Sapa district (or Sa Pa) is located in Lao Cai province, 350 km from Hanoi, close to the border with China. The Hoang Lien Son range of mountains dominates the district, which is at the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. This range includes Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan Mountain at 3,142m above sea level, and a vast area covered by thick forest, which is very rich in wildlife. The township of Sapa lies on a hill station at the attitude of about 1,600m and was built by the French into a famous summer resort with some hundred colonial villas which was well-known as “ Tonkin’s Alps” . The complicated terrain of Sapa including steeped high mountains with sharp cuts and large valleys, many streams of water in combination with sloped terraced paddies form magnificent scenery.
Famous for its breathtaking landscapes, Sapa is also an ideal inhabitation for a great diversity of ethnic minority peoples. It is likely that, Sapa was first inhabited by highland minorities of H’mong and Zao groups who immigrated from southern provinces of China, later came the Tay, Zay, and a small number of Xa Pho to form the 5 main ethnic groups which takes about 85% of the district’s population today. The Vietnamese, in small number, immigrated from lower land to the region, mainly living in town, working in government offices, schools, hospital or running their own mini hotels, shops, … while most other ethnic peoples live in small hamlets and villages scattering on the mountains and valleys throughout the district. Until middle of 20th Century, the H’mong and Zao, majority of Sapa’a population, still lived shifting style and practiced slash and burn agriculture which caused huge damages to the nature. Nowadays, most of them have changed into sedentary one basing on intensive farming and work their land on sloping terraces cultivating rice and corn, since the vast majority of the land is mountainous. However self subsidiary is still the main feature of their production and lifestyle with almost no contact to the out side world until 1990 when tourism started in the region. On the other hand, due to hard weather & climate condition, only one crop can be cultivated in a year and the productivity depends much on nature thus led to a fact that food shortage is quite common here.
For nearly two decade, thanks to the all aspect development of the region in an attempt to turning Sapa into one of the country’s premier tourist destination, the local ethnic peoples has experienced great changes and enjoy invaluable benefit. Road to remote villages is continuously built and upgraded, many schools were built…and the most important one is the revolution in agriculture and fast development of tourism which helps the majority ethnic peoples in Sapa improve their live dramatically.
Luckily that in spite of all fast changes taken place in recent years, the ethnic minority peoples in Sapa still maintain well their colorful and unique culture.
Localities and attractions
1 – Sapa Town
Nested under the shadow of Fansipan mountain, Sapa Town beautifully sits on a hill top at 1,600m above sea level, viewing over the Muong Hoa valley. Being unknown until 1880s when the French arrived Sapa town was quickly became well-known for its natural beauty, fresh and cool climate. As a result, in early decades of 20th Century, It was built into a summer resort by the French with some hundred villas to accommodate their colonials to escape away from summer heat of cities in lower regions.
The resistant war against the French(1945-1955), caused a lot of damages and Sapa was almost isolated and forgotten until 1990s when tourism started again in Vietnam. Sapa woke up to welcome the first tourists in early 1990s and be developing into a large town to serve the booming tourism. Although experiencing such fast growing, the town is well maintained its own charms and resisted its harmony to the surrounding nature. From the top of Ham Rong Mountains a perfect panorama view of the town open wide with lovely architectures and buildings under the shades of pine trees which centered around the Church and market place.
2 – Cat Cat Vilage
Cat Cat is a village of the Black H’mong, about 5 Km west of Sapa Town. Located near the bottom of a deep valley right at the foot of Fansipan, the village is surrounded by high mountains and terraced rice paddies on hill slope. There is a waterfall near the village where the French built a hydraulic power station and It is really a beautiful sport. A short walk from Sapa Town to Cat Cat Village, especially in late afternoon to admire magnificent landscape is worthwhile.
3 – Muong Hoa River & Valley
Starting as a small stream of water from the foot of Silver Waterfall about 14 Km northwest of Sapa town, weaving its way along mountains’ feet southeast between the two mountain ranges. About eight kilometers southeast of Sapa town, the two mountain ranges open wider to form the Muong Hoa Valley which get wider and wider as it goes further south about 30 km. The Muong Hoa valley is famous for breathtaking scenery and is the largest farmland for rice growing in Sapa district.
4 – Y Linh Ho Village
Located about 7 km southwest of Sapa town, on the west side of Muong Hoa River. Y Linh Ho is a small commune composed by a dozen of small hamlets scattering on the very tough mountain terrain with high and steep mountains. There are some hundred inhabitants from the Black H’mong only living in this commune. They built their rudimentary houses on their farmland and mainly cultivate corn and dry rice on the steep hillsides. The only way to get to the commune is on foot from the main road. It is also the place where we start many of our hiking tours.
