There is really not that many places that can match Sa Pa in its majestic yet cute appearance, chaotic charm in the town and eternal peace of the mountains around, its crisp mountain air and surreal foggy clouds, and of course its people.
Sa Pa is a tiny mountain town located about 20km from Chinese border and 5km from Indochina's highest mountain peak Fansipan with elevation of more than 3,000 metres above sea level. The area is home to various hill tribes - Red Dzao (Yao) people, Lahu people, Hmong people, Tay people, Giay people, and each has its own distinct culture, language, and traditions.
Me and Red Dzao lady at the market.
These people live in these hills for centuries and most of them haven't been more than 50km away from their village - respectively most of them haven't seen sea, a bathtub, skyscrapers, airplanes, Internet, etc. - that's probably one of the few places where "apple" would mean just that - an apple.
Most of these people don't have passports or ID. As far as we could understand Vietnamese government doesn't consider them as citizens, and it doesn't seem to be a problem for these people since being called Vietnamese is a sort of an insult to them. These are artful, positive, nimble, proud and perky people - sometimes they even make jokes about Vietnamese being barbaric in comparison to them (e.g. because Vietnamese eat dog meat)
Hills around Sa Pa have hundreds of villages of these different tribes sharing the land comfortably. Each tribe's village has a distinct language, so sometimes 1 km of village road can be shared between 2 different tribes and people won't understand each other even though they live 50 metres from each other - that's when they would speak Vietnamese which is taught in schools. Sa Pa is the trading center for them - that's where the women would come every day covering 10km or more on foot to trade their crafts and look for travelers who would like a guided tour and homestay in their village in exchange for the promise to buy some of the crafts and souvenirs and some money for accommodation and food.
Interestingly, with life conditions being pretty tough - weather, wilderness, hard physical labor, lack of better paying jobs, women are the providers, traders, crafters and workers. Men are generally less in number and are mostly seen drinking beer or local moonshine with their buddies (same as in many other parts of Vietnam)
In order to get to Sa Pa you need to take 7-9 hr night bus or train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai - the capital of the district. We did train from Hanoi central station - the tickets vary from $15-25 depending on how likely you are to get ripped off + the station in Hanoi is obviously made for no one else except locals to figure out, and locals know that you're likely to miss your train because it's very hard to figure out where it's departing from. So if you're ready to get a bit more ripped off - a local "station guide" will spot you by the desperate or pissed off look in your eyes and will guide you to your train for some donation.
The train is generally comfy, but sleeping is still hard because the train picks up new passengers on the way very frequently, so the atmosphere in the train is pretty much bazar-like all the time. In Lao Cai you need to get a mini van to go another 20km to reach Sa Pa.
One interesting feature of Sa Pa tourist industry is that no matter what the weather is - there is no heating unless it's a very expensive place. The rooms are not exactly hermetically separated from the outside. The temperature in the evenings in November gets around 5-10C, fog and drizzle are likely as well. Renting an electric heater will cost additionally. Even with electric heater on most days you don't take off your 3 layers of socks, scarfs, hat and jacket in your room. So yeah - this is not something for comfort lovers.
Main streets in Sa Pa are very cute - cobbled stairs running up and down, small shops, cafes, tiny terraces and BBQ stalls everywhere. Hot Vietnamese coffee and occasional hot pumpkin soup is the way to go when walking around the town.
City market is another attraction - its the main trade place for tribe people, you can find all sorts of things here - traditional costumes and jewelry, silver and metal crafts, colorful handmade clothes, home decor, magic potions, woo-doo ingredients, all sorts of meat including deer and dog.
After some time in the town we decided to do the homestay in a Tay tribe village. To reach the village you need: a guide, warm clothes, rubber boots and a lot of stamina. The trip starts at 7am and you reach your destination at around 4pm, in between you walk, crawl, slide on your butt, climb, wade in the water and try not to break your neck through rice terraces and bamboo forests. The tribe women know that most people who go for homestay are not athletic enough for this kind of journey, so they tag along - help you out, hold your hands, push you through and cheer you up on the way - you thank them by buying some souvenirs from them. These women are 60-70 years old, but they jump, run and climb like young mountain goats. I should send my grandmas for a bootcamp here :)
Despite feeling miserable and extremely clumsy, what you see and experience is worth every bruise on your butt and every fall into mud.
The house we stayed in is owned by a Tay tribe woman who lives in the house with her son and a cat. The house is made out of wood, first floor is occupied by kitchen and living room, second floor terrace has mattresses for guests like us. Of course there is no heating except the fireplace in the kitchen and fire pit in the living room, so us two, another guest from India and Mito the cat spent most of the time by the fire pit while the hostess was preparing the dinner.
The dinner was excellent - 5 different dishes + soup and rice. What else - well, of course the moonshine. Tribe people, same as Vietnamese, like to get drunk fast - so the shot glasses are never empty and the hosts will generally make sure that everyone is getting properly drunk. Drinking is accompanied by Vietnamese drinking "slogan" that sounds like Ma Hai Bai Yo which gets repeated and gradually becomes an accelerated chanting/yelling (the words actually mean 1, 2, 3, 4! and are spelled a bit differently) Fun!
Pan, our guide - 16 year old Hmong tribe girl told us a bit more about village life and enlightened us about some interesting tribe life details, for example they don't know what is a birthday and when their birth dates are, they have shamanistic culture and every village has its own woman shaman, the girls choose husbands and bring them into mother's house, husbands then take new tribe's name, every village, not individuals, has a "last name" so everyone from the same village will have the same last name; girls' names usually are flower or plant names, etc.
"If you don't have a sandbox" - village kids playing.
Pan has been a guide since around 10-12 yo, she can sing, do some math, sew, speak, write and read Vietnamese, but the most mind blowing fact is that she doesn't know how to read or write in English, she learned to speak English by the sound of it - just listening to travelers speaking in Sa Pa town! I think that's incredible.
After dinner we went to sleep upstairs - you sleep in your jacket, scarf, hat, gloves and covered with two 5cm thick blankets. It's 0 C outside and the walls have huge cracks :)
Next day after breakfast we covered another 7km of rice terraces, forests, visited several villages and waterfalls. We took a bag of candies with us and it was fun to share them with kids in the villages.
It was a great adventure and I think I'd do it again!