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Time Travel in Sapa, Vietnam



It’s been over two months since we spent a couple of days in the mountains of North Vietnam.   We saw sights I’ll never forget.

We had a chance to visit Minority Tribes in this remote part of the world, very close to the Chinese border.  I felt like I had zoomed back in time hundreds of years.  People live in small villages in hut like houses with no running water.  Heat and cooking take place on small fires and the only signs of civilization  were occasional TV’s and, of course, cell phones.  Not many though.

To get to Sapa where we stayed, we took an all night sleeper train.  Interesting.  The distance was only 250 kilometers but took 10 hours.  I understand it would have taken almost twice that to drive on some barely passable roads.

The train was very civilized and comfortable with room service and hospitable staff.

We were greeted by our charming guide, who straight away took us off to a remote village about a  four hour drive north where we could attend the weekly market.

As we got closer to the small hamlet, we kept seeing people walking along the road, babies in packs and walking sticks in hand.  It was rainy and muddy, so many wore rubber boots, I’d call Wellies, with their colorful  tribal attire.

The market itself was a visual treat.  It was an odd mix of piles of embroidered tribal clothing,  house hold goods, some fruits and vegetables and  North Face jackets.  The folks we saw not only shopped for goods and foods, but enjoyed time catching up with neighborhood news. We saw young people checking each other out, poking each other and snickering the way teenagers are apt to do,   while the elderly  gossiped, sharing  sly grins.  Many stared at us, strange looking foreigners in their midst.








Some  gathering around a fires sipping rice wine or hot tea, trying to get warm.


 There were beautiful things sold in the market.  I picked up a couple of little skirts for my grand daughters like the ones in the photo below but I’m sorry I didn’t buy more.  The embroidery and weaving the women do here is extraordinary.  

It was very cold being winter in North Vietnam.  And we happened to hit a colder than usual spell.  In fact, school was canceled in many of the little villages because the class rooms had no heat.   It made me very sad to see small children scampering around barefoot with runny noses.  This little fellow broke my  heart.  I was glad  that we had some small apples to hand out.  They are a special treat for these children.  (More on this in my next blog post).

 We thoroughly enjoyed seeing the countryside with the terraced rice fields and the meandering water buffalo.  It was off season for growing rice except in a few low lying areas where nursery fields were being started.   We were told that some of the more ambitious growers tried to get their fields started before TET, the Asian New Year, when families and friends party and celebrate the coming season.  I suspect a lot of that rice wine gets consumed.



I absolutely loved our experience here but  would like to return during the growing season when the sun shines.  It must be stunning.



Post Author
Susan J. Smith
Susan's career includes writing for newspapers, lots of community work and a wonderful family life. Now she is enjoying traveling, photography and writing for DesignDestinations and Grand Rapids Magazine. She welcomes you on her journey and appreciates your comments.


  1. posted by
    peggy depersia
    Apr 8, 2013 Reply

    Such an extra ordinary experience…..our shared humanity is so evident in your beautiful photos, the expressions on the faces so recognizable.

  2. posted by
    Kate Dernocoeur
    Apr 8, 2013 Reply

    Wow, that’s a cool posting! I can’t help but notice that corrugated tin has also made its way there, replacing traditional thatch (which is undoubtedly a benefit).

    • posted by
      Susan J. Smith
      Apr 8, 2013 Reply

      HI Kate, I think you’d like this part of the world for hiking. Beautiful. I am going to be doing another blog post about the housing so stay tuned. Thank you for your kind words.

  3. posted by
    Apr 8, 2013 Reply

    I loved seeing your photos Susan…what an adventure! I’m not sure there’s a valid connection but I find the poorer the country, the more colorful the clothing. Bhutan was the same way.

    • posted by
      Susan J Smith
      Apr 8, 2013 Reply

      Interesting observation. Thank you. sjs

  4. posted by
    Apr 8, 2013 Reply

    Susan, your photos are truly amazing. You continue to capture what I’m pretty certain I’ll never see. Thank you…again!

  5. posted by
    Apr 8, 2013 Reply

    Susan, How did you find your way nere? Ann Clarkeson

  6. posted by
    Anna K Donahue
    Apr 10, 2013 Reply

    I really enjoyed seeing this piece of the humanity from across the globe. You are brave to travel so far and leave the luxurious trappings of America!

  7. posted by
    Teeth Blackening Tradition North Vietnam | DesignDestinations
    Apr 29, 2013 Reply

    […] known for the many villages of minority tribes  compelling.  While I loved seeing how people live and shop and go to school (see previous blog posts) what haunts me are the faces of the members of the […]

  8. posted by
    May 3, 2013 Reply

    Amazing. I also visited Sapa with my sister, Ileana. One of my most enriching travel experiences. Like some of your photos – it was also quite cold and rainy. Very adventurous, indeed, Susan. Great snaps. You seem to capture a LOT of smiles.

  9. posted by
    Apr 8, 2014 Reply

    Even I am from Malaysia which is just south not far from Vietnam, still can’t reach this country. Wishing can visit Sapa, Hanoi, Ho CHi Minh and Dalat one day.

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