After a fantastic stay in Hanoi, my friends Kathrin, Kara, and I took The Reunification Express Night Train (ours was called the King Express) to Lao Cai, located near the border of China in Northern Vietnam where we hopped on a short, $2 bus ride to get to the main city of Sapa.
I didn’t know what to expect aside from beautifully carved terrace hillsides and a few ethnic minority groups. I assumed the minority groups would largely be a group of people dressed in costume at a museum in town and the hills covered with a few tea plantations. What I encountered, however, was the most breathtaking site I have ever seen. Pictures and video cannot capture the beauty of this stunning province in northern Vietnam. Have you ever been to a place that so profoundly touched you? A place you will remember forever and feel as though a part of you has come home? It’s not just the scenery that strikes you but the people, the culture, the food. I have had that feeling on a few trips before – Nepal, India, Turkey – but never so profoundly as in Sapa.
Sapa is a frontier township with a population of roughly 30,000 where several ethnic minority groups live today, including the Hmong, Dao, Giay, and Tay who hail primarily from China. The Vietnamese never colonized the highest of Vietnam’s valleys, which lie in the shadow of Vietnam’s highest peak in the country – Fansipan – and last major peak in the Himalayan chain. When the French arrived, they created a hilltop station here for ailing soldiers. Today, the city is booming with tourism, massive hotels and high rises.
Our hotel, the Sapa Dragon, was a great jumping off point for our stay in Sapa. We met our friend, Jay, there and were able to explore the main town as well as the closest village, Cat Cat Village, which was a short walk from the center of town. We didn’t have to go far to get into a rural part of the region.
We passed a number of local houses, farms, art shops, and cafes including Art Studio Cafe, run by a talented barista, painter, and father. I loved one of the paintings so much I had to buy it!
The arts are alive and thriving in Sapa, from art studios to basket weaving to woven textiles. The art is not only intricate but masterfully executed.
The majority of the handicrafts are made by the Hmong women and features Hmong textile art, also known as Pan ntaub, or flower cloth, in Hmong. Here is a short video of the weaving in progress.
The Hmong are an ethnic minority tribe from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar particularly known for their bold, geometric textiles.
The textiles are intricate patterns of shapes that serve as ‘story cloths,’ or recordings and expressions of the individual and their experiences. In the past, various motifs and patterns were used to tell stories and send messages. There are are several different clans within the Hmong community including the Black, White, Green, Flower, and Blue Hmong – all which have unique textile designs. As they grow up, women are honored for their industriousness and textile skills within the Hmong community.
The basic textile is made with hemp, which is then embroidered, dyed, and/or woven. Batik is also a traditional part of Hmong textile design using indigo and beeswax. The most fabulous textiles I came across were at a store called Wild Orchid, which had a few boutiques around Sapa. It was essentially the closest thing to Anthropologie that I have found with the most stunning embroidered furniture I have ever seen.
The textiles were sold in shops and out on the street. Hmong women from CatCat village and other neighboring towns were proudly selling their wares along the roadside, always approaching you with a friendly smile. These women were absolutely beautiful, and their English was surprisingly good always asking ‘Where are you from? How long have you been in Sapa? Would you like to buy something?’ Their resilience and tenacity inspired me.
What was even more impressive about these women is that they walked for miles carrying their textiles and, oftentimes, with children in tow. With the women hard at work, the kids were typically playing by themselves or being watched by a working mother or grandmother. I can’t tell you how much seeing these children touched my heart. The trip to Sapa was so inspiring, in fact, that it served as the final push for me to start my own business, which you can read more about here in my Remote Year featured profile. Lots more to come on that, so stay tuned!
5 Reasons to Visit Sapa Now
- Experience a Tonkinese Alps village before tourism takes over
- See textiles and embroidery being handmade the same way it was generations ago
- Buy some stunning local artwork from one of the bustling art studios in town
- Trek the beautiful terraced fields and villages within Sapa to see a gentler life at play
- Interact with the beautiful Hmong people
Next up is how I found solitude in the hills, roads, and beach during my final weeks in Vietnam.