Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam

Vietnam Map

Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam

It was 1997. We were bicycling Southeast Asia. After 7 weeks cycling Vietnam, we were about to cross into China at Lao Cai border.

We were only 23 miles from the ethnic mountain village of Sa Pa. We needed a break from cycling after 5 months of continuous travel.

 Hiking Sa Pa was just the kind of different adventure we were looking for.

Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam-Red Dao woman

A Short History…Please

The Ethnic Groups of Sa Pa

The largest ethnic groups who currently inhabit Sa Pa, Vietnam (5255′) include Red Dao and Black H’mong. Others with small populations are Giay, Tay and Pho Lu.

The Red Dao migrated to Vietnam starting around the 12th century as a result of continuous severe droughts and repression by Feudal landlords during the Minh Dynasty.

The H’mong migrated back in the early 18th century. They came from southern China near the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers where evidence claims their ancestors go back as many as 2000 years.

The Quing Dynasty who ruled China and represented the majority Han people, had historically repressed and enslaved other ethnic groups. This repression intensified causing armed conflicts between H’mong and Han forcing the former to emigrate further south…into Vietnam.



The French in Sa Pa

The French first came to Sa Pa in the late 1800’s. As established colonizers of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (French Indochina), their interest extended to Sa Pa primarily to protect their Vietnam colony from Chinese invasion. Sa Pa was on the border.

The French Empire colonized Indochina for one reason: to enrich themselves. They did it by taking the raw materials off and out of the land and used cheap labor to get them. Vietnam, like Laos and Cambodia became a virtual French dependency for nearly a century.

The French brought two good things with them: Baguettes (which the Vietnamese cherish to this day) and schools. Many of the ethnic people still speak French today.

Post WW II in Sa Pa

After the fall of northern France during World War II, Indochina was under the Vichy government of unoccupied southern France until 1942. Beginning in May 1941, the Viet Minh, a communist army led by Ho Chi Minh, began a revolt against French rule known as the First Indochina War. They wanted the French out of their country. But, after the peace agreements ending WWII, the Allies gave Indochina back to the French!

Ho Chi Minh, expecting the Allies whom he supported against the Japanese, to return Vietnam to the Vietnamese made war on the French and defeated them. Then America thought it could bend Vietnam to their will…but failed and fled in April 1975. From that point until 1993, Vietnam was closed to foreigners.

When Sa Pa was opened to tourism, 97% of the visitors were Vietnamese!

1997 in Sa Pa

Though the town of Sa Pa was growing rapidly with tourist amenities, the surrounding countryside had changed very little. The Sa Pa high mountain valley reminded us of fabled Shangri-La. Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest mountain at 3,143 meters towered above in magic splendor. Rice paddies carved from steep hillsides wrapped around peaceful thatch villages. A single dirt road and miles of well-trodden footpaths kept the possibility of noise and pollution in check. We roamed the inviting trails for a week, never getting enough of the beauty or the people.

We did not go to Cat Cat Village. It already had a reputation as a tourist destination, and we liked traveling more off the tourist track. We simply followed the farm roads through the villages and fields and met the local people on our own terms. On one day, we hired a local guide who took us into some homes. Our encounters with the H’mong were friendly. We never felt pressured. We were lucky to be in Sa Pa in the early years of openness.


2014 in Sa Pa

A lot has changed in Sa Pa. We have not revisited, but evidence by other travelers as published on the internet leads us to believe that Sa Pa is currently a highly prized tourist destination.

That can mean both advancements in the tourist infrastructure such as better sanitation, more hotel and food choices, easier transportation getting there and about, and more developed guide services. But, as we have read, it can also mean more aggressive minorities who rely on tourist dollars to survive. Many have lost their traditional manners and have become too much “in your face” according to numerous travelers. We are saddened to hear this as our experience in 1997 was so opposite.

Sa Pa is an extra-ordinary place. Perhaps, if a a traveler knows that the tourist scene has changed dramatically, they will find ways to avoid  the annoyances and yes, deceit.

Sa Pa was changing quickly: new guesthouses, restaurants and tourist transportation made it easier for visitors to come and to stay in the old French Hill Station. In 1932, the French drove the locals out of Sa Pa and developed the town into a health resort with tennis courts, spas and over 200 villas. Under French rule, most minorities were forced into unpaid labor and heavy taxation. The minorities resisted with seven revolts during the colonial occupation until the 1945 August Revolution finally pushed the French entirely out of Vietnam.

  After the Chinese invasion in 1979, only ten French buildings survived in Sa Pa, but the H’mong still used the French language to communicate with the resurgent foreign population. With the recent reopening of Sa Pa to the world, the people were adapting to the presence of tourism and drawing financial benefits from it: through the sale of their beautiful embroidered clothing and the influx of modest modernization in the form of tourist facilities.

Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam

Five H’mong grandmothers toting woven bamboo baskets filled with handmade clothing tried to capture my heart and my money. Their beautiful toothless smiles, dancing eyes and warm hugs displayed a cupboard love that could coax even the most battered traveler into a happy purchase. Eager gnarled hands placed black beaded turbans on my head and black embroidered purses in my hands. A brocaded shirt stretched across my back from shoulder to shoulder. So it was like everyday walking the streets of Sa Pa.

