In Sa Pa With The Montagnards

There it was right in front of me, lying on top of my disheveled rucksack: an indigo dyed hemp cloth embroidered with a pattern of zigzags and crosses. After being on the road for almost 18 hours, exhaustion hit me as I waited for my return flight to Manila. But the little piece of clothing I had relumed my beaten spirit.

Four days earlier, I was in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, monitoring the weather condition. Typhoon Megi was pummeling Northern Luzon. A news source announced that it may head further west, cross South China Sea and hit Northern Vietnam. But I sloughed off the possible danger to fulfill the very reason why I came back to Vietnam:  to reach Sa Pa, the mountainous province in the northwest area of the country. Sa Pa has been a dream, and I wanted to experience it not through the eyes of a mere tourist, but with a spirit of a feisty traveler.

The journey to Sa Pa was inspired by a number of travelers whom I had the opportunity to converse with when I first visited Vietnam in 2009 for a vacation. The town is situated in the Lao Cai province and can be reached by an overnight train from Hanoi. The scenery is described by most as breathtaking: sprawling rice terraces and rich green fields enveloped in cool weather. In the middle of the tranquil landscape is a quaint picture of a village with narrow roads, small markets, mini-hotels bathed in ochre, and structures inspired by French colonial architecture. Yet, nature only comes in second to the real wonder of this paradise: its people, the ethnic minority groups that turn Sa Pa into a place of refuge for those who wish to be unscathed by the grip of the modern world.

I wanted to experience what a day or two in Sa Pa would be like. I have encountered indigenous tribes in the Philippines but to actually spend a day with a member of a tribe is something I’ve never done before. Sa Pa gave me that opportunity.

On the night of October 19, I went aboard Livitrans Express Train. I was stationed in a berth with a French couple and their Vietnamese tour guide. The train left at exactly 8:00 pm and I took to my bunk with a can of 333 (pronounced as “Ba Ba Ba”), one of Vietnam’s local beers.

Livitrans Express Train at the Hanoi Train Station

The Train Berth

It was a bumpy ride but the tasty Ba Ba Ba blessed me with a good rest.

The train stopped at the Lao Cai station around 5:00 am. As soon as I disembarked from the carriage, I immediately looked for a companion for a ride to Sa Pa proper. The backpacker’s advice is: talk to someone or a group and negotiate a good deal with one of the mini coaster buses that takes tourists directly to Sa Pa. Luckily, I found a few German neighbors from my hostel in Hanoi so I decided to take a ride with them to the mountains.

An hour later, our vehicle stopped in front of a small jewelry shop. “We’re here!” said one of the backpackers. Outside the bus stood a group of women, wearing traditional clothing. I recognized them instantly as the Black H’mong, one of Sa Pa’s indigenous tribes. They carried big straw baskets strapped to their indigo dresses like backpacks. They had long belts wrapped around their waists. They wore dark turbans, puttees, large silver earrings and bracelets. As soon as I stepped out of the vehicle to greet them, a barrage of voices followed:

“Lady, you have a place to stay?”

“Lady, what’s your name?”

“Lady, you buy from me.”

The first thing that entered my mind was to get a scarf. The freezing atmosphere made me wobble and I needed something to warm my neck badly. I walked away from the group to find an open garment shop.

It was difficult walking the steep roads of Sa Pa but the colorful and attractive two-storey hotels and small restaurants that lined the streets made the walk more pleasant. Shops selling outdoor gear and apparel also loomed from one corner to another. It reminded me so much of Sagada.

A Road in Sapa

Another Road in Sa Pa

I was about to enter a shop when I noticed that a Black H’mong woman was behind me. She approached me and told me her name was “Chu”. Her skin was dark and wrinkled yet her eyes spoke of youth and gaiety.

“Do you have a place to stay?” she asked.

“No, I don’t, I’m still looking for one.  But I need a scarf, it’s really cold here,” I responded.

“Yes it is, but look,” she said, pointing at the sun’s rays that streaked through the blue sky. “It rained for days but the sun is up now.”

Before my journey, I read about my options to go around Sa Pa. You can either hire a guide from a hotel or ask a H’mong woman for a guided tour. In my case, I wanted to know Chu more. Besides, I was really impressed with how well she spoke English.

“Could you take me around tomorrow? Any village nearby?” I asked.

She excitedly replied, “Yes,  Cat Cat Village.”

“How far?”

“7 kilometers.”

I agreed and decided to meet her the following day.

That night, I wrapped myself in a blanket as the temperature dropped to about 14 degrees Celsius. Freezing weather is normal in Sa Pa because of its location, which is close to the border of China. Though the comfort of my small, cool room in a simple, yet homely mini-hotel lulled my senses, my excitement kept me awake. What am I going to see? What will I experience?

The following morning, I checked the news for weather updates.  It must have been divine intervention because the storm changed its direction.  Local weather news also forecasted Sa Pa weather to be sunny yet breezy.  In other words, it was the perfect climate for trekking.

Chu, in her traditional garb, greeted me outside the hotel as soon as I finished my breakfast. With a big bottle of water and a rucksack that carried a mosquito repellent, a towel, and a map, Chu and I headed for Cat Cat Village.

Cat Cat is an old village at the bottom of the Muong Hoa Valley. Surrounded by green mountains and rice paddies, the village is home to some of the Black H’mong tribespeople. Unlike other villages, residents of Cat Cat continue to uphold their customs.