5 – Lao Chai Village
About 8 – 9 Km southeast of Sapa town on the west bank of Muong Hoa River, Lao Chai is a commune composed by three large villages with over 100 families of the Black H’mong ethnic. From a high point of the main road 8 Km from Sapa town, great view of the whole village open wide to offer the marvelous panorama of the village, backed by high mountains and facing the river. The H’mong people in this village experience rice intensive farming on the lower land near the bottom of the valley as main source of earning while growing corn on the mountain slopes at the back of the village.
6 – Ta Van Village
Next to Lao Chai on the same side of Muong Hoa River is Ta Van village where the Zay and H’mong ethnic people live together. This is one of the best places to see the different traditional ways of living as well as cultural assimilation. The Zay live a sedentary style and always choose the low land near valleys’ bottom and river for growing wet rice while the H’mong prefer higher elevation for corn farming. Especially some decade ago when poppy cultivation for opium was not forbidden. Recently, the H’mong changed from sifting into sedentary way of life they gradually move to lower land and learn many things from others. At this moment Ta Van can be reach by car, Jeep, mini van. However a trail up and downhill from Y Ling Ho through Lao Chai to Ta Van offers superb and romantic rout to hikers.
7 – Su Pan Village
Also located along Muong Hoa Valley like Lao Chai and Ta Van but Su Pan commune can be referred to as “mountainous commune”. Occupying the highland on the east side of the main road about 17 Km from Sapa town, Su Pan including 4 small hamlets of the Black H’mong and Red Zao looks down to the Muong Hoa Valley and is one of the poorest commune to Sapa due to the thin and poor soil. Walking uphill from the road, one can see rudimentary houses built on the rocky farmland where the locals cultivate corn for their staple food.
8 – Giang Ta Chai Village
Opposite to Su Pan on the other side of Muong Hoa River and valley is Giang Ta Chai village of the Red Zao ethnic, nested under shade of the trees and bamboo hedges near a large and magnificent waterfall. The Red Zao people here built their houses on the rocky land and little bit reserved to outsiders. From the main road, a narrow trails as a string down to the river and a romantic suspension bridge cross to the other side, passing the foot of the waterfall to the village.
9 – Ban Ho Village
At the end of the motor way about 25 Km from Sapa town lies a vast and flat valley, circled by mountains and hills. It is Ban Ho valley home to the Tay ethnic. The Muong Hoa River winds its way around the village provide fresh water for 2 crops of rice and bean every year and it make the scenery of the valley more romantic. The Tay people possesses high rice farming technique and live sedentary lifestyle. Their villages are often very large with hundred households. Their houses are impressively built on stilts in unique structure to form superb dwellings. It is also a very good village for experiencing home stay.
10 – Thanh Son – My Son – Nam Cang Villages
Lying at the southern edge of the district, about 35km from Sapa town, these three villages each consist of about 10 to 15 families are among the most remote villages and home to the Xa Pho, a very small ethnic group populated as few as nearly 4,000 in Vietnam only. Till nowadays these people rarely contact with people from other group and most of them can speak their own slang only. However schools were built in these villages recently and the children now go to school. The Xa Pho in these villages are among the poorest people in Vietnam due to backwards farming technique. They mainly live on slash and burn agriculture, hunting, gathering forest products such as bamboo shoot, mushroom. For about 10 years up to now, some projects and programs have been carrying out here in order to help villagers to handle better farming technique to improve their life but it will take time. A tough trail which takes about 5 to 6 hours walk from Ban Ho village which offers fabulous scenery and a chance to explore, meet and witness the amazingly hard life of the Xa Pho in these villages.
11 – Ma Tra & Ta Phin Villages
Lying some kilometers east of Sapa town lies a large oval shaped valley which is home to the H’mong and Red Zao of Ma Tra and Ta Phin Village. Following the main road from Sapa to Lao Cai for 4km, one can enjoy the panorama view of the whole valley, stretching for about 12 Km with some low hills in the middle to divide the valley into two parts. The closer part to the road is area of Ma Tra village and the further one is Ta Phin village where the Red Zao and Black H’mong share the land. The H’mong occupy the higher land on which they built narrow terraced rice paddies while the Red Zao cultivate larger and flat fields around the center of the valley. From over 10 years ago, a 15km motor way was built to connect the center of the valley with Sapa town and it takes only half an hour. However, It is much more interesting to follow the trail which run on high elevation around the valley for a real life discovery.
