A rickety old train delivered us from Hanoi to Lao Cai after a night in the bare upper bunks of a shared compartment. From Lao Cai we completed the second leg of the journey to Sa Pa by shuttle bus — an hour-long climb on a windy mountain road, with a cliff on one side and a thick fog ahead of us. Sa Pa is located in Vietnam near the border of China, and is home to several hill tribes (minority ethnic groups) including Black Hmong, Flower Hmong and Red Dao. Its remote location contributes to its success in retaining a level of cultural authenticity that is increasingly hard to find elsewhere.
Upon arrival, we were welcomed to our guest house with hot cinnamon tea and an invitation to enjoy the buffet breakfast. The steaming hot pho kicked us out of our slumber with the oh-so-lovely fragrance of chilis and cilantro, and sent us on our way to exploring Sa Pa for the day.
Sa Pa’s food market held lots of discoveries, from tropical fruit to an exotic variety of bugs and worms to tables full of plucked chickens and animal organs. Cow’s head? Check. Deep in the market, communal tables were packed with locals enjoying lunch together amidst cooked chickens, noodles and everything else needed to create a good bowl of pho. We pulled up some chairs and shared lunch and a beer with a woman from the Red Dao hill tribe.
From Sa Pa, we walked downhill a couple miles and spent the afternoon exploring Cat Cat village. Cat Cat was less a village and more an educational portrait of daily life in the hills, with kids running around, a house being built, cows in the fields, pigs in the mud, women making incense and men smoking an enormous pipe. We hired a motorbike to whisk us from the bottom of the valley back up into town — the two of us hanging on for dear life to the driver and the bike.
In the evening, women from surrounding hill tribes started arriving by foot in Sa Pa for the weekend market. By Saturday morning Sa Pa was transformed into a different town, with women everywhere dressed in traditional embroidery, tassels, beads, quilts, scarves, wraps and skirts indicative of their tribe. For them the weekend market is a place to buy, barter, eat, catch up with friends, make some money, engage with the tourists (not many) and check out the local scene. For us it was a rare and treasured look at a culture fairly well preserved in the context of the world, and a prelude to the deeper, darker Bac Ha market we would see the next day.