Saturday, November 28, 2009


We arrived at Lao Cai at about 5,30a.m. 27/11/2009 morning, by night train from Hanoi. At Lao Cai Railway station you can feel that the air is cold. I first I thought Lao Cai is a small town, but it actually is a big border town between Vietnam and China. The population of the Lào Cai province is a mosaic of ethnic groups. Visitors can meet 24 ethnic groups, each with its own language, culture and traditions. This cultural wealth is explained by the diversity of landscapes and of land available for farming. History also offers clues as to why the highlands in the Lào Cai province served as a refuge for certain ethnic groups during political unrest like the Taiping rebellion in 19th-century China. The seven most numerous ethnic groups in the Lào Cai province account for over 90% of the whole population. They are the Kinh (the true Vietnamese) 35%, the Hmong 22%, the Tay 14%, the Dao (Mien) 13%, the Thai 9%, the Nung 4.5% and the Giay 4.3%. The other ethnic groups: the Phula, Hani, Latis, Tu Di, Pin Tao, Tu Lao, Pa Di, Sapho, Lolo and the Xa Mang are sometimes represented only by a few villages and a few hundred individuals

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27-11-2009, Sapa, Vietnam
Trekking to Ta Van Village
Home Stay

A van took us to Sapa. The drive from Lao Cai to Sa Pa is 38 km, but it take one hour to make our way up the mountain. It is a winding mountain road, on the way we can see tribal people walking at the road side. The view of the valley from the mountain road is so beautiful, with the terraced rice field and river. You feel like stopping the van and come down to the valley. However some passenger cannot stand the winding road and feel uneasy.

Sa Pa or Sapa is a frontier town and district in the Lào Cai province in northwest Vietnam. Sapa lies in the Northwest section of Vietnam on the Hoang Lien Son mountain range. Mount Fansipan which lies about 19 km from Sapa at 3,143 meters above sea level, makes this the highest peak in Vietnam. Now, the area is considered a Mecca for hikers due to its supreme trekking terrain. Sa Pa is about 380km from Hanoi and in the mountains where it is often wet with mist or rain, and can be cold, and it was reported that ice fell last week. Snow fall in coldest month(December and January) on the highest peak.

It is one of the main market towns in the mountain area, where many ethnic minority groups such as H'mong, Dao, Zay, Zao and Tay live. Sa Pa is a quiet mountain town and home to a great diversity of ethnic minority peoples. The total population of 36,000 consists mostly of minority groups. Besides the Kinh (Viet) people (15%) there are mainly 5 ethnic groups in Sapa: Hmong 52%, Dao 25%, Tay 5%, Giay 2% and a small number of Xa Pho. Approximately 7,000 live in Sapa, the other 36,000 being scattered in small communes throughout the district.

Most of the ethnic minority people work their land on sloping terraces since the vast majority of the land is mountainous. Terraced rice fields in Sapa are the effort and hard work of the H’Mong and Dao(or Dzar) people. Terraced fields owned by H’Mong, Dao and Giay people are located in Muong Hoa valley. This is the combination between cultivation of wet rice in narrow valleys of Giay people and cultivation on high mountains of H’Mong and Dao people. The authority of Sapa is planning to apply to UNESCO to list Sapa's terraced rice field as world heritage.

In Muong Hoa valley, Lao Chai district, visitors can observe a complex of terraced fields from Muong Hoa stream to the middle of the mountain, totalling around In this area, the beauty of terraced fields is outstanding thanks to the vast space. Another beautiful terraced field area is Suoi Thau, which was created by Dao people.

Seven most magnificent terraced fields in the world as voted by Travel & Leisure: Banaue (Philippines), Yuangyang (Yunnan, China), Ubud (Bali, Indonesia), Annapurna (Nepal), Mae Rim (Chiang Mai, Thailand), Sapa (Lao Cai, Vietnam), and Long Ji (Kuei Lin, China). Sapa’s terraced fields were recently recognized as one of the world’s seven most beautiful and magnificent terraced fields in the world by US-based Travel & Leisure magazine. There are some terraced field tours in Sapa, including two major tours: From Sapa town to Ly Lao Chai – Ta Van and Sapa town – Ly Lao Chai – Ta Van – Ban Ho – Thanh Phu – Suoi Thau. We took the trekking route of Sapa-Ly Lao chai-Ta Van - Sapa, which is the shortest.

After checking in the Sapa Global Hotel at 18,Pham Xuan Huan, we have time to freshen up after a long night train from Hanoi, and journey of maintain road. I have a room with good view of the mountain and the town, it is room 301. This is a nice hotel, the only set back is the 4 floor hotel has no lift to take you to the 4th floor.

