Night Train to 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!
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.
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. (I’ll spare you the photo.) 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 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.
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.
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.
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.