Sa Pa

One place I just had to see before going Stateside is Sa Pa…..and I’ve just come back from there early, very early, this morning. After making arrangements with a wonderful travel agent and all around nice woman named Lai here in Ha Noi, I was picked up in a small bus Sunday evening by a driver who somehow hadn’t been informed that on crowded city streets, one ought to drive a tad slower and perhaps on the right hand side of the street as well…..just for good measure. Ah well, hang on, this is Ha Noi. Other people who were going on the same trek were picked up and treated to the driver’s artistry as well and we somehow all made it to the train station intact. Once there, we were pointed in the general direction of the trains and were left to figure out which particular train to board. After finally getting it sorted out, I boarded and settled in to my small 4 bed cabin. It was so small it was difficult to take a picture and get any more in the shot than maybe one bed. Suffice it to say, there were two sets of bunk beds…..and that’s about it. But what else do you need on a sleeper train, anyway? Here’s the hallway, though:

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Once I was inside, I realized I’d been so focused on finding the right train and not being late, I forgot to take any pictures of anything outside it……it wouldn’t be the last time something like that would happen on this journey.

But before getting under way, I poked my head out the door and took this shot…..

A 2Two of my cabin mates were a husband and wife ~ the man being from California, the woman from China.  They lived in China but had been vacationing in Viet Nam.  Really nice people (the first of many, many nice people I’d meet).  We talked for a while ’til a Vietnamese woman came in and went straight to bed, so we all got in our bunks as well and…..lights out.  I’d hoped to be rocked to sleep by the rolling rhythm of the train….no such luck, unfortunately.  The beds were made for the shorter Vietnamese stature, not my tall Western length, apparently and the room was stiflingly hot.  I didn’t sleep a wink.  Tossed and turned all night.  After some six hours, the train arrived in Lau Cai, a small city in the northwestern region of Viet Nam (close to the Chinese border) at the base of Fan Si Pan (I love that name!), Viet Nam’s highest peak at just over 10,000ft.  It was still very early in the morning before dawn.  The group gathered blearily outside the station and boarded the bus which would take us up the mountain.  The bus wound through very tight curves at break neck speed.  I wondered if the driver could take those turns any faster….but I dared not ask….    We were probably about half way up when there appeared to be a traffic jam?  …..up here?  Actually it really was a traffic jam….of the Vietnamese sort…..two water buffalo head-butting each other in the middle of the road.  I could only imagine what was going through their heads ~ “Mine’s bigger!”  “No, mine’s bigger!”  “No, mine….!”  Sitting where I was on the bus I couldn’t get a good shot, but finally made my way to a window (after the buffalo had bumped into the bus and pushed it downhill a way!) just as the driver took his opportunity to shoot past them….and here’s my blurry shot…… A 3

“Mine!”  “No, mine!”

When we arrived in Sa Pa town, we ate breakfast at the hotel wherein some of the passengers would be staying, but not me ~ I had opted for the ‘home stay’ down in one of the villages.  So, after our nice breakfast and much needed coffee, we started our walk……our long, long………long…..walk toward the villages and rice fields.  I’d been told we’d have time the next day after our tour to stroll around town but that was not to be, so I’m glad I have any pictures of the town at all.

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Here’s a picture for my English friends…..they love you guys here in Viet Nam!  →

We walked downhill out of town….wow, it’s rough on your knees to walk downhill so much…..and then we walked some more…..  It was very misty and foggy and cloudy and not the best day for great shots, but here are a couple of my first views of the rice fields of Sa pa….

A 7Don’t forget ~ double click!

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Again, a very misty, cold, grey day.

I have quite a few pictures of the fields to show you, but first I want to introduce you to our adorable guide, Vang.  She spoke English incredibly well and had been learning it since she was about 5 simply by tagging along and listening to tourists and practicing her speaking with them.

A 8Is she beautiful, or what?!   We passed by a crop of plants that looked familiar to me, but I couldn’t place them so I asked her what they were and she said, “Indigo.”  A 9

Omigod!  I’ve only seen it in pictures.  I’d never been able to find it to grow it myself.  I’ve always wanted to grow it to try my hand at dying fabric with it.  She told me if I take some leaves and rub them into my hands really hard, they would turn my hands blue and asked if I wanted to do it……so, what do you think I said…..?

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Of course, at first it’s pretty green, but you can see a slightly blue tint to it….





but, just a few minutes later you can see it’s already starting to turn a bit bluer.


I’ll show you more later.

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Here’s my group up ahead of me.  I prefer being at the back of a group because I like taking pictures so much ~ I don’t like to hold up the person behind me.  Plus, I wanted to take it slow because of my ankles, plus I just plain walk slower than all these younger people!

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Walking along the edge of a rice paddy seems to be a pretty common mode of travel.  Right now, the fields are fallow.  They’ll be replanting in about a month or so.

