Things to do
1. Trekking background: Minorities in Lao Cai
Lao Cai province counts more than 20 minorities, with the largest being Hmong, followed by Tay and Dao. In Sapa you will come across mostly Black Hmong and Red Dao, while Bac Ha is in the heart of Flower Hmong district.
As with other minorities spread across Vietnam, families of these groups tend to live in small villages, following traditional ways of life. They live off the land, often making their own clothing and following particular customs when it comes to births, marriages and deaths. Most live in poorer conditions than the Kinh, with a lack of access to sufficient sanitation and water, no access to health services and far lower incomes
When travelling in the region, clothes may signify what group an individual belongs to, though nowadays many minorities wear clothing more similar in style to the Kinh, reserving traditional dress for celebrations.
Flower Hmong women are easily recognizable by their rainbow-colored clothing, which is quite distinct from the dark indigo — indigo is produced locally – and embroidered clothing of the Black Hmong women. The embroidery, on the collar, belt and sleeves of a Black Hmong outfit helps to distinguish the age and skill of the wearer. The men wear long jackets with shirts and a long waistcoat embroidered at the collar, and a small hat.
It’s also difficult to miss the Red Dao women, partly due to their striking red headdress, but also just because of their numbers in Sapa and the surrounding villages. Many are tour guides and if you go on a homestay chances are you will stay in a Red Dao home. As well as the red headdress, Red Dao women wear indigo or black tunics and under trousers with rich embroidery and beading along the sleeves, collar, hem and legs. Men’s tunics are similarly embroidered. Note that Dao outfits vary quite notably across different regions.
Ta Phin, a popular day trek from Sapa, is a Red Dao village and here you can see the typical Red Dao home and, if it takes your fancy, take a herbal bath.
The Tay minority is the largest in Vietnam, the second largest in Lao Cai, and the earliest known minority to have migrated to modern-day Vietnam. Traditional dress is simple white shirts, indigo trousers and silver adornments. The Tai is the second largest ethnic minority group in Vietnam and includes both the Black and White Tai. The traditional costume generally comprises a colored blouse with a distinctive row of silver buttons down the front, a long black skirt and an embroidered black headscarf. Tay and Tai houses are built on stilts.
The Giay, the fourth largest ethnic minority in Lao Cai, are widely spread; Ta Van village near Sapa is a Giay home, for example. The women dress similarly to the Tay minority, in no-fuss clothes. Blouses are different colors depending on the age of the wearer, with older women wearing darker shades. Women wrap their hair around their head and fix it in place with red threads.
The traditional clothing of the Nung people comprises a plain indigo vest and trousers often decorated with a colored belt and worn with a black turban covered by a white or colored scarf. This is the same for both men and women.
Minorities practise ancestor worship, but while the Red Dao religion has elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, Hmong and Tay are primarily spirit worshippers; Christianity is in evidence in some Hmong tribes.
Before or after visiting Lao Cai, check out the Ethnology Museum or the Women’s Museum in Hanoi for more comprehensive information on minorities; 54 Traditions Gallery also showcases more than 1,000 antiques, artifacts and art of minority groups and the Kinh. The Sapa Museum also has some limited information, mostly focused on Red Dao and Hmong.
2. Is a Sapa homestay for you?
When travelling to Sapa you’ll be faced with an array of treks to choose from and one decision you’ll need to make is whether to do a trek that includes a homestay. While a homestay can be a great experience, it’s not for everyone. Here’s some guidance on what to expect.
As the name suggests, a homestay is an overnight stay in someone’s house. In the case of Sapa, that house is likely to be the home of a Hmong or Red Dao family.
Houses are little more than huts, with no natural light, mattresses are thin, the toilet’s not ensuite — possibly not even attached to the building — and sound insulation is non-existent. And if you’re not a fan of bugs and spiders, a homestay may not be for you. But it should be comfortable and clean enough.
So why do it? Cultural experience aside, taking an overnight — or longer — trek means you can get further away from Sapa and explore more of the district. Yes, you could do that in separate day trips, with the assistance of a minibus, but of course a homestay is more than just a bed for the night — it’s also an enlightening and enjoyable experience. Here’s what’s likely to happen.
Upon arrival at the homestay you will be shown to your room. If you’re in a group you’re likely to be sharing a room, but you should at least get your own bed or mattress — unless the group’s huge. Do check this out with the tour operator before booking if it’s a big deal for you.
Dinner will be prepared by the host and their family, so you can enjoy a beer or soft drink while waiting — drinks cost extra but shouldn’t be too pricey. The menu is likely to have been modified from what the family usually eats to appeal to foreign palates, but will still be Vietnamese: spring rolls, rice, stir-fried meat and veg. You will probably eat together with the host and have the opportunity to ask questions — with your guide translating — and spend time with the family.
