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Red Lantern Journeys specializes in arranging sightseeing tours and adventure travel packages to Asia customized to fit your schedule and interests. We focus on the best destinations in Asia including, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, China, Mongolia, Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal, and India.

website: www.redlanternjourneys.com

Article and photos by published | february ‘09


terrace #1About 380 kilometers north of Hanoi, Vietnam amongst the steep, terraced mountains near the Chinese border is the small town of Sapa. Here you'll find an assortment of ethnic hill tribes with names like H'mong, Zai, and Dao (pronounced Zao), to name just a few. Put a color in front of a tribe's name, like red, black, and green and you'll likely have the name of a local tribe (think Black H'mong, Red Dao, etc.) These are descriptive of the colorful tribal clothing that they still wear daily. Encounters with these ethnic tribes and visits to the local markets are the highlights of any trip to this region. The further you venture into the mountains from Sapa, the more interesting and authentic your encounters will be.

Getting to and from Sapa can be quite fun. Three overnight trains cater to the tourist: the Victoria Express, Tulico Train, and the Kings Express. Or rather, there are two trains, the Victoria express is 2 or 3 carriages tacked on to the end of local train, and the Tulico and Kings Express are carriages tacked onto the end of another local train. Both trains leave about 10 pm at night and arrive around 6 or 7 am the next morning. Both take you to Lao Cai near the Chinese border. From there it's a 45 minute car or bus shuttle to Sapa. The nicest train is the Victoria Express, which is also connected to the Victoria Sapa Resort, the nicest hotel in Sapa.

dining carThe carriages have cabins that sleep either two or four people and have beautiful, colonial-style wood interiors. A dining car offers dinner and a full bar, offering that drink that might be needed to help you sleep as the rickety tracks constantly jostle you as the train moves along at the "breakneck" speed of 20 mph. In terms of the quality of furnishings and service, the Tulico Train and Kings Express are just a notch below the Victoria Express.

During my short stay, I visited nearby local villages and the Sapa Market. Unfortunately, I was there mid-week and missed the bustling weekend markets. However, I had some special encounters with local people that included learning about a shaman medicinal ritual, a visit to a Red Dao household, and eating a Pho dinner in the Sapa Market with a local man who was smoking from a huge, bamboo pipe.

On my first day, I ventured to some smaller local villages, trekking through terraced fields to the villages of Lai Chau and Ta Vin. These villages are nestled along a river in a deep valley with steep, terraced rice paddies cascading down the sides of the mountains. All of the villagers were friendly and willing to talk with me in their limited English. Just ask and they will invite you into their home. That invitation will likely come with an expectation or hope of your purchasing some handicrafts from them. However, don't fret about it. You can politely decline when you feel it's time to move on.

Sapa womenAs I descended to the river, I was joined by an older woman dressed in her Flower H'mong ethnic garb and carrying a typical basket backpack filled with handicrafts. A silver-dollar-sized, perfectly round, red sore in the middle of her forehead had me wondering what had happened to her. It looked like she had been hit by a hammer! I asked and discovered that she had suffered from some terribly bad headaches and underwent a common local treatment to cure her. I may have misunderstood some of the explanation but from what I could gather, the treatment consisted of the local shaman using a powdered buffalo horn and hot wax mixture dripped onto the forhead to extricate the bad spirits causing the pain. It seemed to me like the cure was worse than the ailment! However during our stay, we saw several women with round sores on their foreheads at various stages of healing.

That evening, I explored the Sapa market, which was a mixture of food, handicrafts, household goods, clothing, and souvigner shops nestled in narrow alley ways and staircases at the lower part of town. I succumbed to hunger and sat down at a small "pho" stand. Pho (pronounced like faw) is a Vietnamese staple. It's a hardy rice-noodle soup with some kind of cow or chicken parts. The varieties are endless, depending what part of the animal is used - tripe, tendon, heart, liver, tongue, and brain, you name it. There was only one other person at this place - a wizened local man with what at first glance looked like a large bamboo musical wind instrument of some kind. After he finished his pho, he picked up the large tube and put one end up to his mouth, then proceeded to strike a match and light the other end. He puffed, and I suddenly realized I was looking at a very large bamboo pipe!

Red Dao womanMy last day in Sapa, I went to the village of Ta Phin, a Red Dao village. This village has a reputation for aggressive local women selling their handicrafts to the too-many tourists that visit. However, the Red Dao women wear some of the most colorful outfits and headware and I found them to be quite charming. As soon as I got out of the car, I was surrounded by about 20 women, each wearing beautiful large read headdresses and eager to sell me something from their basket of handicrafts. It was a bit intimidating at first, but as I started to walk through the village, only four women stayed with me, which gave me a chance to talk with and get to know them.

We walked outside the main village towards one of their houses and just chatted. Their English was surprisingly good, evidently learned from tourists or their parents who had learned it from tourists. None of them had gone to school. All were married and had children. Two of them carried babies on their backs, one of which was a grandmother with her baby grandson. After a few minutes, we came to one of their homes and entered. Inside it was quite dark, with almost no windows. The kitchen consisted of a fire pit and several pots and pans scattered about, but no chimney. Close by was a second kitchen with giant pots that looked clean and tidy. Evidently they cooked the slop for their pigs there! A vertical log with steps cut out led up to a second-story loft used mainly for storage of food and household goods. All in all, the house was very spartan, not much furniture and not very comfortable by Western standards.

terrace #2After a bit of chatting and joking around about how I should marry one of their village girls, they started to pull out their handicrafts from their baskets. They displayed a variety of embroidered cloth items such as wall hangings, pillow cases, childrens' beanie hats, as well as some jewelry. I did like the wall hangings and pillow cases. I carefully negotiated with one, but soon discovered that I was not going to be left alone until I bought something from each of them. So, I bought one walling hanging from one, then one decorative pillow case from each of the others. They were all reasonably satisfied and we walked back to the village together, chatting and snacking on a sweet, puffed-rice snack that they produced.

I've heard from many people that the best part of their trip to Vietnam was their time spent in and around Sapa, and I would have to agree. The combination of colorful, happy people, interesting markets, and exquisite landscapes of terraced fields is a welcome relief from the bustle and pollution of Hanoi. It's worth spending several days, if not a couple of weeks there to explore and create your own experiences.

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