A View of Cat Cat Village

Rice Paddies in Sa Pa

The gateway to Cat Cat is about two kilometers from my hotel. Along the way, we passed by Sa Pa’s dainty shops and the Sa Pa Market, where handmade brocades and stylish jewelries are being sold by the H’mong tribe.

Sa Pa Market Sign

I didn’t want the journey to end up like a silent film so I started asking Chu about her life in Sa Pa.

Chu is 31 years old and she works as a tour guide to support her family, including 4 sisters. I was surprised to hear her age because of the lines on her face but I understood why because the H’mong people had to work in the mountains to yield rice annually for survival.  Tourism, however, gave the locals another option. Instead of spending an entire day planting rice, locals studied the English language and became reliable tour guides.


“We stop here,” she said, pointing to a booth that required tourists to pay a small fee to enter Cat Cat Village. After securing my village pass, Chu and I continued our trek to the valley. It was a long walk on the dusty road yet the scenic view of the mountains conquered every physical obstacle. Once in a while, a farmer would stop planting rice in a terraced paddy to smile at a passerby.

Chu and I finally reached the flagstone steps that led to the heart of Cat Cat. As we descended towards the village, I felt awed by what I saw. I was captured by the picturesque view of the mountains around me. To my left were traditional houses with walls made of sawn timber and roofs covered with Pomu wood. H’mong men and women were everywhere, attending to every chore from drying clothes to selling handmade products. It felt like being catapulted into a different world.

Indigo Dye Plantation inside the village

As Chu took me further into the village, she spoke to me about the interesting gender roles of her tribe.  She explained that majority of the men usually stayed at home to take care of the children while the women had to work as tour guides because they understood the English language more than the men could. Arranged marriage was previously practiced as well but the tradition diminished through the years.  Chu said she wasn’t obliged to marry a man from her tribe.  Though she could have any man she wanted, she chose to remain single.

“What about religion?” I asked. I thought Chu didn’t want to talk about a sensitive topic but she openly told me that she and her family practice Shamanism. Catholicism, however, is already being practiced by some of the H’mongs, she explained. I wasn’t surprised because right in the middle of the Sa Pa Township stands the Sa Pa Catholic Church.

Sa Pa Catholic Church

We were about to descend towards a bridge when I started to lose my balance. The dried mud on the flagstones made the walk too slippery. Chu put my arm around her shoulder and said, “Let me help you”. I felt like a little child.

I was gasping for air when we reached the bottom where the bridge was. But the pathway led to a natural wonder: Cat Cat Waterfall. It was a great reward after a long, exhausting walk. I could’ve stayed the entire day to feel the damp wind brush my face or hear the sound of water falling on rocks but we had to head back to town.

Cat Cat Waterfall

We took a different route this time, which was more difficult because of the steepness. The sun’s heat did not help at all but we managed to entertain each other by sharing our local language. Chu taught me a few words but they were too difficult to pronounce, let alone remember. I also shared with her a few Tagalog words such as “Kumusta” and “Ako si Chu”.

The Hanging Bridge

When we got to the main road, I met a few of her H’mong friends whom she introduced. We took a break, sat on huge rocks and nibbled on a local version of “Pringles”. Most of them couldn’t speak English so we did nothing but eat and smile at each other.

Chu’s friends

Nibbling on the local version of Pringles

Rest Stop

An hour and a pair of sweaty pants later, Chu and I were back in Sa Pa Market where I bid my final goodbye. I gave her a 5 Philippine peso coin as a token and she returned the favor by tying a friendship bracelet around my wrist.

“I will see you again,” she said and shook my hand.

It was a sad goodbye. The 3-hour trek and getting to know each other seemed like a lifetime of friendship. I wanted to forget about the heavy emotion that struck me at that moment. “Think of a happy thought, buy something for yourself,” I muttered. So I went around the market to find a simple souvenir.

I was checking one stall when an old lady wearing a black turban that matched her long indigo dress approached me with a jacket embroidered with interesting patterns.  She raised the jacket right in front of me and nodded her head.  She said things I couldn’t comprehend but I knew that she was trying to convince me to buy it. I thought of her simply as one of those vendors who’d cling on to you like a leech until you buy something from them.  I hesitated and walked away but the old lady was tenacious.

She followed me around and didn’t say a word. She simply held the jacket and kept on nodding. I was about to take the flight of stairs which led to the exit when she stopped in front of me, showed me the interesting design of the jacket and made the action of sewing.  I assumed that she was telling me that it was her who made the design. Then right in the middle of a peaceful, silent bargain, she smiled. Her black lacquered teeth said it all.

I took out my wallet and handed her 200,000 dong (equivalent to Php418) for the jacket. She didn’t argue. I’m not even sure if it was the right amount for it. But she raised her arms to the heavens, gave me a hug, and kissed me more than twice on the cheeks. I know that I will never forget.

As I carried the jacket made of an indigo dyed hemp cloth and embroidered with a remarkable pattern of zigzags and crosses back to Manila, I was reminded of a different world. It is a world with a voice that needs to be heard and cherished.  It is a world whose value will be its people and the experience it spreads among those who are willing to get involved and listen.  Most of all, it is a world that gives us all the reason to travel. Henry Boye once said, “The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people halfway.” He’s right.

Chu, I will see you again.

Me and Chu

4 thoughts on “In Sa Pa With The Montagnards

  1. Pingback: The Art of Not Planning « Rica's Rucksack

  2. Pingback: The Joy of Walking | Rica's Rucksack - Travel Blog

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