Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Trekking in Sapa and the Hill Tribes in Northern Vietnam

After our return from Halong Bay – which I will write about in a later blog post – we took the night train from Hanoi to Sapa, a remote town in the mountains of Northern Vietnam between China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. 

The landscape around Sapa is breathtaking and makes it a great destination for trekking. In addition to that a lot of interesting ethnic minorities live there – different hill tribes, each with their own language, traditional lifestyle and clothing. During our trip there we met the Red Dzao and the Black Hmong people.

The night train left Hanoi at 9pm and was surprisingly comfortable, and it was possible to get a good six hours of sleep before the arrival in Sapa around 5am. We had a long breakfast, and strolled a little bit through town before we were able to check into our hotel and get ready for a day of trekking.

The landscape around Sapa is beautiful and I was looking forward to my first hike after knee surgery earlier this year.We spent the day hiking with her and two other Black Hmong women – very nice and friendly people. This is one of the other Black Hmong women who came with us on the trek.

The Red Dzao women shave the top of their head and their eyebrows after they get married, as this is thought to be more beautiful and also to bring good luck. They wear striking, elaborate red headscarves with fringes attached to them – the more fringes the more important the person .

Red Dzao women
The Black Hmong women wear a really cool outfit that consists of several layers…

They wear the beautiful traditional clothing every day – independent of age and they grow their own hemp to produce the material for their clothes. During our hike we were surprised to come upon big patches of tall marijuana plants, which, they told us, are used to make hemp. The women also grow the plants that they need in order to dye the cloth indigo – and that is why they have blue stains on their fingers.

Many of the minority villages are several hours of walking away from Sapa, and a lot of these women walk to Sapa and back every day in order to sell their handicraft to tourists. They carry everything in woven baskets on their back.

 Black Hmong women
When they have babies they do the same walks and simply carry the baby on their back instead of the basket.And they learn at a very young age how to do that.One of the main characteristics about the landscape in Northern Vietnam are the terraced rice fields. The hill tribes are subsistence farmers who live off their land and the livestock they own. They do not pay taxes, but at the same time also do not receive any government pensions or other social services. They grow rice for their families, which is backbreaking labor – and in a bad season the land does not provide enough rice to feed them. In that case the Vietnamese government helps by distributing 300kgs of rice per family to the villages.

Water buffalo are an important part of life here…

Sapa has a much cooler climate than the rest of the country, and in many ways it doesn’t feel like Vietnam anymore – some of the minority people speak better English than Vietnamese; but then you look around and find propaganda of the Vietnamese government even in the most remote villages. Note the first billboard below is hand-painted and shows people of different ethnic minorities…

Lately the Vietnamese government has been building schools and has started to provide electricity also for the more isolated areas – which the people in the villages appreciate a lot. We passed one of those schools, and school kids were practicing a dance – obviously overseen by Ho Chi Minh outside the school as well as inside the class room.

At the end of the trek we arrived at the home village of one of the women – and her best friend was waiting there for her with a bottle of rice wine. We were invited to try the wine, and it was seriously strong stuff!

The next day I couldn’t resist buying a second-hand Black Hmong outfit to take home with me, and while Nat was climbing Mount Fansipan I had a lot of fun with the Black Hmong girls helping them sell their handicraft to tourists while dressed like one of them.

ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA would like recommend Sapa trek & Topas Eco Lodge tour.At an elevation of 1,600 meters, Sapa is a delightful former French hill station situated in the mountainous region of Vietnam's northwest, close to the Chinese border. The region is home to many ethnic minority groups, each wearing traditional and colorful attire. This trip includes a trek through the hills and valleys of the Sapa region, discovering several different minorities along the way. You will experience overnight accommodation in the hospitable villages of Dzay and Tay ethnic minorities. Round off the trek with a nice stay in Topas Eco Lodge. The apparent hardships are worth it though as we walk through some of the most spectacular scenery that Vietnam has to offer and experience unique villages culture.


  • Awesome scenery
  • Rice terraces
  • Colorful minority groups
  • Homestays in minority villages
  • Topas Eco-lodge


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