Vietnam 2/3 : Sa Pa, the northern mountains, a mix of magic and touristic over exploitation
This post is also available in: French
After visiting Hanoi, we decided to head north for the mountains, near the Chinese border, where the sun was shining at this time.
As we weren’t having an unlimted time, we targeted Sa Pa, easily reachable from Hanoi by bus. What’s funny with Vietnamese (and slightly irritating) is that they absolutely try to put tourists in kind of organized tours even when it’s not necessary. For example, our bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa was populated almost exclusively with tourists and they thought that it was a good idea to pay a kind of guide to speak to the mic and let us know what what happening at the beginning, at the middle and at the end of the trip: “so here we’re making a stop, so you can go to the toilets and eat something” – “here we’re leaving Hanoi and will reach in 5 hours”. Thank you very much!
So here we were in Sa Pa. We knew it from the guidebook, this used-to-be (we’re talking 5-10 years) charming mountainous town became a perfect tourist hub with its 10 plus floors hotels, its “multi-cuisines” restaurants and its women from the ethnic minorities harrassing tourists to sell necklaces or get them visiting their village… So we weren’t surprised when getting off the bus to check all of that. The splendid view over the mountain chain opposite the village still worth it though, specially with a bright sun as we were lucky enough to get.
Even before reaching, we wanted to rent there a motorcycle to wander around, in the small villages and in the middle of the paddy fields. We still had in mind the stories of our bikers friends who reached France from Vietnam driving iconic Minsk Bielorussian motorcycles which were a very common sight in Vietnam thanks to the used-to-be global communism friendship. So that was very simple for us, we wanted to rent a Minsk and only a Minsk. We thought we would find them everywhere anyway but it looks like they are also fading away, being replaced by modern scooters. Still we found one guy who was still renting some. We weren’t disappointed as the Minsk is quite an experience! It’s loud and really rustic! But it’s a funny and when you’re used to the old Royal Enfields, it’s not complicated. It’s also way more stylish than the scooters for your holiday pics!
So we climbed the small roads around Sa Pa and we loved it. As usual, as soon as you get off the beaten path you finally find yourself alone in the middle of scenic landscapes, terrace paddy fields really amazing. There, Vietnamese have sometimes completly reshaped the mountain! It’s extraordinary and quite impresive (even if it wasn’t the best season for that as most of the rice plantations were dry). The other local “attractions” are the ethnic minorities, communities with a culture apart who kept their unique traditions, langage and outfis alive. So, this “attraction” seemed also a bit over-exploited at times and it would be better to immerse further in the mountain (as our friends Solenne and Alex did during their tandem-cycle trip) to really appreciate the richness of those minority cultures.
Concerning tips in Sa Pa, we only recommend one restaurant which stands apart from the rest, the “Hill Station Signature Restaurant” which offers original meals inspired by North Vietnam ethnic minorities cuisine in a quite unique decor.
To be continued: Cat Ba island