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A walk in the clouds
Sapa’s cool climate and magnificent green vistas first attracted the attention of French colonizers in 1909, but the minority people of this frontier valley have working in the shadow of Fansipan Mountain for much longer. One traveler takes a peek at the landscape, the people, and cultures of Sapa.
Like most traveling to Sapa, my journey to the hill town started in a sleepy train station café in Hanoi the night before, it was 9 pm and already pitch – black when I joined a waiting room of fatigued locals who were milling about and stirring Styrofoam cups of iced ca phe, trying to keep their eyes on their baggage and over – excited children. The most popular train option is an over – night sleeper, departing Hanoi in the evening to arrive in Lao Cai early the next day.
Travelers are likely to end up sitting with a cheerful Vietnamese family who is eager to share smiles and their supplies of fresh fruit during the ten –hour journey. Awakening early the next morning, rural images race by the window: rolling green pastures, lakes, and small enclaves of houses.
At the platform in Lao Cai a fleet of minibuses waits for new arrivals. It’s only 38 km to Sapa, but the winding drive takes two hours. The scenery is magnificent the verdant green vista of farm plots, terraced rice paddies and low – land valleys make the journey pass quickly.
Situated 1, 600 meters above sea level, temperatures are always cool, averaging a comfortable 15 – 180C. Though bitterly cold in winter, the mountain air provides a perfect escape from the punishing summer heat of Hanoi. Locals say that you can experience all four seasons in one day in Sapa. Many H’mong women carry long umbrellas to shield themselves from both the rain and hot sun, using the sturdy metal spike as a walking stick through muddy slopes.
Fansipan Mountain, nine Kilometers northwest of Sapa, offers challenging hikes. At 3, 143 meters, Fansipan is the highest peak in Vietnam and in all of Indochina, obscured by clouds year-round and with temperatures often dropping well below zero. The name “Fansipan” derives from a rough pronunciation of the local mane “Hua Xi Pan’ which means “the tottery giant rock.” Now recognized as a unique ecotourism area, Fansipan is home to 2, 024 floral varieties and 327 faunal species.
Altogether, there are 14 ethnic minorities living in the surrounding area. The earliest records of the H’mong show they once ruled much of the area around what is now Beijing, but now over 7 milion H’mong people are scattered across south China, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos (700, 000 H’mong live in North Vietnam). Although it is over 1, 000 years since they ruled their own nation, H’mong people retain their cultural identity and their language.
The best way to experience Sapa is to take a guided trek through the village, as many pleasant walks pass through nearby villages. Many homes have no electricity and are lit inside by a smoldering heap of embers dug into the dirt floor. It can take a while for your eyes to adjust to the dimness before the shapes of tools, cooking utensils, and other trappings of rural life become clearly defined. I watched pigs snuffle contentedly outside in their pens and chickens enter doorways in squawking flurries of feathers, chased by giggling, roughly hewn planks, chatting quietly in their native tongue an taking occasional breaks to puff on gurgling water pipes.
The loft spaces of village houses remain empty until the early fall when the rice paddies have yellowed and ripened for harvest. Then, whole families will work together to reap and pack the grains, storing rice under the hut roof to keep fed during the punishing winter months.
Although the indigo jackets of the Black H’mong are more prominent by their shaven heads and structure eyebrows. They remove the hair from the front of their heavy red headscarves heaped on top. And many are happy to show visitors exactly how they create the towering caps of tasseled cloth. Some carry babies across their backs, wrapped in a brightly colored swaddles. Often only the top of the baby’s head is visible, a tiny red dome covered in auspicious mirrored embellishments, embroidery and tassels “It’s for luck,” the mother explains. “If you like, you can buy…”
Every member of the family has responsibilities, even the youngsters. The children attend school in the morning, taught by Vietnamese teachers, and return to help their parents in the terraces, these benevolent beasts are well cared for by the children. I saw one boy strewn across his buffalo’s back, fast asleep, as another aged five or six herded a small herd of jet – black goats up the road, skipping behind then as his tiny rubber boots splashed through small rivulets.
The influx of tourist has given the local ethnic minorities has given the local ethnic minorities a reliable source of income. Before they traded rice, cardamom or other produce at the markets, but now they sell tourist keepsakes such as embroidered textiles, bags, and etched earrings. Despite the increased income, critics worry that ethnic minorities might lose touch which their culture, as they sell off their exquisite garments and handmade crafts, and use products made cheaply in China and sold in Vietnamese markets.