Kelly Landry was Getaway
's first visitor to Sapa in the very north-west of Vietnam
. It's a place we've always wanted to visit and she was the lucky one to go. Along with Halong Bay, it is the "other" major destination out of Hanoi. The frontier is in the remote Tonkinese Alps bordering China.
She heeded the advice that the best way to reach Sapa was by night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Her cabin was comfortable, but the train does not have a dining car, so stock up on food and drink. After eight hours and a good sleep, the onward journey to Sapa was by bus.
It turned out to be surprisingly busy as Black Hmong and Red Zao people flock in to sell their handicraft. It's almost worth the journey for that. There are carvings from slow-growing cypress wood, intricate basketwork, hemp, cotton and silk fabrics coloured with natural dyes and divine silver jewellery. Each area has its own designs and much of what you see will be hard to resist. They also do a range of medicines.
Most of the population lives in small villages and hamlets sprinkled throughout valleys and mountains. No longer nomadic they stay in one spot and cultivate and work their farmland.
Apart from locals, tourists and trekkers, Sapa is peaceful and has wonderful scenery. The first tourists were French colonials in the late 1800s looking to escape the unbearable heat of Hanoi and Old Saigon. They found relief high above the Tonkinese Alps, at an altitude of 1600m.
Sapa has many natural sites. Ham Rong Mountain, Silver Waterfall, Rattan Bridge, Bamboo Forest and Ta Phin Cave so there's lots to see and do. In spring, it's a delight as the apricot, plum and cherry trees bloom and verdant rice paddies form patterns on the landscape. Trekkers call Sapa the Kingdom of Orchids as the exotic flowers are seen everywhere in the forest
There are treks to other villages, and for the very fit, there's a 3km hike to the top of Fansipan, Vietnam's highest peak.
Our crew stayed at Topas Eco Lodge, sitting at the top of two cone-formed hills. The 25 rustic, chalet-style lodges are based on ecological principles. Solar energy is used and a wastewater facility has been implemented to avoid polluting the local area. It has a minimum impact on the surrounding environment and local villagers are employed there.
Executive and deluxe bungalows are built from natural materials. White granite and golden hardwood blend beautifully. Interiors are simple but beautiful and views from private balconies are endless. Bungalows have double or twin beds, separate bathroom and no television or internet to distract you from the surrounding scenery.
The restaurant is a traditional Tay stilt house. It was moved piece by piece from its original site and reassembled at the lodge with modern improvements added. They offer a set menu or buffet of true Vietnamese food, cooked and served by villagers.
Topas is perfectly placed for visitors to explore villages. Kelly went to Taffin, a Red Zao settlement. She wondered why she saw only woman out and about. That's because the men stay home while the women work in the rice fields, cook, make clothes and look after the family. Hmmm.
She was invited for tea by one of the women and found her home welcoming and warm. Open fireplaces provide warmth and cooking heat. Women sit in front of them making traditional Red Zao outfits. They take up to eight months to embroider and each tribe has a distinctive look. They have three kinds of hat: one for children, red ones when they reach eight and larger hats for older women. They are not permitted to cut their hair and cleverly combine hat and hair. Their clothing is exquisite and colourful.
There are around five ethnic minorities in the region and the most striking are the flower Hmong women. It's something to see them in their beautiful garb, riding on all-terrain Russian-made motorbikes heading to the crowded Sunday Bac Ha market.
They are joined by friends who come from the mountains with goods to sell, including embroidery, tobacco, rice, wine, dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, horses and buffalo. Every market is a festival with the sharing of rice wine and food.
You can walk to Thai Giang Pho Village to visit a school, the 1921 palace of the Hmong king and stroll through the beautiful plum gardens.
It was a test for Kelly to taste local delicacies. Not one single part of the animal is wasted and if you don't fancy innards you might want to take your own food from the hotel.
The best time to visit is from March to May and from September to mid-December.
Sapa in the far north-west of Vietnam.
Travel Indochina has six-day Sapa Tours from Hanoi. Accommodation includes three nights in standard hotels including two nights at the Topas Eco Lodge, breakfast, two nights in an air-conditioned train. Transfers and transport, English-speaking guides and entrance fees are included.
Exclusive Getaway viewers' prices start at $399 per person twin share, a saving of more than $100 per person on the normal package price. Deluxe tours start at $436 per person twin share. They will run daily between June 1 and September 30, 2011. Deluxe tours depart on Monday, Wednesday and Sunday.
Prices correct at June 4, 2011.
For further information
Tel: 1300 138 755
24 Muong Hoa
Ph: +84 20 387 1331
Fax: +84 20 387 2405
Visa: Australian passport holders must have a valid passport and a visa is required.
Electricity: 220V at 50Hz. Three plugs are used throughout Vietnam: two flat blades, two round pins and two parallel flat pins with ground pin.
Time zone: GMT +7.
Currency: The dong.
International dialling code: +84.
It is recommended travellers to Vietnam see their doctor at least six weeks before departure as there may be specific vaccinations recommended. Other health precautions and preventions may also be recommended. For further information, visit www.smartraveller.gov.au and www.welltogo.com.au.