Retreat to the hills

Simple pleasures ... a street in Sapa.
Simple pleasures ... a street in Sapa. Photo: Rob McFarland

Rob McFarland slows to the pace of old Vietnam high in the northern mountains.

Teetering down steep stone stairs in inappropriate shoes and tight white designer jeans is a young, affluent Vietnamese woman. A multicoloured umbrella protects her from the sun and a private guide leads her carefully by the hand.

Coming up the other way is a young girl from the local Black Hmong hill tribe, dressed in an embroidered jacket and wearing the tribe's trademark black hat. Her face is creased in effort as she struggles with a large basket of sticks strapped to her back. She stops to let the descending woman pass and they exchange a sideways glance that speaks volumes about the extremes of modern-day Vietnam.

Technically still a communist country, Vietnam has a generation of young people who've embraced capitalism and the material rewards it can bring. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have the sort of designer boutiques and high-end restaurants you'd expect to find in any fast-paced, forward-thinking Asian city.

Both are compelling destinations but if you're seeking respite from the chaotic din of motorbike horns and the extreme sport of crossing the road, head north and, in particular, visit a beguiling hillside town nestled among some of the country's most spectacular scenery.

Once a French hill station, Sapa has developed during the past 20 years into a tourist destination. Travellers are drawn by the dramatic landscape of mountain peaks and plunging valleys and the chance to meet the local minority groups.

Getting to Sapa, 380 kilometres north of Hanoi, is an adventure. After stocking up on biscuits and beer at Hanoi train station, we drag our luggage across tracks to board the overnight train to Lao Cai.

Our final destination is the swish Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa and if it wasn't a Saturday night, we'd be delivered there in a velvet and mahogany-panelled carriage of the resort's private train. Tonight is the one night it doesn't run so we're on an older, shakier version. (For the record, the return journey three days later on the Victoria Express is much better.)

We arrive at Lao Cai in the murky pre-dawn light. Enjoying a curious combination of omelet and French bread for breakfast, we watch the market town come to life. Normally there would be a 90-minute bus transfer straight to Sapa but today we're detouring to the Sunday market at Bac Ha.

Minority groups from the north-west congregate at Bac Ha each week to trade and socialise. Beautifully dressed hill tribe women in intricate embroidered dresses and colourful headscarves barter and laugh while a lazy procession of motorbikes, horses, carts and water buffalo ambles by. Wicker baskets full of live pigs and chickens are prodded while, nearby, raw meat is carved on an outdoor chopping board. I find a line of barbers shaving with cut-throat razors and have to decline graciously when one motions enthusiastically towards my three-day growth.

Our onward journey to Sapa reveals tantalising glimpses of the Alps-like scenery. As we climb into the clouds, valleys plunge on all sides to reveal hundreds of metres of carefully terraced rice fields that explode in a riot of yellow flowers every September.

The drive also reveals Vietnam's cavalier approach to road safety. The central dividing line is merely a suggestion as to which side of the road to use and we spend most of the trip straddling it in preparation for the next overtaking manoeuvre.

With its polished wooden floors and cosy alpine feel, the Victoria resort is welcoming at the end of our trip. There is a pool and tennis court and an acclaimed spa for those looking to relax. Rooms are small but beautifully furnished with antiques and local handicrafts.

On a short stroll down the hill (everything is on a hill in Sapa) I hit the town's park and main square. It's a photographer's dream – the area is bordered with stalls manned by Black Hmong in traditional dress under a canopy of blue canvas and multicoloured umbrellas. Behind them a stunning mountain backdrop emerges through the mist.

Sapa is a much bigger tourist drawcard than Bac Ha and inevitably it has a different feel. Expect to be surrounded by trinket-laden hill tribe girls the moment you step outside. Much of the market here is devoted to handicrafts for tourists rather than essential supplies for locals.

There's no shortage of cafes, restaurants and bars lining the roads that dive down the hill from the main square and many of the building facades have been painted in a pleasing Mediterranean mismatch of pastel colours.

Visitors could easily spend a couple of days around town but the drawcard is the chance to walk in the mountains and meet the people.

The next day we set off for Cat Cat, a small Black Hmong village three kilometres south of Sapa. The instant we emerge from the hotel we're befriended by a group of Hmong women who pair off so we each have a guide. Their grasp of English varies but all have mastered the essential questions: "Where you from?" and "How old are you?" and, particularly important, "You married?"

Getting hitched is a serious business here and the hill tribes engage in some interesting wooing techniques. As recently as a decade ago men would kidnap girls from a neighbouring village to trial them for marriage. If they got on she'd stay, if they didn't she'd be returned. Weekly love markets to pair off youngsters were also commonplace, although an unhealthy interest from tourists has all but stamped these out.

We discover that even the youngest-looking of our companions is already married with two children and many women from the Red Dao hill tribe have a brand on their forehead to show they're taken.

The village of Cat Cat comprises timber shacks strung along a steep path that leads to a waterfall. Many locals have set up stalls outside their houses selling scarves and jewellery and children chase each other around courtyards. It's here I witness the glance between the affluent city girl and her hill tribe counterpart.

We reach Cat Cat waterfall and seek refuge inside a small hall where some youngsters are performing traditional dances. Our guide says the groups get along despite often having different dialects and belief systems.

The following day we tackle an even more spectacular trek, starting at the Black Hmong village of Lao Chai and passing through the Giay village of Ta Van as we follow a stream along the valley floor. All around, improbably green rice terraces climb hundreds of metres up hills and streams gush from the mountain tops.

On the way back to Sapa we pass the almost comical scene of two children herding a pair of enormous water buffalo along a ridge. At one stage the giggling girl clambers on top of one of the animals and lies down while her brother shepherds them along with a stick. It's about as far away from inappropriate shoes and designer jeans as you can get.

Rob McFarland travelled courtesy of Vietnam Airlines.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Vietnam Airlines has a fare to Hanoi for about $1300 flying via Ho Chi Minh City. Thai Airways has a fare for about $1070 flying via Bangkok; Malaysia Airlines has a fare for about $976 flying via Kuala Lumpur. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.) Australians require a visa for Vietnam for a stay of up to 30 days.

Staying there

The Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa has rooms from $US250 ($275). See victoriahotels-asia.com for packages including meals and transfer on the Victoria Express.

For more information see vietnamtourism.com.

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