Nature lovers, head for the hiking trails in Sapa!
350 km to the north-west of Hanoi, Sapa is a former French mountain resort in the north-west of Vietnam. It has become an unavoidable stopover during a tour of Vietnam. After travelling the lands of the black H'mongs by day, in the evening you can sleep in the home of a red Dzao family: a warm welcome, hearty food, a hot bath of Dzao herbs in a half-barrel outdoors (marvellous!), a great deal of rice alcohol and a bed in a dormitory will end your day's hiking, for a night with no noise other than the wind in the chinks of the wooden house. A joy after the turmoil of Vietnamese cities! The treks do not present any significant difficulties, only beautiful landscapes. You'll get the real impression that the mountain has been carved by the hand of man. If you want to enjoy the lush green rice paddies, go there in August or September, when the rice is young, almost neon-green! There are also a few artichokes and buffaloes to plough the fields. The most adventurous and athletic among you will set out to conquer the Fansipan, the highest peak of Indochina at 3,143 metres. From its summit, you can see China to the north, the Dien Bien Phu range and Laos to the west. If you get the chance, this is an exceptional hike and will be among the high points of your stay in Viet Nam.
Sapa is also a huge tourist village and the women from minority ethnic groups have very quickly learned business English and use it to sell fabrics, embroidered clothes, jewellery... it's not quite harassment, but not far from it. In any case, you are almost obliged make a small purchase to buy your right of way, otherwise they will continue to follow you on the trails. It's a strange sight to see the procession of tourists accompanied by two or three women in traditional costume bent under the weight of their wares. You may regret the paved roads that facilitate travel, the telephone poles and electrical wires that pollute the landscape, but a good half day of walking will take you to quieter places in the heart of a beautiful natural environment. Another downside, it gets cold in Sapa! The town is situated at quite a high altitude and enjoys moderate temperatures throughout the year. Snow is quite frequent in winter and when it isn't snowing, fog and drizzle come to replace it! So plan ahead, even if you will find all kinds of shops on the spot to sell you the latest copies of all the well known brands of mountain clothing.
You will hear about the H'mong and Dzao communities, the most frequent in the region. The H'mong are more numerous and are renowned as traders. As for the Dzao, they are recognisable by their traditional clothes and their red headdresses. Even if their appearance suggests that time has stopped at their doorsteps, most possess cell phones or even the internet at home. So, this is not exactly a place where you will be cut off from the rest of the world!