Hiking among the terraced rice fields in the mountains of northern Vietnam by Aaron Joel Santos
Until 2016, those who wanted to conquer the 3,143m summit of Mount Fansipan had to trek for two or three days. Today, a 6km long cable car journey can whisk people to the top in just 15-minutes.
Either way you reach it, the views on a clear day from the ‘Roof of Indochina’ are unmatched, affording the opportunity to survey the Hoang Lien National Park from its very highest vantage point.
A number of markets take place in the hills surrounding Sapa every week, but the most famous and one of the most visually striking is that in Bac Ha, a three hour journey from town.
Every Sunday this sleepy little town bursts into life as hundreds of traders decked out in their finest traditional garb descend on the market area. Ethnic minorities represented here include the Dzao, Han, Xa Fang, Tay and Thai, to name just a few.
The market is a full-on assault on the senses. For the eyes, there is a riot of colour with the clash of each group’s traditional garb; for the ears, the sound of excited haggling in a myriad of languages and the laughter of groups boisterously raising glasses of rice wine; and for the nose, the scent of open fires over which pots of pho (noodle soup) simmer, sending hints of star anise into the air.
Once the market shuts up shop and the day-tripping tourists head back to Sapa, Bac Ha returns to its sleepy Monday - Saturday existence, meaning this is a good place to head if the tourist-centric nature of Sapa isn’t for you.
A choice of day treks from Sapa town are possible under your own steam and without a guide. Their proximity to Sapa means the minority villages they pass through have become rather commercialised, but they are nonetheless worthy of exploration, particularly if you can rise early and beat the crowds. Cat Cat and Ta Phin are two of the most popular options.
Those wishing to strike out further into the landscape should opt for an overnight trek. Wander through the rice terraces, bathe in waterfall plunge pools and sleep in a traditional family home. Treks range in difficulty, and there is an option for people of all abilities and opportunities to stay in a Black H’mong, Red Dao or other minority village and experience traditional community life and farming firsthand.
It’s also possible to stay outside the tourist hub of Sapa town in more modern comfort at the mountain-top Topas Ecolodge an hour’s drive away. Here, individual bungalows with private balconies circle two hills tops overlooking verdant valleys. Rice terraces come right up to the lodge itself meaning you’re almost as likely to brush shoulders with a Red Dao farmer as another guest. Treks are also on offer in this area meaning you’ll be further away from the crowds.
Those in search of knock-out views but feel less inclined to trek for them need look no further than Vietnam’s highest mountain pass, the O Quy Ho, also known as the Tram Ton. Hire some wheels and ride skywards from Sapa. The views back down toward town are good, but it’s the landscape that opens up after cresting the pass that bring people here. An enticing ribbon of road leads the eye down to the valley floor where a white water river rushes among fields while lush green mountains stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see.
Mountain biking is an excellent way to get out and explore some of the lesser-visited corners of the area, with companies offering half, full and multi-day adventures. Those looking for the ultimate two-wheeled adrenaline fix should time a visit for the Vietnam Mountain Bike Marathon, a multi-day stage race in November. Alternatively, people who like to keep their feet on the ground while racing should pencil in the Vietnam Mountain Marathon. Now in its fourth edition, it attracts over 1000 competitors to run buffalo-beaten trails from a bamboozling 100km to a more manageable 10km in length.
With just a day in Sapa head for a morning trek to one of the nearby minority villages before enjoying some minority dishes with a jaw-dropping valley view at the Hill Station Signature back in town. In the afternoon, head up to the top of the O Quy Ho Pass for some of the finest views in the land.
The best way to spend two days in Sapa is to head out into the hills on an overnight trek. Wander through the rice terraces, bathe in crystal clear waters and sleep and dine in a traditional ethnic minority family home.
Visit in September and October when the rice terraces are at their most splendid or April and May when the weather is fine and the skies clear. June to August is the best period for those who like it hot.
Overnight trains offer the most romantic way to reach Sapa via the province capital, Lao Cai. Alternatively regular buses run from Hanoi with a journey time of around 6 hours.
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