After breakfast at the hotel, we were allotted with a tour guide, and started our trekking to the mountain. The trekking guide , a Black Hmong girl named Ci was our guide to the mountain and the minority villages. We have no time to explore Sapa town.

The weather was fine for trekking, with a lot of sunshine, which was better than the weather forecast I received earlier. It was reported by a Singaporean group that last week the weather is rainy, and the trekking was difficult. It is a blessing for our trekking and our stay in Sapa. When we start to trek, there are many black Hmong tribal women and children following us, some of them try to sell their handicraft, a good people helping you and talking with you on the way.

The first part of the trekking is on the road from Sapa town to mountain road to a village, but we soon turn to the right and walk on a small path down the valley to the Muong Hoa River and from here to the Black H’mong village Lao Chai. They called the valley Muong Hoa Valley. Black H’mong is one of the biggest minority groups in the Sapa area. They are proud of their culture and keep their traditions and way of living alive. They have their own language and wear traditional indigo blue clothing.

It was a long journey of trekking for the whole day. We walked across the paddy field and the stream. Walking across the hanging bridge(suspension bridge) to reach a village called Lao Chai, a black Hmong village. There was a restaurant near the hanging bridge, many tribal people are waiting there for the tourists to buy their handicraft. They are able to speak conversation English to sell their goods. The soft voices of " Bye form me", " where are you from",.... you will be surprise that the tribal people speak better English than the Viet. We have our lunch at the restaurant, the restaurant have a view of the stream from the top. The stream with the clear water flowing through the rocks in the stream and the rock at the bank, form a beautiful picture for photo taking.

After lunch and enough of rest at the restaurant, we continued our journey. Passing through a Black Hmong village, we witnessed a group of male Hmong weighting the black pigs, ready for the sale in the market the next day. A child was carrying a rodent(rat), I think it must be for the family dinner tonight. We also saw marble carving work sites along the way in the village. They produced some beautiful handicraft which are for sale in Hanoi and other places. There was also one school on the way, where the teachers and villages are having a project building something together.

At night we stay at Ta Van village, a home stay for a night at the minority village of Zay or Dzay. Ta Van village, surrounded by the apple green of a bamboo forest, the huts are made of wood. Some are two-storey, with smart concrete patios and television antennae. Ta Van is home to Zay people, who dress in Chinese-style shirts and bright headscarves. They are more affluent than their neighbours. Most Zay go to secondary school; many go to university, move to the cities and send money home.

The Zay peopele(Giay, Nhang, Dang, Pau Thin, Pu Na, Cui Chu and Xa)

The Giay(热依族) (pronounced”Zay”) are a relatively small minority group, with a population of around 40,000, living at high altitudes in Lao Cai, Lai Chau and Ha Giang provinces. They are concentrated in Bat Xat, Bao Thang and Muong Khuong districts (Lao Cai Province); Yen Minh and Dong Van districts (Ha Giang Province); Phong Tho and Muong Te districts (Lai Chau Province); and Cao Bang Province. The Giay speak a Tai language. Traditional Giay society is feudal, with a strict demarcation between the local aristocracy and the peasant classes. All villagers work the communal lands, living in closely knit villages of stilthouses. The development has meant that some of their old customs have been lost but many women still wear traditional shirts with a purple, blue or green colour. Men wear trousers, short vests and wind a turban around their heads. Women wear a highly coloured shirt, circular panel sewn around the collar and a shirt-fastening on the right shoulder, and trousers. They wear their hair wound around their head or wind it in a turban. The woman dress look like Chinese traditional dress. On formal occasions, women may also wear a chequered turban. The Zay/Giay houses are built in wood and bamboo with clay floor. They are more modern compared to other tribal people in Sapa. Giay people historically was sub-tribe of Buyei or Puyi(布依族); of Guizhou province, China, who come to Vietnam through Yunan.

We stay overnight with a local Zay family in Ta Van and have our dinner there. All the foreigners home stay in the village are scattered in various village houses. Our host is an elderly couple, with their daughter in law helping them in housework. Ci, our guide help the host to prepare our dinner.

At night we went to the house where more visitors are staying, as there is a billiard table and more people are there, talking and laughing....We met the 3 Malaysian girls who stay at the house. Ci,our guide was playing billiard with the handsome German boy. Their bet is the German boy to buy blanket from her if she win, and if she lost she is to pay for the beer. I also met a Jew from Israel and a woman from Argentina, two girls from Spain,others are from Germany. The wife of that host house is able to speak good Mandarin, as she had been working in Taiwan for some time. She has just deliver a baby girl,and is under breast feeding. She is the daughter of our host.

