugees of H’mong descent across the World with the largest in California, USA, as well as the Thai/Laos border.

Bac Ha annual horse race

Bac Ha has a Sunday market. Possibly the most colourful market on the planet! Once a year they have the annual horse racing, which makes for a great day out.
Bac Ha and the surrounding areas were originally an area where war horses are bred, so the area has a long heritage of breeding famous horses.
We didn’t really understand what was going on, and I think more often than not, having two young blonde girls made us more of a spectacle than the horse racing. We were probably one of five or six westerners we saw on the horse racing circuit with one thousand plus spectators.
The racing was fast and to see these riders at breakneck speed with only a bridle was brilliant to see.

Tourism in SaPa

The small town of SaPa is under pressure from over tourism. Its small population, which is very poor gets spoilt by the estimated 2.7m visitors per year.

What do I mean by spoilt?

The rich visitors (they aren’t all western any longer) want to see these attractive indigenous tribes in their primitive environment with beautifully decorated dresses.
Do they embellish their costumes more than is traditional for tourists?
Will they continue their animist beliefs with the village witch doctor?
Are they kept here by the Government on purpose as a social attraction?
Food for thought, as I don’t know the answer to these questions. Unbridled tourism cannot be good for the future of small social groups in return for earning tourism dollars.

We stayed at the SaPa Vista hotel as part of a package put together for us by Tony’s tours. A small tour operator we found on Lao Cai, underneath the ‘Cong Caphe’ place, just next to the roundabout from Hoan Kiem. Tony was good at giving us options and deciding on rooms etc. We caught the early morning 0700 coach to SaPa on Friday morning and arrived at 1330.
On our return, we caught the Pumpkin express train from Lao Cai to Hanoi on Sunday evening. We arrived after a ten-hour journey to Hanoi at approx 5.30am. We then had to deal with the taxi mafia at Hanoi station.

If you do visit, I would recommend staying 3 or 4 days to explore some of the other sites around SaPa, such as the cable car.

The end of Vietnam – Hanoi

The end of Vietnam – Hanoi

Hanoi is a big city so my review can only cover what we did and where we stayed as a family. I can imagine there is definitely something for everyone here – families, teenagers and hedonistic ‘Kidults’.

Our travels started in Vietnam, in Saigon. We stayed initially for 3-4 nights. Great if you want to burn-out within a few weeks: Packing and unpacking, travelling with all the stuff we carry and only just getting to know an area. We only venture for half days because with a three-year-old and one year old; they need their rest. We ended staying at each place longer and longer and finally in Hanoi for one month as a base.

We stayed in a new apartment 15 minutes south of the centre surrounded by shops with a shopping mall in the basement (Times City Megamall). The apartments each had children’s play areas with swings and slides between each of the blocks. It gave us the freedom to go out when we wanted, unlike a hotel and eat when we wanted.

Taxis cost USD $3-4 to get to Hoan Kiem Lake, which I class as the centre. Uber and Grab both operate in Vietnam and are very competitive. I wonder how people make a living when they charge $2 for a taxi journey but illustrates how cheap living can be in Vietnam.

Hoan Kiem or ‘Central’ Hanoi

Hoan Kiem lake or ‘Lake of the returned sword’. From the legend of Emperor Le Loi returning his sword after defeating the Ming Chinese to the turtle king who lives in the lake. The lake is surrounded by the main centres of Hanoi. To the east is the French quarter. The north and west are the old quarter, and the south is the University, embassy and main department store shopping district. Further afield are other areas such as the Presidential palace and mausoleum, again surrounded by more embassies.

The Old Quarter

is relatively easy to navigate. A rudimentary understanding of Vietnamese will help you find your way around. Each street is named after the goods originally sold. What is interesting is to see such narrow shop fronts, originally based on how much they would be taxed. Hence the houses are called Tube houses, which could be as little as 3m wide x 60m long.

The old name was ‘36 streets’ after the ‘guilds’ or groups who set up in the area. It is thought there were originally 36 streets making up the Old Quarter. Many start with the name ‘Hang’, meaning merchandise or shop.

Hang Bac – Silver
Hang Ca – Fish
Hang Bo – Baskets
Hang Bong – Cotton
Hang Chai – bottles
Hang Da – Leather
Hang Giay – Shoes etc., etc.

These were the names from approx. The 13th century, so it‘s no surprise the shops sell different items today. You can still see many commonplace items sold along the same street though. Another example of regional working groups benefiting each other on a local basis.

While Hoan Kiem and the Old Quarter are generally where tourists visit. The expats regularly frequent the Tay Ho area surrounding West Lake. The more affluent side of town. A large freshwater lake with approximately 17km of shoreline. Attractions include the Ho Chi Minh museum and Presidential Palace area, a short walk south of the lake.
Visit the oldest Buddhist Pagoda in Vietnam (Tran Quoc) on the causeway separating West Lake and Truc Bach. See the Bodhi tree (Religious Fig tree) planted from a seedling donated by the original tree from India. The tree the Buddha sat under and found spiritual enlightenment (or Bodhi).

