I’m A Sap For Sapa (And You Would Be Too)


After the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, the three excited travelers boarded an overnight train heading northwest for the town of Lao Cai where we would be met and transported by car to our destination of Sapa, famous for both its spectacular rugged scenery and its rich cultural diversity. I have to say again, and right at the beginning how fortunate and privileged I have been to have witnessed some spectacular sights in my life, (a sunet on Santorini’s volcanic edge; a lion pride on the move in Kruger National Park, Scarlet Macaws mating on the Osa Peninsula, morning light on Cape Town’s harbor, rainbows over Victoria Falls, turtles hatching on Anna Maria Island, any street in Paris, and the birth of granddaughter Simone…to name a few), and the most recent one occurred just outside Sapa in a large valley nestled within the Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range. This valley has lots of pine trees and forest, waterfalls, winding streams and terraced rice paddies; magnificent vistas stretched endlessly before us, and to fully appreciate the grandness, the camera had to be lowered, the walk slowed, and the mind spread opened to absorb the beauty of this land. No matter how self-centered or self-absorbed people can be at times, this particular geography reminds all who trek across it how insignificant we sometimes become in mother nature’s landscape. Our hired guide told us the area we were visiting was home to two primary ethnic peoples, the Red Zao and Black H’Mong; the Red Zao known for being cheerful and open-minded, whereas the Black H’Mong are more economical and reserved — the Alan & Peg of mountain tribes, if you will. We were greeted by 6-10 enthusiastic Red Zao women, each of whom had homemade crafts to show us, including embroidered clothes and handbags. These ladies accompanied us during the entire morning walk through their village, Ta Vin, and the surrounding area, peppering us with questions about who we were and where we came from, using their English for hopeful economic gain. They were not disappointed as just prior to departing the area, the three of us bought something from everyone. It is not their wares that will stay with us the longest, but the memories of their seemingly perpetual smiles and gentle demeanors.

Another top highlight filled with beautiful scenery occurs every Sunday fifty miles away from Sapa in the town of Bac Ha, which hosts the biggest market near the mountainous highlands and the Chinese border. It is the largest and most colorful market in the area and attracts large number of villagers from the surrounding hill tribes. This market is not designed for tourists, although obviously tourists visit, but rather for the locals to have the opportunity to trade and barter for food, animals, clothes, household goods, and as I discovered while rounding a corner, the pungent fumes of alcohol…corn whiskey…a Bac Ha specialty. Our guide asked me if I wanted to try a shot, and after licking my lips and giving the thumbs up (which I have discovered is a universal signal of asking someone for a local libation) the hunt was on for a properly aged sample, preferably longer than an hour. The guide must not have liked the looks of the various large gray plastic jugs which looked like they previously had held gasoline, because although walking past a number of opportunities, he ultimately decided to soberly keep walking. Oh well, “he who hesitates”…blah, blah, blah. [Vietnamese “moonshine” tastings would have to wait until we reached HaLong Bay and the Mekong Delta, and yes, it was an aquired taste; how long? probably years!] Many different ethnic groups such as the Flower H’Mong, Black Dao, and Nung minorities gather to buy and sell local products that cannot be found elsewhere. The livestock section is not for the feignt of tourists’ hearts, so little time was spent in that area. I hope the pictures below from Bac Ha do justice to this colorful experience. Each tribe has its own unique color combination that once familiar with them all, make the assorted tribe members easily recognizable at any distance. With a little help from our guide, we three were getting very good in distinguishing whom belonged to what tribe. On the return trip to Sapa we stopped by a bridge which connected Vietnam to China. Beside the thrill of actually seeing China without walking on her soil, my main memory was buying what I thought was vanilla custard from a street vendor and enjoying it thoroughly until Peg told me later with a hint of devilishness in her voice that what I had consumed was the always present master of all food disguises, t-o-u-f-o-o. Fortunately I lived to now tell the tale. There were lots of other highlights during our brief stay, including visiting and climbing to the top of the famous Silver waterfall and a boat trip on the Chay river; everything was fun and marvelous.

For me, more than any other place we visited in Vietnam, Sapa and her surrounding territories represents more of an experience rather than a destination. The region totally embraced us with sensory delights found in few other places in this world. The high mountains, low valleys, rivers, waterfalls, and terraced rice paddies provided magnificent landscapes that provided a steady flow of sensuality. If given the opportunity, I would happily revisit this area of Vietnam just to experience once again its palpable presence.

Overnight train to Sapa

The gang's all here...

Happy trekers

Where's Waldo...I mean Alan

OK, I have a ball in one of my hands and you have to guess which one.

Who You Looking At?!

2011 Ms. Rice Field



Rice Paddies

How green was my rice paddies?

Valley beauty...

Find the flag...

A Black H'mong village

Bac Ha Market

Chilis anyone?

Anything you like lady?


Looking for customers...

There's corn whiskey in those plastic containers!

Do you have anything in blue?

Good-bye Bac Ha

Three for the road...

Silver Waterfall

Just for fun...


About Alan G Billingsley

My career has been varied, including time as a newspaper deliverer, lifeguard, bubble gum maker, door-to-door detergent promoter, telephone book proofreader, short order cook, private employment agency counselor and owner, office and credit manger, infantryman, pots and pans salesman, Chinese restaurant cook, Chinese restaurant owner, public employment counselor, budget analyst, tax analyst, grant administrator, radio announcer, radio and television show host, disk jockey, automobile valet, child advocate, and now retiree. I've seldom been bored.
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