The night is really cold, and the night outside the house is total darkness. We have a late night before going to bed.

The sleep is different from the city; is is a very quite night.....

28-11-2009 Sapa, Vietnam
Trekking to Waterfall
Night at Hotel in Sapa town

Today, 28-11-2009, it is another day of trekking.

Prior to departure from the village, I took an early walk along the village path to the stream. It was down the terrace paddy field, half way I saw Sarah from Australia is also heading for the stream. The stream is cold and one local woman attempt to cross the stream.
Sarah have her quite time there, and I return to the host house after have a short view of the stream.

We said good bye to our host after breakfast. The breakfast consist of pan cake and banana, with honey. We bid farewell to the host family and continue our visit to Red Dao people at Giang Ta Chai. The Red Dao women have very colourful red embroideries and coins on their clothing.They wear a red scarf on their head. Some of the women have shaved off their eyebrows because of a nice Red Zao’ Legend. We walk across the terrace paddy field, crossing the hill and reach a waterfall(Giang Ta Chai Waterfall), and rest there. Some of the brave one climb over the rock and sit at the edge of the rock to view the scenery from the top. Our foot were tired, some fell and injured their legs, but despite that we enjoyed our trekking. The view from the mountain is beautiful. We have lunch at a rest house near the hanging bridge at Giang Ta Chai village, not far from the waterfall. Ci prepared the lunch. Again some black Hmong and Red Dzar/Red Dao/Zao girls are around to sell their handicraft. Giang Ta Chai village is inhabited by Red Dzar/Zao or Red Dao people.

We also visited the Red Dzar/Red Dao tribal village, and their school. Ci told us Red Dzar tribal people are the poorest in the town. Looking at the house we believed what Ci said. The house only have bare necessity.

The Dao people
The Dao or Dzao((pronounced "Zao") , known as the Man or Yao(瑤族) in south-west China for centuries, also number a few tens of thousands in Laos ( Lao Tours ), Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma).
The Dao-Mien settled in Vietnam two to three centuries ago, depending on the area. One of the Dao's specific cultural features is their traditional writing system using Chinese characters. Preserved texts make it possible to trace their origins back to the provinces of south China. Their taoist religion is also based on texts. For major taoist ceremonies, the ritual space must be surrounded with painted pictures of the divinities and celestial generals. As a consequence, the art of painting on paper and canvas survives among the Dao. Like the Hmong, the Dao build terraced paddy-fields irrigated by a sophisticated system of canals around Sa Pa. They also have a reputation for pig and horse breeding.
The different Dao groups from the Lao Cai province usually wear red headdresses or red pieces of clothing. The Dao (Ké Mien) from the Taphin and Tavan villages (Sa Pa district) wear flat headdresses, totally red, hung with silver coins. The headdresses of the Dao (Ké Mien) from Muong Hum district (north of Sa Pa) are cone-shaped and made of red flowery material. The Bac Ha (Ké Moun) Dao enhance their turbans with red and pink wool or silk threads. The headdresses of the Dao (Iu Mien) from Van Ban district – south of Sa Pa – are decorated with red and yellow pompoms, and hang low down their backs.
They wear similar hairstyles - long on top, with the rest smoothly shaved. Many women shave their eyebrows as well. Women also wear a distinctive red triangular shaped turban decorated with silver coins and red tassles.

We continue along small paths in the rice fields, cross the Muong Hoa River and trek up to Su pan village of Black Hmong people. The van are at the main road near the village ready to transfer us back to Sapa. Su pan is located at the main mountain road to Sapa.

We return to the hotel at Sapa . Dinner was at the hotel.

At night visit the night market, and the Catholic Church. There is a service in the church. A short stroll in the town.

Tomorrow we are going to visit the sunday market at Ba Ha town.

Sapa, is the most wonderful part of the Vietnam tour, where the tribal people are more friendly and straight forward, unlike the lowland people involved in tourism, which is most of the time unfriendly, after discover if they cannot earned tourist money from you. The Sapa people involved in tourism are English speaking, even the tribal children, they make an effort to learn. The lowland tourism people in Vietnam, most cannot speak English; and there is not much tourist help around, no information brochures at airport, hotel and even a tourist information booth at Halong Bay(with old outdated materials). Vietnam is the most tourist information starved country that I have ever information are mainly from the internet and fellow travelers.

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