Hill tribes of Sapa Vietnam

Vietnam is home to 54 minority groups, many of whom live in the more remote parts of the country.  One of the most popular places for travelers to interact with some of these minority groups is in the northern hill town of Sapa.

Sapa is located about 350 kms from Hanoi in Lao Cai Province, on the border with China.  The hills here are part of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, which is the eastern-most extremity of the Himalaya Mountains.  Sapa is 1600 metres above sea level, so can get quite cold and foggy in winter, and can even be cool when the rest of the country is sweltering in summer.

The town was established by French colonists in the 1880s as a place to offer respite from the heat and humidity of the lowlands.  One of the most popular ways to travel to Sapa from Hanoi is by train, and there are several privately-operated luxury trains which regularly ply the route.  There are various levels of luxury on these trains, but most regular travelers agree that the Victoria Express Train is the most luxurious of all the trains.

With its elegant carriages, the Victoria Express Train recalls a more romantic era. Passing through the exotic landscapes of North Vietnam, between the charming cities of Hanoi and Lao Cai which is 34 km (21 miles) from Sapa, it offers every visitor a wonderful travelling experience.  Each sleeping carriage has 6 superior cabins (4 berths) and 2 deluxe cabins (2 berths); all are air-conditioned, wood panelled, with individual reading lights, baggage storage, toilets and oversized windows.  There is only one catch; you must be a guest of the luxurious Victoria Hotel in Sapa to be able to get a berth on the Victoria Express.

There are a number of minority groups who live in the villages around Sapa.  Most prevalent are members of the Hmong people, an ethnic group who are distributed around the mountainous regions of Vietnam, China, Laos and Thailand.  Another relatively numerous ethnic group in the area is the Yao, who have a similar background to the Hmong, and who are recognizable by their brightly coloured garb, and the scarves or turbans they wear on their heads.

The best time to see the minority groups is on weekends, when they attend the markets in town.  Near Sapa is Cat Cat Village. This village is home to the Black Hmong who accounts for over 50% of Sapa population. To visit the village, you take the short walk through Sapa Market; go down the valley for about a kilometre. There are some stunning views of the high mountains which are over 3000 metres, and from which green rice terraces drop quite markedly.

Walking is one of the popular attractions up here, and although the trails can sometimes be very steep, the cooler temperatures make it more comfortable to walk.  There are a number of attractive and interesting small villages near Sapa that are inhabited by the minority tribes and a circuit through several villages taking in stunning scenery and fascinating everyday village life can be completed in just a few hours.

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