Three-quarters of Vietnam’s topography is mountainous, and the most beautiful area is in the North of Vietnam. Far away from the touristy places, most of the areas in the mountains have not been affected by the travel industry, which has developed rapidly in this country. The spectacular scenery of the tremendous mountain range, long and winding roads up and downhill, incredible passes and valleys along the way, and outstanding terraced rice fields are the highlights of this area. In contrast to the big cities, there is very little traffic on the roads, and you can indulge yourself with the breathtaking nature on your trip.
The first time I had a chance to go to the Northern Mountain Area of Vietnam was in 1995. I was spending the whole day driving from Hanoi to Sapa. At that time, the road conditions to the mountain area were very basic, and to travel in some parts of this area, the only vehicle you could take was a Russian Jeep. The road was very bumpy and dusty, but the scenery along the way made you feel that your trip was worthwhile. Now, incredibly, the roads to the mountains are much better, and you can even travel in this area in a normal sedan car.
The landscapes of the mountain area are very diversified and seem to go on and on as you travel forward. So different from the classic tour, most of the time on the road is just spent moving from one destination to another, and all of the highlights are found on the way, not at a destination. It can be a beautiful waterfall, hill tribe people walking along the road where you have stopped to take pictures and talk with them, or even the funeral of a local family. On this kind of tour, the guide is very important as a bridge connecting you, the people and venues.
The trip to the mountains could never be a great tour without the hill tribe people in this area. There are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam with more than 30 ethnic groups living in the North. Compared to the other countries in South East Asia, I can say that the hill tribe people in Vietnam are the most traditional and well preserved. They still live in their traditional houses, wear their traditional costumes and remain in their villages as their ancestor did. Most of them make the traditional costumes themselves, and these costumes are very important to the identity of the different hill tribes. Changes in the country seem not to have reached their villages. In some places, we can have an overnight home stay with hill tribe people. It could be the very best way to experience their lives and hospitality, as well as their customs and culture.
The most interesting cultural event of the hill tribe people, which you will not want to miss on this trip, is the weekly market. Because they live in remote areas, the market is normally open just once a week. For them, to go to the market is much more about socializing than just shopping. It is more like us going to the pub or bar in the evening than going to the supermarket. The hill tribe people work very hard and eat simple food during the week, but at the weekend, they dress up and head to the market for great fun and good food. Perhaps they will sell or buy something also. Many of them have to walk 10 to 20 kms to the market, and it may be that you will see a husband taking the horse carrying his wife all the way to the market. On the way back, however, it will be her turn to take her husband, totally drunk and lying on the horse, back home. That is the reason why the most busy and interesting time for the market is from 9 to 11 AM. After all, most of the people do need to spend a few hours doing the marketing. The most interesting part of this market is the food section. As I said before, everyone comes to the market for a good time and for good food. You can see how they enjoy their food and how the men have a very good time drinking corn wine with their friends. The amazing thing is many of them are still well behaved when they get drunk. They will talk a lot, but there will be no fighting or argument. If the husband gets too drunk, the wife will sit next to him and wait tolerantly until he wakes up. Then they will go home.
The market has most of the things people need each week for their homes. If they want to sell something, they just need to take it to the market. The market has a very interesting section for selling and buying animals: from a little kitty or puppy to the typical pot belly pig, or even horses and water buffaloes. I bought my dog at this market, and his name and the date I bought him is my yahoo email address.
The market is different each time I come, and I can always find the unexpected beautiful picture anywhere. The kids are outstanding, and you can easily spend half of the day just watching them and taking their photos. The youngest ones are only a month old, but the mothers still bring them to the market. You can see the mothers having some food and breast feeding their babies at the same time. It is easy to find a beautiful spot in the market and just sit there with your camera in hand. Many interesting things will take place in front of you. Staying in one place and watching everything move around you can be a great market experience.
In addition, the mountain area is very famous for the Love market in Sapa and the Khau Vai market in Meo Vac. The Love market takes place in Sapa every Saturday evening. It is not for shopping at all. It is instead a rendezvous for young single people coming to find or meet their lovers. The Khau Vai love market festival opens just once a year, and it is the only chance for old lovers to meet and talk to their past flames. These two markets are far removed from the idea of a regular market, but they reflect the unique culture and humanity of the local people in this area.