Tag Archives: mountain

Trekking and ethnic minorities in Sa Pa

Sa Pa was not in my travel plans. A few friends had recommended it to me, but I wasn’t too interested and I couldn’t fit it into my itinerary anyway. My plans for the north of Vietnam included Ninh Binh, Ha Long Bay and Hanoi.

Then Ha Long Bay lost the battle. And on my third day in Hanoi I booked a trekking tour to Sa Pa. Departure the following night.
Best decision ever!

Sa Pa is a mountain town in northern Vietnam, very touristic but also very pretty. A prettier version of Da Lat in my opinion. Perched on the edge of a mountain, it is very popular also because the surrounding villages are inhabited by ethnic minorities: the majority of the minority people in Vietnam live in the Sa Pa region.

Black HMong women resting
Black HMong women resting

Organised trekking tours bring hundreds of tourists to Sa Pa everyday, arriving in the morning from Hanoi by bus or by train (overnight journeys). My tour was a 2-day/3-night one, with one night in hotel. I chose not to do the homestay for logistic reasons, but it would have been interesting.

Trekkers and local women
Trekkers and local women

We did two treks: on the first day our Black HMong (one of the minority groups) female guide took us to see two villages, Lao Chai and Ta Van. The 12-Km trek was classified as “easy” but it still involved climbing steep paths on the edge of the mountain.

In the blazing sun it wasn’t always fun. But the views were amazing: terraced rice fields, water buffalos, mountains everywhere.

Trekkers and local women
Trekkers and local women

All this as we walked surrounded by local women in their beautiful and colourful costumes. Dozens of them tagged along as several groups of us tourists followed our guides. Talking to them was really interesting, they all speak very good English and were all very chatty. These women were all in their early twenties, and most of them carried a baby on their back. They told us that they get married very early, usually around 18-19 years old, and then stay at home or work in the rice fields or join the walks with the tourists when they have time. Their final aim was to dive in during our lunch break and try to sell us handicrafts of any sorts, and unfortunately some are quite aggressive when you refuse to buy…

On our second day we went to a village (Cat Cat) just outside Sa Pa, a much shorter trek that took us first to the Cat Cat waterfalls then up and down a mountain to enjoy some more stunning views. There was also a relaxing moment when we sat with our guide who taught us how to make some ‘souvenirs’ using plants :-).

My handicraft production
My handicraft production

I would love to go back to Sa Pa and do longer treks, and homestay too!

And here are more photos of Sa Pa and its ethnic minorities.

A visit to the Marble Mountains

AKA: the ascent to heaven is best not done wearing flip flops.

The Marble Mountains are marble and limestone hills located between Hoi An and Da Nang, about 20Km from Hoi An. You can visit them independently, and reach them by motorbike/xe om/ local bus, but I chose the lazy option and joined a tour. Lucky enough I was the only person on it, so had a private guide and driver for half a day!

So, back to the Marble Mountains: there are five of them and they are also called the Mountains of the Five Elements (water, metal, fire, wood, and earth).  They are of great importance to the Vietnamese and are dotted with Buddhist and Hindu temples and pagodas.VietnamPhotogallery_079
They were also a base for Viet Cong fighters during the  war.

Nowadays the most visited peak is the Water mountain – Thuy Son – which is also the tallest.
After visiting a couple of cave pagodas there, my guide told me that we would follow the path to heaven and led me to the very top of the mountain through narrow, slippery and steep tunnels. Caving and rock climbing in flip flops!
(Now I know how I will go to heaven, I thought at some point…).

Climbing out of a vertical tunnel
Climbing out of a vertical tunnel

When I reached the top I felt like I had climbed the Everest! This was also an opportunity for lots of photos of the coast and the other four mountains.

I also visited the largest and most impressive cave on the Water mountain (Huyen Khong cave), where a huge Buddha statue towers over everything and stalactites resemble animals and human faces. Sunlight streams enter the cave from the roof, and create a very dramatic atmosphere.

Inside the Huyen Khong Cave
Inside the Huyen Khong Cave

The Marble Mountains are also famous for their stone engraving activities, although marble now comes from other areas of Vietnam instead of being extracted locally. Several souvenir shops located at the base of the mountains will try to sell you marble objects of any sorts, the most popular being the “Happy Buddha”. Rubbing its belly supposedly brings good luck!

And no, I didn’t buy one but under my guide’s advice I made sure that I gave a good belly rub to one of the big Buddha statues on the Water mountain :-).

The Happy Buddha
The Happy Buddha

Da Lat oddity

I look around and wonder if I am still in Vietnam.
Yes I am, but this city has nothing to do with the country I know.

Da Lat is clean, very clean. Almost a sanitised version of Vietnam. The layout, the lake with pedal-boats, the houses and the numerous European-style cafes remind me of cities in northern Italy or central Europe. If it wasn’t for the street food sellers and the fact that everything is written in Vietnamese, I would think I have been transported back home.

Da Lat view
Da Lat view

It is much colder than in any Vietnamese town/city I have been so far (after all we are at 1500m altitude). Being able to walk around in the middle of the day without turning into a pool of sweat is actually a relief. Wearing a fleece jumper in the evening is  a welcome surprise.

But despite the fact that I had read about Da Lat, I wasn’t ready for this and it all feels very strange.

We had dinner at a place called Art Cafe’, something that would not look out of place in Paris.

Table cloths are large sheets of white paper, crayons are available next to your cutlery. You can express yourself there. And I couldn’t resist leaving my mark too :-)

My art production at the Art Cafe'
My art production at the Art Cafe’

The next couple of days are going to be interesting…