Sapa: 7 Tribes and the Hill Station


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Sapa is a small town. As an example, if you’re at the center of the city a 10 minute walk in any direction will get you into either rice paddies or the woods. The town itself used to be a retreat for French soldiers. The results of which are French architecture, cafes, and pastries. Stick with the Vietnamese coffee. First off it’s great and anything else will leave you a little disappointed. I had a croissant at a cafe in town – don’t expect a croissant and you’ll enjoy it. It’s more of a sweet “King Hawaiian” roll in the shape of a croissant; still good, just different.

Surrounding the town there are villages comprised of 7 different tribes. They each have their own customs, traditional dress, and language. Around town the women from the villages are about selling handicrafts and offering tours to the villages. You won’t find many if any men doing this as it is considered women’s work around here. When I first got off the bus I was approached by a number of women offering tours and the like. One of them showed me to my hostel so I agreed to take a tour with her the following day.

My “tour guide” could not write so I’m making a bold guess that her name is spelled Ple. We met up at 9am and started walking. I figured it would be a nice walk through the woods to a village somewhere, relax, have some food and then head back to town. It was, but the walk would be 8 hours up and down mountain-sides. Part of which was a 100 yard walk across a balance beam of mud through the rice paddies. For the most-part it wasn’t too far to fall if you slipped, but as I learned the mud in the rice paddies is deep and everything is designed to draw you in. I think most people make it through these treks relatively clean with a little mud on their boots and nothing more. I did not fare as well and ended up being covered in mud – luckily my face and most of my torso managed to stay out of the muck. Ple was nice enough to bring me to a creek to rinse off. At any rate, the scenery is truly awe-inspiring.

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Ple was a few years older than me; she’s married and has 3 children. She is Hmong and moved to her village 15 years ago when she married her husband who she had never met before. Her parents live very far away and would take 4 days to walk to. The marriage was arranged, but mostly out of necessity. The villages have so few people in them it would be very difficult to find a spouse otherwise.

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Her family’s village was the first one we stopped at and she cooked us lunch. Despite the meager housing and facilities this was possibly the best meal I’ve had in Vietnam. I’m not saying that because of context, experience or hospitality. It actually was. The next day I would eat at the “best restaurant” in Sapa and it would not even compare. Ple’s family grows their own rice, corn and peas to eat. Her husband also makes sake from that rice. They grow they’re own indigo for dying the cloth that she makes out of the thread she makes from the hemp she grows. Among the several dishes she quickly stir-fried some tofu with scallions, no sauce, nothing else. Her neighbor had made the tofu and was hands down the best tofu I have ever had. If there were tofu like this in the U.S. I might be able to justify a tofu dish without meat in it. Another highlight was the cured pork fat (of course they cured it themselves) that had been quickly stir-fried.

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The entire family was extremely hard-working. I met her 11 year-old daughter when I was there. She couldn’t stay and had to start walking up the mountain to plant corn. She would go by herself and hike 4 hours to plant corn before returning and hiking 4 more hours. Truly impressive family. After the making it back to Sapa 6 hours after my fall I was finally able to shower, change out of mud-soaked clothes and reflect. For Ple and her family Sapa was the big city. The small hillside getaway for toursists was the largest city she had ever seen. I struggled on my trek and was recovering the next day. This mother of three makes the trek every other day, plus I think she took it easy on me after I fell.

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The Hill Station Signature Room is a higher end restaurant. The clientele consists of tourists who are dressed up for a fine-dining experience. The menu tries to showcase local ingredients and traditional dishes of the area set in a clean, modern room I would expect to be designed by westerners. The food consisted of local dishes meticulously plated, not quite hot by the time it got to me and missing the mark. Parts of Sapa feel very French and you can always find a place to get some coffee and cake; there is even an Italian restaurant and a bar in town with a pool table. The other side of the hill station is a backdrop of amazing terrain and indigenous people who look at Sapa as a metropolis. If you want to try some local food, and you should, then you can eat on the street or in a fine-dining restaurant, but the best meals to be had are at homes and there is no shortage of people in town willing to bring you home and cook you dinner.