Another very good reason for doing a homestay is to support the locals. Income from homestays can dramatically improve the lives of the hosts and the village overall.
3. Take a trip to Muong Hum market, Lao Cai
Many weekend visitors to Sapa opt to visit Bac Ha market, which is easily accessible on an organised day trip from Sapa. But if you want to avoid the tourist hordes, Muong Hom market is a more interesting option… if you can get there.
Started at 07:00 from Sapa town by motorbike and you will arrive at the market around 9h00. Most vendors and customers travel from Muong Hum or nearby villages and are from four ethnic groups, the Red Dao and White H’mong being the most noticeable. The most interesting thing is the wonderful array of colours, from the women’s clothing to the material, rugs and other items being sold. Photo opportunities are everywhere.
Unlike Bac Ha, Muong Hum is not a livestock market, although there are some livestock sales early in the morning. Most stalls sell textiles — clothing, cloth, ribbons, bedding — but hardware and foodstuff, particularly dried goods, are also available. The market also has a lively food section.
Although you can catch a glimpse of the scenery from a comfortable chair in Sapa town, it's only when you explore further afield that you really get to experience and appreciate all that this region has to offer.
A trek through the surrounding rice fields, forest and ethnic minority villages can create memories that last a lifetime, not to mention an overworked camera.
Treks can be organised for anything from half a day up, depending on budget, how much time you have, where you want to go and how active you feel. One day treks tend to go out to Lao Chai, Ta Van, Giang Ta Chai, Ban Ho and the Silver Waterfall -- with popular two- and three-day treks combining some of these -- or trekking through the lowlands to any one of a number of minority villages.
If you're booking through an operator you'll have the choice of a private or group tour. The operators we spoke to assured us that the group tours took no more than nine people, but we've heard of far larger groups, so be sure to check before booking. Group day treks are usually around the $12 to 15 mark with overnighters around $30.
If you prefer to go it alone, an easy walk takes you down to Cat Cat village, from where you can walk or bike ride back up, taking about a half day. Another popular DIY trip is out to Taphin village, which should take four to five hours one way.
5. Climbing Fansipan
Treks are usually overnight, or even over three days, with accommodation in tents or bamboo huts located at just over 2,200 metres.
Although the peak is below the lie of winter snows, it will get cold.
Most groups require at least two passengers and charge $70+ per person for a two-day trek. One-day treks are available if you have the fitness for it.
Daily rental prices as of July 2013 were US$4 for a semi-automatic and US$6 for an automatic. AWin-style imported bike for US$7.
As for routes, from Sapa one option is to head down Muong Hoa Street towards Ta Van, Cau May or Ban Ho village – all clearly signposted from the main road. The road hugs the side of the mountain with unobstructed views of the valleys and mountains to the south, with some truly jaw-dropping outlooks onto the stepped paddy climbing up the slopes. But take care: it's possible to drive off the edge when distracted by the sense-tingling views.
Ban Ho is around 25 kilometres from Sapa town and a good spot to aim for: villagers are used to tourists and food and homestays can usually be arranged. Or check out the hot springs to ease those aching muscles.
Another option is to drive up to Lao Chai, leave Sapa on Thac Bac Street and keep on going. It's around a three hour drive so a bit too far for a day trip, but if you've time to stay overnight in Lao Chai it's a good drive, and you can continue on to Muong Lay and loop back through Son La if you feel adventurous.
Or head back towards Lao Cai and turn left to Ta Phin – signposted off the main road – which only takes around 30 minutes.
Remember, you must have a Vietnamese license to drive legally in Vietnam and the roads are not for the faint hearted.
These aren't town and city markets with meat and veggies for sale — these are genuine country markets, with livestock trading and myriad handcrafted homewares and souvenir stalls.
Minorities living high in the hills walk hours on end to get here just to pick up a new plough-head or a wooden saddle. They are also social centres for clans living in disparate circumstances and the scenes on display are like something out of National Geographic.
The markets in the western part of the province, in and around Bac Ha, can be visited on daytrips from Sapa — expect to pay around $15 — but it's a long time on the bus, so we highly recommend visiting those out of Lao Cai, or better yet, Bac Ha.
One worthwhile market that is more convenient from Sapa is the Sunday Muong Hum Market, 30 kilometres to the northwest. On our last visit the roads were under construction and dangerous, but once the work's done it'll be worth a visit.
8. Cultural travelling
When travelling to Sapa, the town in northwest part of Vietnam, the home of many ethnic groups, visitors can have the chance to combine some sort of cultural travel tours with their trekking. There are many cultural spots waiting for your exploration.