After a long 9 hour overnight train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai and another hour van ride up the mountains from Lao Cai, we found ourselves at the elevation of 1650m above sea level at mountainous Sapa Village, Vietnam. We were having breakfast at the Little Gecko, a pleasant small restaurant at the side street near the plaza. It was just opening that morning that chairs and tables were still being arranged by the lone staff. It’s funny how she just left us all alone the restaurant to buy/get the needed ingredients for our 30,000 VND breakfast meal.
Sapa Village is located North West of Hanoi, close to the border of China. It is said to be a charming mountain village and I was expecting something like our very own Sagada. Honestly, when we came into the village, despite the gloomy gray clouds which is usually associated on the highlands, I was a bit surprised how sophisticated it already is. Well paved roads, lots of 5-10 story rise french-inspired buildings, ATM machines and restaurants. It looked more like our earlier Baguio but cleaner.
It’s not to tell that I was disappointed with the fact that it has been overrun by development. I guess with the influx of backpacker tourists in the area, it became a money-making venture to put up as much as many accommodations to cater for more visitors. The thought led me to worry about our very own Sagada which I haven’t visited for a couple of years now. Am I looking into what could be the future of Sagada if we let in development take in like what happened here?
It’s not hard to compare this with Sagada since the layout is somewhat similar, with the Sapa Church and the big open field beside it. The tourist center and the various exit points to different sites around the village. I guess the big difference here is the large presence of Ethnic Minorities in the village which truly adds color with their intricate garbs and wares.
Of the Ethnic Minorities in Sapa, there are two dominant ethnic groups that also have their own branch minorities. These two are the Hmongs and the Daos. I guess the more charming elements I consider in this village are the presence of these minorities which are thankfully still wearing their traditional garbs. Whether they are peddling their trinkets, textiles or wares or may they be kids going to schools.
The Hmong are Sino-Tibetan descent. They are known for their embroidery and batiks. There are a number of branches of Hmongs settled in different villages like the Flower Hmong, White Hmong, Red Hmong and the more popular Black Hmongs. The Black Hmongs are easy to recognize with their black indigo shirt and skirt, black pillbox on their head and black leg warmers. They are scattered around Sapa Village and easy to spot due to their group numbers. Sometimes, they could be very persistent when they are selling their trinklets and wares. Still they are freindly folks who just want to earn a living.
The Dao (pronounced as Zao) is another popular minority found within Sapa Village. They are Chinese Ethnic tribe which migrated to Vietnam as early as the 13th century. Like the Hmongs they have several branches as well, but the more popular Red Daos are easy to find in the village. Their striking red turban decorated with tassels and bells will easily catch your eye. They also wear black trousers highlighted by their rich patterned red embroideries. They also sell their wares along the streets. Some Daos shave their heads and eyebrows since they believe it to be a sign of beauty.
The clothing as you’ll notice are usually layered and long since it is usually cold in these mountain villages that at winter, temperature drops below zero. Occasional fogs blankets the area as well reducing visibility. Just a note when buying something at stalls or any stores. HAGGLE! Some people can be really exploitative on their prices. Like the first map we bought at a low price of 25,000 VND, when we want to buy another and asked from a different stall they charged us 75,000 VND which is outrageously triple the price! We eventually got it for the price we got for the first map. But if people don’t really know the real prices here, it can be real eay to get duped.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.