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.

Our tour route through northwest Vietnam.

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.

Our first view of the rice fields in the northwest part of Vietnam.

Yes….they were really this green.

Our driver, Tuan, showing us some massive furniture carved by some of the locals.

Our first view of the mountains of northwest Vietnam.

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.

An exhibit at the Dien Bien Phu museum showing how heavy artillery was transported across the mountains….

….and a picture showing what it actually looked like in 1954.

On the way to Sa Pa, we made friends with some of the local ethnic minorities, some of whom were too shy to look at the camera.

Each ethnic minority has its own unique language and dress.

This guy is Mark’s age and served in the North Vietnamese Army. He couldn’t have been sweeter.

On the road about to go over the pass – Heaven’s Gate – to Sa Pa.

Sa Pa

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.

Sa Pa is a lovely mountain town in Northern Vietnam.

Our first view of the rice fields in the valley below Sa Pa. While beautiful to look at, they are difficult to farm for two reasons: (1) the land is very steep forcing the terraced plots to be small, and (2) because of the cool mountain temperatures, only one rice crop per year can be raised compared to two or even three in other parts of Vietnam.

These ladies were hiking up about a 45-degree angle.

And, unbelievably, corn was planted and harvested on this 70-degree slope.

Since leaving office, our former President has obviously been dipping his toe into entrepreneurial ventures.

Now, 2 + 2 = what?

How hard can it be to play that twangy thing???? (video)

Down in the valley below Sa Pa, these recreated water wheels illustrated how the locals pumped water from the river before electricity. (video)

We weren’t really going to dive …..

…because the water was too shallow.

Our guide, Louis (who always had a smile), had a soft spot for little dogs….

….and other little critters. (Louis catches a piglet video).

Starting out on an incredible two-day hike in the Sa Pa valley (video). It had rained the night before and water was gushing everywhere (video).

Which created some beautiful waterfalls…

… but such rains can be dangerous given the steep slopes of red dirt.

We passed by huts and field workers and kids of all ages. This little girl of 6 or so is carrying her little brother on her back. (video)

These guys were wrestling a tiller up a terrace (after it had tumbled down right before us). At least it was a mechanical tiller and not a water buffalo!

We stopped by a local’s house for lunch and were adopted by the local’s cat. Those eyes…

We decided to hike up through a bamboo forest…..

Super slippery going down.

…as you can see – the clay trail was steep and wet.

A view across the valley to our homestay for the night (video).

We stayed with a lovely local ethnic minority family for the night. The bottom floor was hard dirt. This is the owner’s room.

Thuy, who accompanied us on the trip as a guide trainee, plays a local game with one of the grandkids. Think of badminton with your feet.

Louis, our guide, and Shauna in the kitchen. Yes, a grate over a wood fire produced…

… this feast (video).

Our host (on the left) with our driver (on the right).

Our hostess (on the left) protects this novice rice-wine drinker (on the right) from the successive rounds of toasts at the men’s end of the table.

But she can’t be protected from eating the boiled chicken head. In the background, Thuy is thinking “we suckered another tourist”.

Starting out on the second day, we walked past local homes (video), and we made really good friends…..amazing what a little candy will do.

If you could see through the clouds behind us, you would see the peak of Fansipan. At 10,300 feet, Fansipan is the highest mountain in Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). Dubbed “the Roof of Indochina”, it has about 2,000 floral varieties and more than 300 fauna species.

As we came into the village that was our stopping point, we saw this little boy of seven or eight using a big knife to cut strips of wood off of a stick (for his brother and sister to play with). Probably against a bunch of laws in the U.S.

These little ones were playing with something more conventional.

And finally, a member of Red Elf ethnic minority. OK, politically incorrect but funny nonetheless.

One final shot of the incredible views of the Sa Pa valley.

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.

After leaving the Sa Pa area, we went to the Bac Ha Market which is held every Sunday and is the biggest minority peoples market in Northwest Vietnam. Alive with the bright colors (video) and extravagant costumes  (video) of the local people, we saw Flower Hmong, Red Hmong, Black Dao, Tay, Nung, La Chi, Phu La and other minority groups who come from far and wide to buy and sell a wide variety of goods and livestock, to exchange news and to renew friendships (video).

We saw costumes of every type with rich vibrant colors.

And foods that we don’t usually see in U.S supermarkets, including horse meat….

…splayed pigs….

….whole chicken means WHOLE chicken in Vietnam….

….and I’m not even sure what this is….

.….and corn whiskey. Mark tried some and felt that it could be an adequate substitute for gasoline.

A few other short videos of the sights and sounds of the Bac Ha Market:

This little piggy goes to market.

If it walks like a duck…

Lamination services anyone?

We thought that the older women had fascinating faces….from the solemn….

….to the smiling….

….to the lady who just wasn’t going to smile….

….to the granny who was too near the corn whiskey….

….and finally, to George W. Bush’s Vietnamese cousin.