We took the Reunification Express train from Dong Hoi to Hanoi, a 10-hour trip lined with rice fields and low-lying plains next to the East Vietnam Sea. It was nice to have a little downtime for loading pictures and reading since our next adventure started early the next morning from Hanoi.
The Red River flows from China through Vietnam and creates a network of rivers, tributaries, canals and dikes in an 180-degree arc north of Hanoi. Sapa, or Sa Pa, was high on our list of places to visit, in the north of Vietnam. It is well known among tourists for trekking the area’s trails among its remote villages, colorful traditionally costumed hill tribes, and lush green terraced rice fields. Vietnamese culture has its roots here from 3,000 years ago.
We knew we couldn’t visit it all, but we wanted to see more than Sa Pa (which we knew would be rather touristy… talk about a Boom Town!!), so even before we checked out Hanoi, we did a 6-day tour of northwest Vietnam with our guide Louis from Vega Travel.
Hill Tribes of Vietnam
Besides the 4 main ethnic groups of Viet, Chinese, Khmer and Cham, Vietnam has 50 recognized ethnic minorities, and we would spend time among several of them. While the minorities in southern and central Vietnam were mostly distinguished by architecture, language, and livelihood, those in the north of Vietnam are known for their colorful clothing. The women here, especially, look like they’ve walked through an 18th century time warp.
Like many ethnic minorities, the tribes branch into subgroups: there are the Black, Red, White and Flower Hmong; the White and Black Thai, for example. The distinctions have as much to do with the differences of customs and dialect as dress. Most Thai, for example, maintained their traditional religious beliefs, which focus on ancestor worship and genii, not Confucianism, Buddhism, or Taoism (whereas the Tay absorbed these belief systems of the Vietnamese).
Among the Hmong and Dao women, the elaboration of dress is more important than the elaboration of home. Red Dao women wear ornate red headdresses, often decorated with long strings of coins, while Black Hmong women favor black leggings, embroidered tunics, huge loop earrings, and brimless hats.
Battle of Dien Bien Phu
We visited the battleground for the Battle of Dien Bien Phu which was the climactic confrontation of the First Indochina War between the French Far East Expeditionary Corps and Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnamese Communists (the Viet Minh communist-nationalist revolutionaries). The battle occurred in the spring of 1954 and culminated in a French defeat that influenced negotiations underway at Geneva among several nations over the future of Indochina. It was a tremendous victory for Vietnam.
It was, from the French perspective before the event, a set piece battle to draw out the Vietnamese and destroy them with superior firepower. The French began by inserting and then supporting the soldiers at Điện Biên Phủ, deep in the hills of northwestern Vietnam. Its purpose was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines into the neighboring Kingdom of Laos, a French ally, and tactically draw the Viet Minh into a major confrontation in order to cripple them. The plan was to resupply the French position by air, and was based on the belief that the Viet Minh had no anti-aircraft capability AND could not transport any to this area.
The Viet Minh, however, under General Vo Nguyen Giap (who was also the Vietnam’s overall commander in the American/Vietnam War and very much a hero in Vietnam) brought in vast amounts of heavy artillery (including anti-aircraft guns). They moved these weapons through extremely difficult terrain up the rear slopes of the mountains surrounding the French positions, dug tunnels through the mountain, and placed the artillery pieces overlooking the French encampment. This positioning of the artillery made it nearly impervious to French counter- battery fire. The French had no alternative but surrender.
Sa Pa is a lovely hill station town in Northern Vietnam near the Chinese border. The region as also known as “the Tonkinese Alps” and it’s culturally rich with different hill tribe minorities, lush mountain ranges, rice fields and breathtaking views! Once there, we easily understood what the hype is all about.
Bac Ha Sunday Market
Sleepy Bac Ha wakes up on Sunday for its colorful, chaotic and comprehensive market. The streets and lanes filled to the choking point as villagers from dozens of different ethnic groups flocked in from the hills and valleys to do their weekly shopping.
A few other short videos of the sights and sounds of the Bac Ha Market: