Best things to do in Lao Cai and sightseeing in Lao Cai
Sa Pa - Lao Cai
Nothing like you'd expect from Vietnam - cloudy, foggy, rainy. A great place to have a warm glass of mulled wine.
In Sa Pa, we were lucky to find a wonderful room overlooking Mt. Fansipan, 3143m., the highest in Vietnam. It was a bit misty outside our window, but we could still see glimpses of the steep rice terraces that are characteristic of Sa Pa. The weather wasn't our best friend here with downpours greeting us and making travel tedious. Still, the warmth and friendliness of the local ethnic villagers and the colorful market made up for the cool, misty weather. We were lucky to have encountered the Autumn Lights Festival, which brought out so many colors and a whole lot of joy in the streets. There is a rare combination of old and new in Sa Pa as the new infrastructure provides good restaurants and hotels while the tribes people from surrounding villages hang around trying to sell their handicrafts.
Northern Vietnam's tourist centre, Sapa offers excellent mountain scenery and walks, and a host of colorful local minority populations.
Cat Cat Village - Lao Cai
One of the trekking highlights in Sa pa would be Cat Cat village (pronounced as 'ca-aht ca-aht village'), a village formed in the mid-19th century and houses the Mong ethnic tribe. This is only 2km away from the central town, but requires some intensive walking. You can easily pick up a map from any hostel reception, or you could hire a local guide - the latter is advisable as there are no proper pathways and the fog makes the visibility very bad. Along the way, you can catch the French exisiting hydro-electric power station next to the Cat Cat waterfall. The ethnic tribe takes pride in their traditional handicrafts such as cotton tree planting, weaving and bracelets, which have been preserved through generations. They also had a show performed for visiting tourists (unfortunately yes, they have succumbed to tourism as well) which features a unique cultural tradition specific to their people called the keo vo (wife pulling) festival.
Sa Pa District - Lao Cai
We finally arrived in Sa pa. The overnight train ride on the sleeper berth was worth it, and so was the early morning dash out of the train wondering if we were at the correct stop. We rented a van to drive us down to our accommodations, which took a tad less than an hour's drive. (Note: A lot of taxi drivers perch themselves at the train station so do your own math before agreeing on a cab price). Washed up in the holding area, and had a simple breakfast (although all I could barely manage was orange juice and some plain bread) whilst waiting for our rooms to be ready. As the sun rose to reveal the rolling hills peeking behind the clouds, we were simply enlightened by the majestic view at the window. I've read many a time that Sa pa is where heaven meets earth, and indeed Sa pa lies in the heart of the uniqueness of Vietnam - such bliss to have woken up to such a view throughout my stay. Pictures certainly don't do it justice ♥ Exploring the Northwestern part of Vietnam was quite a drastic change from all the cities I've been to, the mix of tribal life and enveloping mountains were a refreshing breath of air. Trekking in the cool climate was also a huge welcome, the tropical heat in Singapore just makes it too unbearable to trek on for hours! Being typical equator-beings, winter in Vietnam can be quite cold. Especially with Sa pa being in the North and higher in altitudes at cloud level, the temperatures tend to be slightly slower. For that, I was thankful that I had bought a fleece coat from Hanoi - so do remember to read up before you pack! Mid-December is the trademark monsoon season for South-east Asian countries, hence many routes were reduced to nothing but muddy tracks eroded by the rainwater. We saw many warning signs, presumably telling us in Vietnamese to back off (not very tourist friendly). It's not only slippery and muddy, most routes are very narrow and if you do not hold on properly, you're just standing at the side of the cliff. The vehicles
Lao Chải - Lao Cai
Trekking down 6km South east from Sa Pa central town leads you to Lao Chai village, a picturesque route of paddle fields and minority houses. We passed by oxen transporting goods, wild pigs roaming around and elementary school children playing in a local school - so it was quite an eye-opener. We had lunch near the Black H'mong house before continuing the trek to Tavan village of Dzay minority people. The skies also became gloomier as the day passed, that being said the picture below was taken by my iPhone and was not edited! It was also on the route where an elderly tribeswoman started following my family in getting us to buy some pottery craft. She doesn't speak a word of English and only mumbled in Vietnamese dialect, but boy was she persistent while we walked on and on. She had a hunchback and a frail frown on her face, which made it extremely hard to reject her advances. This really sheds light onto these tribes trying to make a living by delving into tourism - some argue that they shouldn't be trying so hard to appease tourists in putting up a front and intruding into our authentic experience but shouldn't we as tourist vice versa think about our intrusion into their comfort bubble as well?
Mountain View Hotel Sapa - Lao Cai
Bac Ha District - Lao Cai
At Bac Ha, we interacted with the locals by visiting their very vibrant Sunday market. Completely different ethnic groups were represented, with the colorful Flowery Hmong being the most numerous. This incredible market was a flurry of activity as the tribes people from the surrounding villages walked or rode horse-carts to buy or sell goods and catch up on the latest hilltop gossip. Later, we walked on the unpaved roads to a few neighboring villages and met various locals, who were warm and welcoming. A few invited us inside their houses for some tea.