As soon as the grandmother’s guild departed, two beautiful H’mong girls took my hands captive. They wore the traditional embroidered, fanned skirts, split-fronted blouse with long waistcoat tucked beneath a richly embroidered sash. Sash-like turbans wrapped around their thick dark hair. Large silver hoop earrings dangled from each ear.

“Hello, what is your name?” they asked in perfect English.

“Anna,” I replied. “What’s yours?”

“Glin. This is my sister Ali.”

“You speak very good English. Do you study it in school?”

“I don’t go to school,” Glin acknowledged. “I learn from the tourists.”


  • Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
    Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
  • Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
    Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
  • Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
    Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
  • Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
    Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam

  “Where do you live, Glin?”

“I live in the village Sin Chai. My father gave me a man from the village Cat Cat. He will come to live with my family when we take the rice from the fields.”

“How old are you, Glin.”

“I am fourteen. I am the oldest. I have four more sisters. My father will be very happy to have a man in the house.”

  Arranged marriages were commonplace. The parents looked for prospective partners based on their ability to carry out agricultural work. Glin’s parents-in-law would give a bride price of pork meat, alcohol and money, amounting to about $200, to her father. With five daughters in all, he stood to gain much.

We wandered the paths into the scattered villages.

The bamboo houses, capped with thatch looked like giant hay stacks.

They complemented the landscape as if nature planted them.

H’mong curiosity about us prompted them to invite us into their homes.

It was a rare opportunity as a traveler to meet a people and lifestyle in its authenticity.

The hard dirt floor was spotless. Small wooden stools only three inches above the floor served as chairs. Though chickens and pigs tried to make a place for themselves, the guardian children shooed them outside. An open fire stone hearth centered in the main room. Smoke found its own way out. One electric light bulb dangled from the pole rafters. Power came from tiny one-foot dams in the creek passing by.

The household treasure, the family mill, stood in one corner.

 Woven reed mat beds lined the floor in a back room. Thirteen people lived in this household.

Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam

Many of the children did not go to school, even though it was provided. Informal lessons in accounting, however, developed like English, through contact with tourists.A crew of hard working youngsters was returning from the fields. A girl, the same age as Glin, showed us her basket woven from the bamboo. She opened a dark indigo cloth and revealed her store of mineral water and Coca-Cola. We could not speak H’mong, but she took charge of the sale by raising five fingers for the 5,000-dong purchasing price. The younger boys watched the sale with acute interest, specially the part where the money changed hands. What more schooling did they need than that!

We stopped to watch an inventive water mill at work.

A large log with a bucket on the end protruded out into the flow of the creek.

As the bucket filled and tipped, it raised and lowered the opposite end into a rice bin, pounding chaff from the kernels.

Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam

We climbed higher up on the mountainside where fresh slash-and-burn efforts were creating new fields for corn. Water buffalo clung to the steepness as they yanked the wooden plow around entrenched rocks and stumps.

The intensity of labor produced three years of corn at most, and then the thin, nutrient-starved soil grew only weeds.

New areas had to be wrested from the forest. A soaring population growth demanded fertility from incapable land.

The minorities faced an annual food shortage; they could only produce enough for eight months. The poorest families received rice from the Mekong Delta.

As forests diminished, so did minority wealth in the form of medicinal plants, mushrooms, ginger, fuel wood and lumber products.

Sandalwood trees, harvested before a burn, brought modest income to a group of ten men. They were hauling two giant beams, each weighing over a thousand pounds, up the hillside to our path.

They would sell each piece for $100 to a Chinese buyer. Each worker would receive about $6.00.

By the time the beams reached Hong Kong, they would each sell for $300. Sandalwood was China’s prized furniture lumber.

“There are very few trees left to cut,” one of the young men said. “We must find new work.”

Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam

Sa Pa, aside from the minority groups, is famous for terraced rice fields.

The work is done by hand hoes. The terraces cover the valley. It is a incredible human effort that has played out over hundreds of years.

Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam

It was a strange feeling to wander about freely through villages, to be invited into stranger’s homes, to be greeted with such warmth. They expressed an excitement to reveal, to share their traditions and their lifestyle. Perhaps they saw our presence as a possible solution for their economic problems.

Certainly, the tourist brought needed money to the area. We as a group could prove beneficial. We were among a privileged few to participate in the transition of a people and their culture to interaction with tourism.

In 1997, Sa Pa was in the tender years of such an association.

Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam
Hiking Sa Pa Vietnam

Read about our adventures bicycling in Vietnam and Southeast Asia in 1997. 

On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

On Our Own A Bicycling Adventure in South East Asia

On Our Own is about an 8000 mile journey by bicycle, through the heart of Southeast Asia. Anne and Mike Poe, an American couple in their mid-fifties, journeyed for six months from Bali, Indonesia through Java, Sumatra, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and China until finally reaching Hong Kong. Experience the Poes’ unique adventure as they sojourn on their own with no guides to show them the way, no organized tours to fix all the problems and no translators to read the menus. Their stories tell the truth about what it really feels like to travel into the lives of the local populations. Meet head on the rising aspirations of a Third World continent banging at the door of change yet still very much imprisoned by the infrastructure and philosophical viewpoints of its past. It is, without doubt, a prime region for provocative travel experiences.

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