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Sapa to Hanoi by Jeep

by Matthew Vlemmiks

April 30, 2006

Anyone who agrees that Sapa is heaven on earth should consider going further off the beaten track in a jeep tour of the surrounding highlands all the way back to Hanoi. On offer is some exceptional scenery and the chance to visit numerous hill tribe villages, to experience a side of Vietnamese life that you won’t see on the crowded streets of Hanoi or HCMC.

Day 1 – Sapa to Lai Chau

After spending New Year’s Day 2006 recovering from a heavy night at Sapa’s Tau Bar, we set out in perfect weather on January 2nd. Leaving Sapa the views are familiarly striking: rolling mountains, multi-tiered rice fields, forests, banana trees, tiny villages and an abundance of buffalo. The roads are steep, bumpy and winding but when the going is slow there is more time to admire the jaw-dropping scenery!

We stop first in a tiny settlement called Giang Mu village, home of the Black Dao people. Their village is located on a hill with minimal road access so that an arduous twenty minute hike is required just to get there. We are immediately accosted by a group of young women wanting their photograph taken. Dressed in distinctive tribal costume, some go inside to don their Sunday best before striking their best pose. As more women appear from nowhere, the shoot stretches to over an hour, and our guide, Dang, is told that he is not allowed to bring any more tourists unless he also brings these photographs.

After lunch in Tam Duong town, a one hour drive brings us to a village of the White Hmong people. The setting eclipses anything we have seen so far, with huts precariously perched on cliff faces, dwarfed by tree lined mountains with smatterings of white clouds. The local police man invites us into his home where the men of the village are gathered around a TV and DVD player – the village is visibly more affluent than our earlier stop. As throngs of curious kids gather to examine the tourists, a bottle of rice wine is produced. This will become a recurring theme over the next few days. Our hosts’ generosity is humbling but soon leaves me wishing they had a fridge full of Beer Hanoi instead.

As the afternoon draws on, the road becomes more severe and we begin to see worrying evidence of recent landslides. Skirting the Nam Na river, our jeep arrives in the small, French era town of Lai Chau as darkness falls.

Day 2 – Lai Chau to Son La

The day begins with a decision that cuts about 70 kilometres – but no time – off our journey. Instead of heading further west through Dien Bien Phu, right on the border with Laos, we take the more treacherous but scenic route. For 100 kilometres the road is awful and we are thrown painfully around the jeep. Departing before 8am, the weather is drizzly and misty – we prepare ourselves for disappointment regarding the views. But after climbing sharply for the first few kilometres above the clouds and low-lying fog, a spectacular blanket of white opens up below us, dissecting the mountains in two. Mountain peaks and trees poke up through the clouds, and up here it is warm, sunny and beautiful. It is a blissful sight - our Swiss companions tell us it’s just like home!

Many of the local communities in this area are Thai in origin, and they give us a fantastic welcome in Nam Len village. We are invited into a relatively large house where there are again signs of relative affluence. Bizarrely, they are watching a DVD profiling Miss World contenders. Ogling the bikini clad Miss Wales in the middle of a tiny village in North Vietnam is a strange experience. A bottle of rice wine appears again, and our short but steep walk back to the jeep suddenly becomes more demanding.

After a massive lunch in a small restaurant in Tuan Giao town, I am becoming accustomed to the sight of pickled snakes and lizards in display jars. The roads are much improved for the remaining distance to Son La, and on the way, we stop at the market and university town of Thuan Chau . Whilst browsing we are approached by a number of students wishing to practice their English – some of the girls take an immediate shine to young Dang. Later, our hotel in Son La is cheap and comfortable, with the added bonus of some traditional Vietnamese karaoke and dancing before bed.

Day 3 – Son La to Lac Village

Our day begins with a visit to an indigenous museum and former French prison just outside of Son La. Then it’s back on the road, and soon a stop at the Thai community in Cau Treo. The most exceptional thing here is the Indiana Jones style bamboo bridge to the village and the local school, where the cane is still the preferred method of punishment. Another huge lunch in Moc Chau town precedes a visit to Hong Kim village, where the Red Hmong community are enjoying a game of football against their local rivals. The home village are resplendent in bare feet and a dodgy green “Arsenal” kit that I don’t ever remember Arsenal wearing, and the standard is surprisingly high. In baking heat the teams play out a physical match that puts our waning, rice wine influenced fitness levels to shame. We pose for photographs with the Hong Kim team and are invited in for dinner, but unfortunately have to leave for our home stay.

As darkness falls we arrive at Guest House 9 in Lac village, close to the larger town of Mai Chau . Unfortunately this is no longer an opportunity to experience untouched, indigenous cultures as almost all of the houses now provide accommodation for tourists. So there are Western style toilets, hot running water and cold beers in the fridge. Despite this, it is possible to get a sense of the peaceful, unhurried way of live in a tiny, picturesque village so different from the big cities of Vietnam . Surrounded by mountains, rice fields and chirping birds, the stresses and concerns of everyday life are a million miles away.

A family of seven live in the house where we stay, and mum prepares yet another huge meal. The rice wine flows freely tonight, with toasts raised to Vietnam , Ho Chi Minh and our hosts. It is of course rude not to join in with such festivities so the rest of the night, including another traditional dancing show, passes in something of a haze.

Day 4 – Lac Village to Hanoi

We wake up tired after the previous night’s exertions for the most humdrum morning of our journey. The scenery remains beautiful for the first half an hour before it flattens out and becomes unexceptional for the last 100 kilometres into Hanoi . Arriving back in the capital is a culture shock after the transcendent experiences of the last few days. But as we fight our way through the life threatening traffic of the Old Quarter, we know we have experienced something truly memorable.

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