12 – Silver Waterfall & Tram Ton Heaven gate
Following the main road 4C 14km further north is the famous Silver Waterfall and 4 km more is the highest mountain pass of Vietnam which is called by locals Heaven Gate. The road ride offers great view of the magnificent Fansipan on the other side of the valley with immense lush forest. Tram Ton pass is also an ideal point for enjoying breathtaking scenery of the west side of Fansipan which is very different from the east side due to the different climate.
ETHNIC MINORITY MARKETS
A - General
Ethnic minority peoples or hill tribal peoples dominate Sapa as well as the northern mountainous region of Vietnam. Although minority people lived their traditional live basing on self subsidiary style, the need for exchanging their products is always strong. And more than that the wish of meeting others for socializing is very important which adds special significant to the meaning of markets in the mountainous region where most of the ethnic minorities live in remote and isolated villages.
As going to attend a festival, tribal peoples always wear their best colorful traditional costumes to go to the markets. After selling out their produces such as fruit, rice, corn, vegetable, handicraft, chicken, pigs or even buffaloes and horses… men gather, sitting on wooden bench at many footstalls drinking corn wine while women with children enjoying noodle soup and all talking cheerfully. Especially the markets give youngsters chances to make friend with others and seeking for lover!
It is always a fantastic experience to visitors to attend one of these local markets as part of a memorable vacation in Vietnam.
B – Ethnic Markets near Sapa in Lao Cai Province
1 – Sapa Market
Sapa market located at the center of Sapa town and and is opened every day. But it is most crowded on Saturday late afternoon and evening
Before the French built Sapa town into a town, the market place was on the sandy ground about 7 km east of the town now, at the junction of the main road to Lao Cai and the trail to Ta Phin Village. Until 1980s, when the population of the region was small and transportation was very poor, It was really hard to communicate among villages, the market offered probably the only chances once a week for H’mong and Red Zao peoples to meet others. The main market took place on Sunday but many went to the market the afternoon before because their villages were too far and it took many hours to go on foot. Of course there were no accommodation for rent then, so for passing the night they gathered around fire talking, playing their traditional music, dancing… Gradually these activities attracted the youngsters from villages near by to come and turned the market into a dating place for lovers. Nowadays, due to fast development in the region to make it easy for locals to communicate among villages, as a result, the market in Sapa has been becoming less important spiritually. However, it is still crowded every weekend and worthwhile to spend few hours to join local for a life experience.
2 – Bac Ha Market
Opened every Sunday at the center of Bac Ha township, this is the biggest ethnic market in Lao Cai Province and probably among some most interesting ones in the northern mountains. Some thousands peoples from ethnic groups including Black Zao, Tay, Phu La and Flower H’mong wearing their best traditional clothes attend the market to turn it into a kind of festival. Commodity sold at the market is varied from embroidered clothes, handicraft, farming produces, food… to poultry and cattle such as vegetable, spices, chili, chicken, cat, piggy, doggy… At the market place, after finishing their shopping, peoples gathered into groups at footstalls or restaurants enjoying “Thang Co” a kind of H’mong traditional specialty, drinking corn wine and talking cheerfully.
Some hundred meters away from the main market place is the buffaloes and horses market and it is really interesting to see the buyers carefully searching in order to find out the strengths and weaknesses of the animals before buying because a buffalo or horse is a real important property in their farming work. The best time to join the market is from 09.00 to 12.00 but it is fascinating to spend few hours earlier to see the people along the trail to the Bac Ha Market.
It is worthwhile to spend at least a day and night here to explore some ethnic villages nearby and joining the locals for the best market for a memorable experience.
* Bac Ha is located 70 km, northeast of Lao Cai City and take about 2 hours by road; 105 km from Sapa and takes 3 hours to go by road.
3 – Muong Hum Market on Sunday
Muong Hum is a large and important market in the northwest region of Lao Cai Province. Very different from Bac Ha and Sapa market which lye inside the district townships, Muong Hum Market is set on open flat land at the bottom of a large and scenic valley by a small river and surrounded by terraced rice paddies. It is often empty and quiet on the other weekday, waken up and busy on Sunday. This market is well-known as one of the most interesting Sunday market in Lao Cai province and possibly a good alternative trip to Bac Ha market for visitors thanks to the very large variety of the ethnic minority peoples to attend and quite easy to be distinguished through their traditional clothes. The flower H’mong wear thick embroidered yellow and red skirts and blouses while the Red H’mong prefer thinner red embroidered patterns on light batik background; In contrast, the Black H’mong in dark indigo with just some decorative motive at the end of the shirt sleeves and round the neck. Red Zao and Zao Tuyen wear black trousers and shirts with fine yellow embroidery motifs and pay much attention to the decoration to their headgears including silver chains and bells. There are also many Zay, Tay and Ha Nhi people joining the market who wear less colorful clothes but no less beautiful.
