Night Train to Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sa Pa, Vietnam

March 30th, 2021

You’re in for a treat today. We’ve landed the magic carpet in Sa Pa, Vietnam for a virtual visit to the weekend market. I originally posted this story way back in 2014. I’ve updated and added a few photos. Enjoy!

More tomorrow,
Kelly

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together. This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying close to home.

***

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 northern Vietnam near the border with China, and the town is home to numerous hill tribes (minority ethnic groups) including Black Hmong, Flower Hmong and Red Dao. Sa Pa’s remote location contributes to its success in retaining a level of cultural authenticity increasingly hard to find elsewhere.

The most delicious pho

The most delicious pho

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.

Streets of Sa Pa

Streets of Sa Pa

Sa Pa market

Sa Pa market

Sa Pa market

Sa Pa market

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. (I’ll spare you the photo.) Lunch table at the market 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.

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sa Pa sits at an elevation of 4,900 feet/1,500 meters. The high location and wet climate creates a lush, green landscape with cool temperatures in the evenings. Wrapped in fog, the surrounding mountains come in and out of view throughout the day. Looking into the valleys, most hillsides are terraced for growing rice.

Sa Pa countryside

Sa Pa countryside

Rush hour

Rush hour

The walk to Cat Cat Village

The walk to Cat Cat Village

From Sa Pa, we walked a couple miles downhill to Cat Cat village. The scenes along the way painted a portrait of daily life here, 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 to Sa Pa — the two of us hanging on for dear life as the driver steered the bike.

Kids in the valley

Kids in the valley

Local incense production

Local incense production

Smoking, Sa Pa style

Smoking, Sa Pa style

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sa Pa, Vietnam

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 hill tribe.

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sa Pa weekend market

Sa Pa weekend market

Red Dao Hill Tribe

Red Dao Hill Tribe

Streets of Sa Pa

Streets of Sa Pa

Black Hmong Hill Tribe

Black Hmong Hill Tribe

Catching up with friends

Catching up with friends

Tchu, who gave me a bracelet

Tchu, who gave me a bracelet

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Hill tribe dress and ornamentation

Hill tribe dress and ornamentation

Kids at the market

Hill tribe embroidery at the market

Hill tribe embroidery at the market

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sa Pa, Vietnam

For all the women of the hill tribes, 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 Bac Ha market we would see the next day.

Sa Pa, Vietnam

Sa Pa, Vietnam

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