Tiers of rice terraces coat the slopes of the Muong Hoa valley below Sapa. Hill tribe villages are dotted here and there and when the weather is good the trekking is fantastic.
Surrounded by mountains and steep rice terraces Sapa occupies a spectacular location. In 1922 a French hill station was founded here and it is an important maket place for the hill tribes who come in from the villages. It is not a particularly attractive town but is an excellent base for trekking.
We took the night train, the King Express, from Hanoi to Lao Cai, which left promptly at 10pm. For about half an hour I didn't think I was going to get any sleep at all, it was so incredibly bumpy and very noisy. But then it settled down and though I woke briefly a couple of times it was 5:30 before I knew it and we were approaching Lao Cai.
We were incredibly lucky with the weather here. We came fully prepared for rain and mist and had nothing but sunshine and clear views.
We saw many different hill tribe women in the town in their distinctive clothing. The Dzao are one of the largest of the ethnic groups, originally coming from China. Like many of the hill tribe women, they wear beautiful traditional clothing, typically featuring intricate weaving, silver beads and coins. Traditionally the women would shave the front of the head, the remaining length of hair being gathered and wound into a large turban on top of the head. They would also traditionally worship ancestor spirits and practice animal sacrifice.
We saw Red Dzao women cooking at roadside fires or walking into town carrying cut banana flowers to sell to hotels for decoration. Our Audley travel notes were very useful in helping us to learn something about the way the different tribes live.
Our guide and driver were waiting to take us to Sapa, a drive of about an hour. We passed a man holding a huge live tiger snake which he hoped to sell for food - they are extremely venomous.
We checked in, had breakfast, then showered and changed ready to meet our guide in the lobby at 9:30 for a day-long trek in the rice terraces.
It was an absolutely glorious sunny day. Our driver dropped us and our guide just south of Sapa town.
We thought we were in for a gentle trek but actually did around 12 km, some of it quite strenuous, it was wonderful but tiring for our first day!
We began a descent into the valley. It was very peaceful with few people around, a few hill tribe women making their way into town, a couple of trekkers with hill tribe women in tow looking to sell their wares.
We approached Y Linh Ho village. Looking down from a height we could see that a large new building was in progress of being erected, a timber frame in place.
The village is one inhabited by Black Hmong people, quite small but obviously intent on expansion.
We passed a small village school where a group of children were exercising in the shade of the trees. They had no special clothes for this but seemed to be enjoying themselves under the watchful eye of their teacher.
There are many Black Hmong in the region. They are of Chinese origin and near Y Linh Ho village, walking down into the valley, we were able to visit one of their homes to see how they live, and the indigo dying process that they use for their very dark clothing material.
Traditionally the dye is obtained by soaking the leaves of the locally grown indigo plant. A mordant is needed to fix the dye to the cloth, possibly some form of lime. The colour is actually a deep blue - the more the process is repeated the deeper the colour becomes.
The home was very simple with few furnishings. The floors were of mud and it must be very difficult to keep clean when it rains.
The building was really quite large, with external and internal quarters for use in the different seasons. As well as the work implements there were musical instruments for entertainment and ceremonial use, and children's toys scattered about. A typical family home.
The woman of the house no longer has to mill corn and rice by hand - machines now do this - but she still does her weaving on a manual loom. She had an array of woven bags and clothing that she had made herself. After buying something as thanks for allowing us into her home we continued into the valley.
All day long the views were stunning. Layer upon layer of rice terraces, here and there a few water buffalo, villagers going about their business.
There were many domestic animals wandering freely including lots of hogs, goats, water buffalo and ducks.
There had been recent rains - it is a very wet region, though we had chosen to come in one of the drier months - and the terraces had plenty of water. We had been warned that, even in the dry season, Sapa can get a lot of rain, so we felt incredibly lucky to experience such beautiful weather.
We seemed to be virtually the only westerners here and our guide was very good at discouraging the ladies of the hill tribes from pestering us. They can be very persistent. Their technique generally is to tag along behind the tourists, offering items for sale. They keep this up for hours, until at the end of the morning, or at a break, they will become more persistent. The tourists begin to feel guilty that they've walked so far and will often buy something just to make them go away. This might not work, however - if you buy from one the others will pipe up that you now should buy from them! Most tourists end up with a number of souvenirs that they don't really want, but it's a little enough price to pay to have access to the beautiful countryside.
As we reached the bottom of the valley we began to walk through the rice terraces, carefully keeping to the narrow tracks.
As well as the all-important rice the villagers grow maize, fodder crops for animals, water hyacinth for baket-weaving. There are fruits such as mangoes and bananas and palm trees too. There is of course plenty of water and animals to provide fertilizer and food in their turn. Bamboo grows easily and provides a building material. One way or another the valley provides for the basic needs of the villagers.
Through the small village of Lao Chai where there are many Black Hmong we came to the village of Ta Van and our lunch stop. This was really excellent. It was a local cafe, a very simple, open-sided wooden building with basic tables and chairs. But there was nothing basic about the food.
The owner, a friendly woman, made a stir-fried chicken dish with lots of spring onions, noodles and greens, a huge plateful, washed down with a beer. We and our guide were the only customers at that time. The view over the valley was lovely, the people friendly, the food fabulous - a great experience all round.
We had already started to see quite large stands of bamboo and now we started to climb up to the bamboo forest, passing houses and shelters along the way.
It was a fantastic trek but the final part through the forest was rather tough going - it's impossible to do, apparently, if it has rained recently. Even so, the ground was still wet in the shade and quite tricky.
We were now accompanied by our very own Black Hmong woman but she assured us she was just returning to her village so it didn't matter if we bought or not.
The bamboo forest was very dense and beautifully cool compared to the open rice terraces. Eventually we started to descend again, still with our Black Hmong woman in tow, and paused at a shelter to rest. She also stopped and a few more local women came up through the trees and began a conversation.
We emerged from the bamboo forest at the bottom of the valley and crossed the river where there were a few homes. A short final climb up to the road where our car and driver were waiting. We were tired and a little grubby but what a great day.