* The road trip to Muong Hum takes 2.5 hours from Sapa(75km) and 1.5 hour from Lao Cai although the distant is only 42km due to tough road.
4 – Can Cau Market
Can Cau is a rural ethnic market, simply set up on the open ground at the side of a mountain, looking down a picturesque valley about 20 km north of Bac Ha. It is every Saturday morning when hundreds of ethnic peoples mainly Flower H’mong gather to sell their farming products and buy necessities. The market’s most colorful part is clothes section with shirts, blouses, skirts…or parts of the traditional costumes with embroidery patterns in different motifs lying on dark batik background but may be the most interesting section is the tobacco and wine section when buyers are allowed to taste the product before buying and many men get too drunk to buy anything more!
In the perfect light of the early morning, It is not only the colorful market and the peoples but also the beautiful surrounding nature make the visit here an unforgettable trip, especially for nature lovers and photo hunters.
* The road ride takes 30 minutes from Bac Ha(22km), nearly 3 hours from Lao Cai(90km) and about 4 hours from Sapa(Aprox 130km).
5 – Coc Ly Market on every Tuesday
Same as Can Cau, Coc Ly is a small rural market nested itself off the beaten track amongst green and fabulous forest, on a bank of the Chay River. At the crowded hours from 09.00 to 11.00, the market place is dominated by the red and yellow colors from traditional costumes of the Flower H’mong women, dotted with black color of the Black Zao and dark blue from the Tay. The H’mong and Zao from up mountain villages come to the market mainly on foot with their horses carrying their selling while the Tay live along the Chay River use their wooden boats. The best way for tourists is to take the road trip to the market and the boat downstream the Chay River for a few hours to explore this untouched area.
* the road trip takes 1.5 hour from Lao Cai or Bac Ha( About 55km) and 2 and a half hours from Sapa( 90km)
6 – Cao Son Market on Wednesday
Upstream the Chay River about 25 km to the north of Coc Ly market, near Chinese border, the remote Cao Son market is simply set in a fascinating nature and surrounded mountains which covered by lush plantation and terraced rice paddies and cornfields. Most the participants are Flower H’mong, Black Zao, Nung, Tu Di, Pa Di ethnic form villages in the surrounding region but many come from China to add more colors to the market. Cheerful and smiling faces are everywhere at the market place and the peoples behave like close friends meeting again after long time away. It is easy to realize women from different groups through traditional costumes they wear while men’s dress are similar.
More over, a trip here to the market in combine with exploring and visiting the villages nearby is a special offer to those who dare to forget modern facilities of city life and dedicate time and energy to the discovery of the local traditional values.
* The road trip here takes about 2 and a half hours from Lao Cai (75km) and 3 and a half hours from Sapa(115Km)
7 – Muong Khuong Market on Sunday
Bordering with Chinese Yunnan Procince, Muong Khuong is a district of Lao Cai Province which is home to a diversity of ethnic minority groups including H’mong, Zao, Nung, Pa Zi and Tu Zi. Located at the center of the township, Muong Khuong Market, the most important market of the local ethnic peoples takes place on every Sunday, is always crowded with some thousands minority people from early morning. The H’mong and the Zao peoples, especially women are always wear their best colorful traditional costume and take the largest number. The Tu Zi and Pazi are of minor number but their traditional costume are of special model with dark color and high top hats. There are also many ethnic minority people come from the other side of the border, who often bring cheap Chinese made commodity to add to the variety of goods for sales at the market. Beside a collection of most popular commodity such as clothes, vegetable, food, farming tools, animals… which can be found in other market in the regions, some local specialties can be found at Muong Khuong Market including resin, incense made from tree bark, and medicinal herb for treatment together with acupuncture. Our one day trip to Muong Khuong from Sapa or from Lao Cai for those clients taking Saturday night train from Hanoi offers not only a chance to join the ethnic locals at this impressive market but also many opportunities to pay visiting to near by villages and admiring stunning scenery around the region.
