Okay so, confession time. I’m actually not much of a beach person. I realize that sounds ridiculous after last week’s plaudit of Vietnam’s coastal areas, but it’s true. I spent my whole childhood within an hour of the beach, and not once did I elect to go of my own volition. It’s not that I dislike them necessarily – I’ve since learned there’s plenty to see and do that doesn’t involve sitting on a towel for five hours reading the latest Dan Brown masterwork – just that I’ve never really felt comfortable there. For some reason, I’ve always seemed to identify more with colder, more mountainous regions.
Which conveniently brings us to our next destination, and our last in Vietnam (for now). It’s not exactly a secret that a huge portion of Southeast Asia is mountainous, lying along the Eastern edge of the Himalayas. And yet it seems to me, and I may be generalizing here, that most depictions of the region involve bamboo huts and conical hats in humid, sweltering jungles. So it may surprise at least a few people that there are areas of Vietnam where you may actually need to wear a jacket. What’s more, there are even times when it might even – hold your breath – snow a little bit.
Aside from the meteorological diversity, the geography has also isolated the people of the region, creating a wholly distinct set of cultures that stretch across Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma, and beyond, yet swear no fealty to any state. Much of this region, now referred to by some scholars as Zomia, is populated by ethnic minorities, many of which share a common ancestor yet over time have grown increasingly unique from one another. Nowhere can this be easier witnessed than the area that surrounds the town of Sa Pa in Northern Vietnam.
I should start by saying that this area is far too vast and diverse to fit into one trip, and our visit was certainly no exception to that rule. When we came to Sa Pa in late March, the weather was a bit shifty and made getting around somewhat difficult, so already we were forced to make some concessions. The area is host to more than 80 ethnic minorities, including Dao, Tay, Giay, Hoa, Thai, and Xa Pho, each with their own variety of subgroups, and expecting to interact with even a handful of them is unlikely. As a result, most of our experiences were with the Black Hmong that live in the villages closest to the town of Sa Pa.
But to say that we were disappointed by this would be ridiculous. Every experience in Sa Pa is uniquely memorable, as ours was. One day, when riding through the valley south of town, we came across a group of Black Hmong women and children working in the hills, chopping away at the soil to make room for a new terrace of rice paddies. We decided to hop off the bike and hike up to visit with them. They were incredibly welcoming to us, chatting and laughing with what limited language we could share. Before we knew it, we were even joining in on the labor.
Eventually we were invited to come for dinner at one of the households of the girls working on the hill. We stopped at a small market and bought some tofu and a few cases of rice wine, and were whisked away up into the village. I use the word ‘village’ loosely, as it’s really just composed of a few households used communally. But when dinner is served, everyone shows up, seemingly out of nowhere. I sat in a room with fifteen men and boys, while my girlfriend was taken into an adjoining room where just the women of the village ate. The whole atmosphere was incredibly festive, with the rice wine pouring freely all night until most of the men had dropped to the floor. This was just another night for the Hmong.
My favorite and most surreal experience came when I was encouraged (or should I say coerced) by a group of young children to drink with them. We’re talking ten-year-olds boys here, laying down shot after shot of pure rice wine on the table and downing them without effort, and then chastising me belligerently when I showed any resistance. Still not exactly sure what to make of that. Eventually it was dark, and we still had to drive back into town, now a bit tipsy. Otherwise we probably would have stayed for hours.
There are plenty of things that I never got the chance to take part in during my time in Sa Pa. Flower markets, ritual sacrifices to the forest, and lunar festivals are just some of the things you might see depending on what time of year you visit. And the cultural experiences are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Sa Pa. Huge peaks, rivers, waterfalls, endless forests, hills and valleys covered with terraced rice paddies; the opportunities to witness incredible natural beauty, whether it be through hiking or on scenic drives, are among the best in Southeast Asia.