A 18Of course, the close up pictures are clearer because there’s not so much mist between me and my subject.  Further away, everything’s sort of grey, unfortunately.  I’ve got to say, though, being there was just amazingly …..amazing…..I just really don’t have words for it.  The work and the years that have gone into these rows and rows and rows……layer upon layer of fields.  It’s mind-boggling.  I just kept breathlessly saying, “Wow…”

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You really do have to double-click on these pictures.  You can see the detail much better when they’re bigger.

A 20Right here is about where the tears started rolling.  Have you ever been overwhelmed by beauty?  It happens here.

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I LOVE goats!  They’re so flippin’ CUTE!!  ↓

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Here are Lizzie and Katie ~ two young women from New Zealand on their post-graduation-from-university whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia.  I’m so happy to have been in the same group with them.  They were delightful company.

A 29A 30I believe the red color is algae.  I never got around to asking about it.  Can you see the critters in the picture?

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This woman is a member of the Red Dzao tribe of people.  I forgot to tell you ~ Vang is a member of the Black Hmong tribe.

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We crossed over this bridge and headed toward the villages.  I haven’t really stressed how far we walked ~ I don’t know the exact distance.  It seems I remember seeing something saying we would be walking about 12K….on the first day, anyway….it seemed longer to me…… but it wasn’t just a nice stroll along smooth, flat paths.  No, it was up and down through lots of mud.  On this first day I didn’t take too many pictures of these places.  Partly because I was focusing on each step and partly because I kept thinking, “Surely this is the last hill we’re going to climb, right?…..right….?”

We made our way into what appeared to be a newly created village where the various tribes could sell their goods.  The tribes in this area depend solely on tourism for their income.  The women are the ones who ply this trade….and boy, do they ply i!  They are tough saleswomen ~ they do not give up!

Remember what I said earlier about being so focused on a thing that I forgot to take pictures?  Well, that happened again here….of all places.  Me, this lover of fabric, I forget to take pictures of the dye vat, the loom, the long yards of woven hemp…..good grief.  But as they were explaining it, it was so fascinating!  It wasn’t anything terribly out of the ordinary, in a sense.  The dye vat was a big barrel of indigo water, the loom was …….a loom….and we’ve all seen looms, right?  This one was handmade from bamboo, though…..pretty cool.  The way they made the strands of thread out of hemp was what really blew me away.  It was…..geez, I need more adjectives…..mind-boggling, incredible, amazing….and they did it so fast and nimbly and without even looking half the time.  Such fine strands of thread they made.  But, I was there in the moment and I think that’s what it’s all about.  Anyway, I bought a beautiful, long hemp scarf that was entirely handmade, decorated and dyed by this woman……

A 34I’m holding the scarf in front of us.  I had to bend over in half to be in the same frame as her!  See all the other fabric and clothes hanging around?  All hand made from the get go.

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To the left are a family watching all the excitement in that room and to the right is a woman working on a cross-stitch design….


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….with her beautiful, skilled, indigo-dyed hands.


Vang said to me, “Come meet my twin sister.”  I followed her and…

A 38….geez!  Yeah, I’ll say they’re twins!  Vang was sure to point out that she was older… 10 minutes!

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Walking a little further along by a creek, we saw these hand-made joss sticks being dried in the…. mist filled non-sun infused air….

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Finally arriving at our home stay, we were the local attraction.  The Hmong women and children staring at the Westerners and we staring right back!

The woman on the left is making the hemp thread.  Those are strands of hemp hanging on her arm. She breaks a stalk of hemp and strips it into strands, then deftly twists lengths of it end to end and wraps the finished product around her left hand.

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The baby was curious, too!

Watching this girl practice her cross-stitch, I heard the universal sigh of frustration at having to pull out misplaced stitches!

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Beautiful faces everywhere.

A 44A 41It was time for our dinner at the ‘home stay’ which turned out not to be as ‘homey’ as I thought it might be.  That’s not to say it wasn’t comfortable, clean, friendly….it was.  But I thought there might be more interaction with the family living there and there wasn’t.  I still had a very nice time playing cards with Katie, Lizzie and Or (a really nice Israeli young man whose name is a lot more difficult to pronounce than one would think from appearances).  The bed was very comfortable and I actually did sleep that night…yay!

They’re cooking tofu with tomatoes ~ very delicious.  The whole meal was wonderful.

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Good morning!


After breakfast the next morning we set off on another trek.

A 47Sigh… pretty.

Off in the distance the yellow building is the new high school, of which they’re very proud.  We’ll be eating lunch there….doesn’t look that far, does it?  Well, it is…..!  But I got to see a lot of pretty cool things along the way…..

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←….beautiful streams…..

….four leaf clovers…..  →

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….slick, slippery, muddy hills to climb….There were so many hills (up and down…down was harder) but I didn’t want to take the time to photograph each one.  I wanted to concentrate on my footing.→


Honestly if it weren’t for the Hmong women walking along side us, I don’t know if any of us would have made it ~ me in particular.  The woman making the hemp thread walked beside me the whole way and held my hand at any time I needed it.  She is a tiny thing, I think around my age, strong as can be…..I wouldn’t have made it without her.  She was so sure-footed.  After she helped me, she’d go right back to thread making, barely watching the path herself.