* Muong Khuong is 50km from Lao Cai, 1.5 hour to drive and 87km from Sapa, which takes approximately 2.5 hours.
8 – Pha Long Market Saturday
Locating just few kilometers away from Chinese border, on a hill top amongst perfect nature setting, the Pha Long Market is a very rural and seldom visited by tourists. Every Saturday morning, local peoples from H,mong, Zao, Zay, Pa Zi, Tu Zi and Tu Lao, the 3 small branches of the Bo Y group with just some thousands inhabitants, living in the villages along the border gather.
Attending the market, It is quite easy to realize that many peoples at the market know one another well because the population of the region is small and relationship among the people is strongly maintained. The market often over around noon and it is a great experience to follow some local to their village near by for an interesting discovery of local culture and living way. The market surrounding area offers breathtaking scenery of the mountain terrain featuring with lush forest, pine plantations and terraced rice paddies which dominated the low land and valleys.
* It takes 2 hours by road from Lao Cai town (68km) and 3 hours from Sapa 95km.
9 – Tam Duong & Binh Lu Market
On the west side of Hoang Lien Son mountain range in the territory of Lai Chau Province, there are two regional market being set up in the two lush valley Binh Lu and Tam Duong. The ethnic minority peoples who are different from those in Sapa are Black Zao, Zao with coins, Red H’mong and especially the Lu and Lao, whose ancestors were believed to be originated from a tribal living in Laos. With a population as small as some four thousands inhabitants the Lu and Lao people live in some large villages including some hundred houses built on stilts near rivers and stream, cultivating wet rice, corn and beans. Every day, early morning or late in the afternoon, a large number of Red H’mong and Lu often carry their gathering from the forest including mushroom, bamboo shoot, fire wood or medicinal herbs to the market in Binh Lu township about 45km from Sapa by road.
Being set up just on the side of the main road and surrounded by steep mountains and hills covered with green tea plantation, the Tam Duong market is held on every Thursdays. It is not as big and colorful as the markets in Bac Ha and Muong Hum and crowded on some moths from September to April but is worth to spend an hour attending these 2 markets as additional activity to the Northwest trip.
* The road trip here takes about 3 hours from Lao Cai (127km) and 1 and a half hours from Sapa(90Km)
10 - Lung Khau Nhin Market
Taking place every Thursday, Lung Khau Nhin Market is a small market hiding itself amongst the mountains and forests of the far north Vietnam about 10 km from the border with China. Although not being so big or famous among visitors as Coc Ly and Can Cau, Lung Khau Nhin market, be side a normal shopping place, play an important role to spiritual life of local ethnic peoples Flower H’mong, Black Zao, Zay, and especially to those who come from very small ethnic groups such as Pa Zi, Tou Zi, Tou Lao who live in small and isolated villages around this corner of the country, come for meeting, socializing...
From Lao Cai: 65Km and takes nearly 2 hours by road; From Sapa: 102km and takes about 3 hours by road
11 - Lung Phin Market
If most of the mountain markets in Vietnam happen on weekend, Lung Phin is a different one which is rich local culture meaning. This is based on the date of 12 animal designations in clued Rat, Ox, Tiger, Hare/Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep/Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. This market is every day of Monkey and Tiger.
From the late afternoon of the day before the Flower H’mong, Black Zao, Tay and Phu La peoples gather here from the surrounding areas and have one night meeting friends who come from other villages. The old people talk about their family, children, works…while young people talk about love and marriage…some of them would come with instruments and dance to warm up the cold night.
The market is right on the hillside near the main road between Bac Ha and Can Cau with some thatched huts where at the corner they tie animals.
* Lung Phin market is 12km from Bac Ha, 82km from Lao Cai and about 120km from Sapa
12 - Si Ma Cai Market on Sunday
Hiding itself in the mountains and forest at the far end of a tough road, Si Ma Cai Market is often referred to as one of the remotest tribal market of the region and rarely visited by tourists.
The name Simacai means “ horse market” in H’mong language and old peoples said that It was the biggest horse market of the region. However, life is changing fast and horses are not the only purchasing objects nowadays.
The market place is simply a large ground near the recently developed town let of Simacai District with some thatched huts built to accommodate shops and food stalls. Every Sunday, Simacai market attracts some thousands of Flower H’mong, Zao, Phu La peoples from villages in the region come to shopping, enjoying themselves meeting friends and relatives…after hard working days. They spend most of their time at the market talking, chatting and also drinking a lot.
* Simacai is 27km from Bac Ha, 98km from Lao Cai City and 135km from Sapa