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Apr 4, 2006 - Sapa, Vietnam - Terraced Fields From the Heavens
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A busy day at the Saturday Market in Sapa Newly purchased chicken Ethnic minority tribes in town to shop 
Sapa, Vietnam - Terraced Fields from the Heavens

We stepped off the train after about five hours of sleep and were just minutes from the Chinese border in the city of Lao Cai. Unfortunately on this trip, we are not exploring China and will have to save that for another time. Sleepy eyed and somewhat groggy, we were jammed into a minivan feeling like one of those super tall clowns in the circus driving a minuscule car for the sake of children's entertainment. However, the cramped quarters were soon forgotten, as the city streets gave way to the rising sun over the North Vietnamese mountains giving us a picturesque view for our forty-five minute drive. The mountains were covered with terraced rice fields that appeared to descend from the clouds straight down to the rushing river valley at the base of the mountains.

Two main attractions bring people to Sapa. The first is the incredible mountain scenery that reminded me of my time living in the Canadian Rockies. Not that the mountains were as large or snow capped, but the town of Sapa is tucked in the mountains providing awe-inspiring views in every direction. The region is filled with hiking trails to provide anything from a leisurely stroll to a strenuous climb to the top of Fan Si Pan, the highest mountain in Vietnam.

Throughout our stay, we took in a couple of hikes with the most spectacular being a guided hike through the valley. We left from town and ventured up and down the mountain side, along the river valley and through numerous minority villages. The terraced rice fields, although not planted, were like a work of art curving across the mountainside. The ingenious locals control the flow of water with a well-constructed network of bamboo pipes and troughs to flood the rice fields at the varying altitudes. Rice mills to crush the rice are also run by waterpower and miniature generators dotted streams providing small amounts of electricity to a few very modest homes. The ingenuity of the hill tribe people intrigued me as much as I was mesmerized by the beauty of the scenery.

The whole time we were in soaking in the beauty, Anh, our short, well-spoken Vietnamese guide told us more about the region and her life story as she walked along in her conical hat. We were learning how incredibly hard working and optimistic the Vietnamese are. Virtually, everyone in the country has an entrepreneur spirit and drive willing to do whatever it takes to make a better life for themselves and their family. Anh lost her father at a very young age and was raised by her peasant mother who worked hard in the rice fields to try to earn a living for her and children. As a child, Anh was required to work in the rice fields as well and would spend her time in the off season collecting crabs selling them at the local market to earn money for school books. Although she has a decent job now working for the hotel and as a tour guide around Sapa, she has 'a plan'- a plan to make a better life for herself and to help support her mother in her old age. She is saving all her money to move to Hanoi to study English and French in University with the hopes of one day being a teacher. She figures will cost her about $60 US per month for her accommodations, meals and tuition. I was shocked - only $60 yet it is such a lofty goal for her to be able to save enough money. Once again, we were reminded of how incredibly lucky we are living in Canada. My heart went out to her as we listened with her excited determination to one day be a teacher and there is not a doubt in my mind that this strong willed young lady will do it and make her mother proud.

At the end of the day, we said our goodbyes to Anh and the Swiss couple we had been hiking with who were all staying overnight in a minority village and continuing on hiking the next day. For us we had to get back up the mountain to town and catch a night train back to Hanoi. Our transfers had been arranged with our hike and we never thought about it, but of course, they were by motorcycle. With neither of us ever having ridden a motorcycle before, the ride up the winding mountain rode was an exhilarating experience and prompted us to further consider a tour of the Central Highlands by motorcycle we had heard about from friends we met in Thailand.

The second drawing card for Sapa is the minority people living in these northern regions of Vietnam. Numerous tribes still maintain their own language, customs and have not integrated with the traditional Vietnamese way of living. The majority of the minority tribes are very poor and still live off the land, uninterested in the modern world and material belongings. In the Sapa region, you can see many of these tribes including the Hmong, Dao, Thai, Tay, Nung and Muong. Many visitors staying in Sapa come for the local weekend market in the neighbouring regions. We were fortunate enough to be in Sapa over the weekend to get to see both the local Sapa market and to take a day trip out to one of the largest local markets in Bac Ha.

Walking around the Bac Ha market, we knew this market was different than most markets we had visited. Bac Ha is where these local people shop for all their goods. It is their lifeline and everything is available for sale, from simple grocery items such as a pineapple or fresh eggs to livestock like pigs, chickens or dogs. You could also purchase clothing, tools, tobacco and local craft items and any other basic necessities the locals might require. People come to the weekly market to buy the supplies they need for the week and to socialize with their friends and neighbours they rarely see. With long hours working the fields and a lack of technology for communicating, the weekly market is almost their only social activity. We spent hours strolling the market enthralled by the colourful sights, sounds and smells that engulfed us snapping photos to try to capture the unique experiences all around us.

Sapa for us was one of those pleasant surprises. Like ordering a meal and expecting it to be mediocre and barely fill the hunger gap, but instead, finding out it is one of the best meals you have had in ages leaving you craving for me. We had heard Sapa was nice, but between our hike, the Bac Ha market and the other travellers and locals we met it all combined to far exceeded our expectations and sure it will stand out as one of our favourite parts in all of Vietnam.

TRAVEL TIPS FOR SAPA

1. The most popular way to get to Sapa from Hanoi is by overnight train to Lao Cai and then minivan transfer for about 45 minutes from there to Sapa. There are a variety of classes available for the train and recommend a first class sleeper car for the most comfortable ride.

2. Bring your hiking boots or good walking shoes and do at least a one day (even better an overnight trek) hike down through the valley and terraced rice fields. We were so impressed by the scenery and the rice wasn't even planted. In season, with the rice fields full, it would be even better as a sea of green or gold.

3. Try to visit at least one of the local markets in the region. The biggest and best is Bac Ha but is only once a week. For most markets, the major activity with the locals takes place early in the morning so try to get there bright and early. Most day trips will not get you there in time for peak activity although you will still see the markets. If you are serious about seeing the market in full swing you may need to overnight in the location of the market or arrange your own transportation there rather than doing a group day trip.

4. If you are looking for a luxurious room the Victoria Sapa Hotel is highest end hotel in Sapa. There is a whole range of accommodations available in town and feel it is worth paying to get yourself a balcony or at least a room with a view overlooking the mountains and valley below.

5. Sapa is worth the trip. If you are in Hanoi, take the trip north - you won't be disappointed.

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