Tam Coc, Ninh Binh Province – ‘The Old capital’

Ha Noi wasn’t always the capital of Vietnam. The capital of Dai Co Viet (Great Buddhist Viet), as Vietnam was formerly known was originally in Hoa Lu province some 100 km south of Ha Noi.
The Emperor Ly Thai To the founder of the Ly dynasty, (see pic) moved the capital from Hoa Lu in Ninh Bin province to Thang Long. The original meaning Ascending Dragons (modern day Ha Noi) was far more exciting than Interior River!
The terrain was naturally defensive surrounded by the small but steep limestone mountains making the area almost impenetrable to invasion.
As well as the Hoa Lu temple complex Tam Coc village is a beautiful river setting where you can take a river cruise by a rower controlling the boat by their feet. (see photo)

The Temple of Literature

was originally built in 1070 by King Ly Than Tong to educate the bureaucrats and scholars of Dai Viet. It is a temple dedicated to Confucius where students still come to pray and make offerings in return for good results in their exams.
Each student had to read the four books and five classics as part of the traditional Confucian reading material. The books were all written by Confucius disciples and tested on each.
As the Brits have Oxford University, the Italians Bologna, Vietnam’s first university pre-dates or was built at a similar time in the 11th Century.
Unfortunately, it’s not a continuing University. It was a French war hospital during Tonkin times and has undergone some reconstruction.
It still doesn’t claim to be the earliest whose accolade goes to the University of Al Quaraouiyine, in Fes, Morocco from 859.

Hoa Lo Prison (AKA The Hanoi Hilton)

Hoa Lo prison was initially set up as a French prison for Vietnamese political prisoners in the heart of Ha Noi. Nicknamed, the Ha Noi Hilton (allegedly due to the soft treatment of its US inmates) is famous for holding many US PoW. Most notably Governor (and former Presidential candidate) John McCain, after his plane was shot down in West Lake during the Vietnam War.
I still wonder what they call the Hilton hotel nearby?

In the area next to the citadel lies the Ha Noi Military History Museum. The Museum explains (from a Vietnamese viewpoint) the recent wars from the time of Dien Bien Phu. The lead-up to Vietnamese independence and the fall of French colonialism in 1954. There are the many US, French and Soviet built aircraft and military equipment confiscated after the Vietnam war. Many (defused) unexploded ordnance and guns confiscated after independence in 1975. It’s always interesting seeing the terminology, ‘American Imperialism’ on write-ups.

Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he’s affectionately known, died in 1969 aged 79. Against the wishes of his will, his body is on display at the Mausoleum in Da Binh square. Allegedly to allow all of Vietnams citizens to pay their respects after reunification in 1975.
Behind the Mausoleum are the one pillar Pagoda and his home, a modest stilted house. He chose not to live in the Presidential palace, preferring to live amongst his people.

The Museum of Ethnology

If the many tribes of Vietnam are of interest, but you don’t get a chance to visit any of the villages such as SaPa, then the Museum of Ethnology is well worth a visit to understand the genealogy, culture and language behind the many tribes which make up many of Vietnam’s people.
There is also an excellent photo gallery and mini museum by the French photographer, Rehahn in Hoi An worth visiting.

Get a Tour Guide

We stayed a month and still didn’t see many of the sights. I would recommend getting a tour guide for a day to take you around Hanoi area and to explore the various sites. It’s easy to get lost in the myriad streets. We used a free tour guide service for students who want to practise their English (http://hanoifreetourguides.com).
The girl provided, Huyen, was brilliant and explained so much about the area. The local cultural meanings behind the placement of altars (Feng Shui), gift offerings and general Buddhist practice was well received. Worth it for 1/2 day. We paid her meals & taxis as well as an extra tip for the day.

Our stay in Vietnam showed us a fiercely proud nation, with a willingness to embrace all nationalities.
We have never once felt unwelcome and often got mobbed by young children practising their English. Westerners including French and American are welcomed with open arms. Unlike the, often joking, animosity between French (Frogs), British (Le Rost Boeuf) and Germans (Krauts) which prevails across Europe.
The Vietnamese have an innate curiosity of everything Western and seeing a family with two blonde girls was no exception.

It is rapidly developing, which in some areas it needs to. It needs to balance this with retaining some of its historical and cultural charms. Too many high rise towers are being built, which the infrastructure cannot cope with. Traffic, especially in Saigon and Ha Noi can be a nightmare to navigate. The increased air pollution is a problem, while the overflowing drains during periods of heavy rain need urgent attention. An anti-litter campaign might also be useful as many areas are spoilt by the overload of plastic bags, which has become an ecological threat in some areas. This is the same so far of everywhere we’ve been in South East Asia.
The warmth and smiles of the Vietnamese people are addictive. I will certainly be looking to return in the future.