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See the plants at the bottom left of the picture?  That’s bamboo.  It grows so tall, it sort of drops over at the top.  It’s the tallest bamboo I’ve ever seen.

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When we reached a resting spot at the top of a hill, some of the women were commenting on the color of my hands.  Vang asked if I wanted it darker and well, you know the answer…  One woman handed me a strand of her indigo dyed hemp.  Vang put a drop of water in my hands and boy, did that work!  As I sit here typing this, my hands are still a blue-black!

Onward and upward…..and downward….

A 53It was so mooshy muddy through here, but I had walking sticks along the whole way ~ just grab the next cane of bamboo with each step!

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We rested at a gentle, but steep waterfall.

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The rock was so richly colored.

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I really haven’t seen much fall color here in Viet Nam so this was nice to see…. →



…as was this. ↓

A 59A 61I almost missed this old bridge which spanned the river alongside the newer bridge on which I was standing.  It seems to almost blend into the river.

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By this time we had got closer to the school and the road was smoother and even paved in some places……but steeeeeeep!  But we had a nice lunch and then were taken by bus (Yesssss!) back to the hotel where we could clean up and relax for a while.  Here are my boots after I’ve scraped off as much mud as I could before getting into the bus.  At times during our walk, my boots felt a pound or two heavier from all the mud!

As I sat relaxing on a patio with a cup of coffee, I saw the mountaintops (finally) peak through the mist.

A 63I was at a pretty high elevation myself here and these mountains were still so much higher than me.  I think it would have been overpowering to see them from the valley below.

After a lovely dinner, a bus took us down to the train station in Lau Cai.  Along the way as I looked at the scenery, the sun broke through and shone on the water of a rice field and I saw the mountain above it reflected in the water.  I knew I couldn’t photograph it in time, so I just enjoyed the moment.  I was happy to have seen the sunshine for at least a little bit.

After a bit of a wait, I got on the train back to Ha Noi, hoping for some sleep after a physically exhausting day.  My cabin mate this time was a young man named Joëp (pronounce Yoop, more or less) from the Netherlands.  We had a delightful conversation for quite a while.  History, politics, travel stories.  But then another cabin mate came in who seemed to just want to sleep, so….again…..lights out.  No sleep.  None.  That train had no rhythm whatsoever.  It at least wasn’t so stiflingly hot, but really noisy and rocky and wobbly.  I thought I was the only one who stayed awake most of the night, but Joëp said he’d only got about 2 hours sleep, himself.  He said it was like being a milk shake!  It was really rocky!  Anyway, we got back to Ha Noi before dawn.  We said goodbye and I walked home (I don’t live far from the train station).

Omigosh, my legs were (are) killing me, I’m sore in places I didn’t even know I had places, I’m exhausted……..and soooooo happy I’ve had this experience.  I met such beautiful people of the tribes and wonderful people from around the world ~ New Zealand, Israel, Switzerland, Chile, France, Australia, the Netherlands ~ and have witnessed beauty beyond reckoning.

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8 thoughts on “Sa Pa

  1. well bloody wow. what an awesome set of pics and a great post. I shall be going back over that one a few times. What amaaaazing views. beautiful women and fabrics. definitely worth looking at the images full size. how long till you’re homeward bound?


    1. Thank you, Sarah! I’m heading home in early March ~ will be traveling through the 3 western states to visit friends and family for about a couple of months. Looking forward to seeing everyone….while feeling a bit sentimental about leaving here. It’s funny, after such a rough start, I’ve really grown to love Viet Nam. Great people, beautiful country.


  2. Jan thanks so much for sharing your adventures. You will never know what it has meant to me. Breathtaking pics. Hope I see you stateside. Love you!


    1. I better get to see you when I get back! I’m so glad you enjoy my posts, Dee. Sa Pa really was an amazing place ~ I’m happy to share what I can of it.


  3. Jan, you are phenonimal! Your words are filled with life and energy! As I read your blog and viewed your incredible pictures I felt as tho I could sense your surroundings! I have been to Africa many times, so I know the muddy treks through the villages or the hills! I was reading along with Geo on her laptop and asked if I could view on my own and of course…here I am! Thank you so much for sharing the many experiences and photo’s! I’m still smiling as I picture the girls and sewing frustrations and rice hills…oh my gosh…wow doesn’t describe the beauty! I look forward to reading more of your delightful expressionable lively adventures! Stay safe! ‘ry


    1. Thank you, ‘ry!
      You know, I like what you said about “Wow doesn’t describe the beauty.” And yet ‘wow’ is exactly what I kept saying while I was there because I was so speechless for any other words. It really was overwhelming.
      Thank you for commenting and for all your kind words. (:


  4. Really amazing — love the photos and the story. Feel like I was there — wish I had been (except for the hills). Incredible, amazing, beautiful.


    1. Thank you, Lin. I’m glad you feel like you were there ~ I wish you had been, too (…..and if it weren’t for the views achieved, I could’ve done without some of those hills myself….!).


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