The northwest of Vietnam doesn’t see too many foreign visitors, even long after the country opened its borders for tourists.
Liza Linklater travels on roads less taken to discover beauty in people and nature.
After eight years living on and off in Asia, I thought most rural weekly markets where pretty much the same. That was until I happened upon the Tam Duong Sunday market in north-western Vietnam. My companion and I were the only Westerners, and definitely the least colourful.
Traders and purchasers from at least 10, and probably more, different ethnic groups surrounded us. All were dressed in distinctive traditional clothing, just as they do every day. They had walked for hours from the surrounding hills to trade, haggle for the week’s essentials, and to socialize.
Most of these distinct hill tribe groups have remained relatively untouched by Vietnamese and Western influences. Vietnam is home to 54 ethnic groups, of which the Kinh (Viet) account for 87 percent of the population. But the north and northwest region is inhabited by many groups – the Dao, Thai, Hmong, Muong, Khang, Mang, Giay, Xinh-mun, Lao, Lu to name a few. The best part of this market experience was that we didn’t feel like visitors to a human zoo. Since there were only two of us, we were intriguing objects of curiosity for them as well.
We had set off a few days earlier from Hanoi in a four-wheel drive Korean-built Mekong jeep. Our driver, Mr. Lap, delivered us to our first stop at Mai Chau, which is as far west as most visitors get from Hanoi. The White Tai live in this beautiful valley and we stayed in one of their traditional thatched-roof stilt houses for about B260 a night. Visitors usually spend their time trekking to nearby ethnic minority villages.
The next day we spent 12 hours travelling along Highway 6 and the last stretch on Highway 42 from Tuan Giao, until we reached Dien Bien Phu. This paved route opened in 1995 to tourists. Highway 6 proceeds along river plains where fruit trees and seas of tea and rice are cultivated, and then through beautiful mountains and valleys with their rust and green patterned fields. We passed families from several ethnic groups walking or bicycling along this route.
At Son La we stopped long enough to visit the partially restored Old French Prison. Son La is where most travellers stop for the night, but we pushed on as we wanted to spend more time in Dien Bien Phu.
Dien Bien Phu is a town known to many for the definitive battle that was waged there. On May 6, 1954 Viet Minh forces completely destroyed the French regiment after a two-month siege. Many thousands on both sides died in the conflict. This French defeat marked the beginning of the end for French colonial rule throughout Indochina.
Only 16 kms from the Lao border, this town of 60,000 inhabitants lies in a valley surrounded by forested hills, in one of the most remote parts of the country. Tourists have been coming here since 1990 to see the historical sights, first by air, later by road. The most interesting spots to visit are: the re-created headquarters bunker of the French commander; the displays and remnants from the battlefield featured at the museum; the view from the hill overlooking the town and valley imagining the horror of the battle; and the headquarters of General Vo Nguyen Giap set in the forest outside of town.
Dien Bien Phu is now the capital of Lai Chau province – home to 21 different ethnic groups. And it marks the birthplace of the Thai ethnic group’s culture. One of my most distinct memories was a scene of a Black Thai woman bicycling past vivid, seemingly never-ending, green paddy fields dotted with stationary, black water buffaloes.
From the serenity of such scenes we continued on our way. It’s an understatement to say that the roads aren’t the best from Dien Bien Phu northward. In fact, they were absolutely dreadful. It took nearly four hours to cover the 70-kilometre trip from Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau. We were often travelling at 25 km/hour or less. The stones, often small boulders, over which we drove were being cut – definitely not too finely – by women toiling by the side of the road.
It was a bone-jarring experience but the scenery was spectacular, with the route often running alongside a tributary of the Da River through the mountains. We had had a choice between our air- conditioned vehicle and a less expensive Russian-built non-aircon open jeep. After hours on these gravel roads we were unquestionably pleased with our decision. Along the way, we passed other travellers in open-windowed and open-backed jeeps that were caked in dirt.
After our vehicle broke down at one stage (luckily my companion, who is certainly no mechanic, got it going again), we finally arrived in Tam Duong (also called Phong Tho). The next morning, the Sunday market enthralled us. The previous day’s trip had certainly been worth the effort to get there.
The drive between Tam Duong and Sapa is one of the most beautiful stretches of road in the country. The paved road passes by the Fanispan mountain range (the highest in the country) near the Chinese border and continues over the highest mountain pass, and down into the beautiful valleys near Sapa.
Here we bid farewell to Mr. Lap, but stayed on ourselves for a few days, in the delightful, more touristy town of Sapa. Sapa means “town of sand” – Sa (sand) and Pa (town) in Chinese characters. The town was built as a French hill station in the ’30s. Thousands of visitors come to Sapa to breathe the brisk mountain air, to trek among the terraced rice fields and the lush mountains, and to see the ethnic groups with their colourful dress and exquisite jewelry.
We completed our journey on the northwestern loop back to Hanoi by day on one of the luxurious cars on the Victoria Express Train. The cushy part of the train is actually two wood-paneled sleeping cars and an elegant dining car attached to the end of an ordinary Vietnam Railways train.
It takes an hour to drive from Sapa to the train station and then it’s a 10-hour train trip from Lao Cai near the Chinese border to Hanoi, about 380 kms to the southeast. The tracks run alongside the Hong or Red River through beautiful valleys. There was nothing to do but read, talk to the charming travellers who shared our compartment, enjoy the scenery and daydream about the delightful experience we’d just had.
Getting There: Bangkok to Hanoi
• Thai International flies twice daily from Bangkok to Hanoi (B10,750 return), as does Vietnam Airlines (B10,500 return). Air France flies Mon., Wed. and Sat. (B10,000 return).
• Rainbow Tours can help you organize your trip. 10 Le Hong Phong, or 36 Nghi Tam, Hanoi. Tel. (+4) 829-2562 fax (+4) 716-1289
• You can decide on your own itinerary via e-mail. In Vietnam, you can’t hire a vehicle without a driver.
Rest and Eat
Hotels and restaurants along the north-western loop are basic and clean and will be booked for you by the tour company ahead of time. However, Sapa has a wide variety of accommodation and good restaurants.