Experiencing the Not-So-Familiar Vietnam

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Still another highlight is the opportunity to spend two nights in a Tay village in a simple stilt house. Stilt houses originally developed as protection from wild animals, but today these lower levels are used for storage. During the 2-night stay in Me village, travelers enjoy a unique and unforgettable opportunity to experience Tay hospitality learning about their culture by dining with local families, bike riding around the village and experiencing very authentic daily life and maybe indulging in a traditional herbal bath or a relaxing foot soak using herbal remedies.

Other highlights include a visit to Bac Ha town, stopping en-route to visit the Pa Then minority. Like the LoLo, the Pa Then peoples are small in numbers and can only be found in Ha Giang province. Bac Ha itself is home to several “montagnards,” the French term for the local hill tribes meaning mountain people. In addition to the Hmong and the Hoa, there are Giay, Dzao, Nung, Phula Tai and Kinh minorities, to name a few, and some of these tribes have a reputation for imbibing vast quantities of alcohol, with Bac Ha renowned for its fermentation of alcoholic brews, in particular rice and corn wine—a kind of “party central” in remote Vietnam.

Finally, it’s on to the Topas Ecolodge for a 2-night stay. The lodge is situated at the top of two conical mountain peaks with 25 individual bungalows placed in a circle on the hilltops, each with balconies offering gorgeous views of the surrounding lush Sapa Valley. From here, clients will enjoy day hikes to Ban Moi and Lech villages where they’ll descend towards the river and into the terraced fields where they’ll cross over a bamboo bridge to a trail that follows the hillside before reaching the village. Both Ban Moi and Lech villages are inhabited by Red Dao tribes people. The women usually wear colorfully embroidered long blouses over their trousers and often shave their eyebrows. They also wear a distinctive red triangular-shaped turban decorated with silver coins and red tassels. Local religion combines elements of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, as well as ancestor worship that includes the legendary holy man Ban Vuong, who is considered the earliest ancestor of the Dao people.

The company has still another more traditional tour called On the Essence of Vietnam, that Barbieri says is, “…more about covering all your bases. For someone visiting Vietnam for the first time who just wanted to see what they’ve heard about, it does a really good job of taking you to all the key spots and it goes into some depth so you come away feeling that you really got a sense of the country. It’s what I would suggest if someone really had the time—we actually have a party of four we’re doing a custom trip to Vietnam for right now, they’re staying for more than 20 days. They really want to do it in-depth and stay a little longer in each place. They’re doing a very similar itinerary to this program, just staying a little longer adding a 2-night cruise on Ha Long Bay, and three nights in Hue and three nights in Hoi An. So this is good, because it takes you to those places and you’re not just breezing through. The flip side is, it’s nice if you have more time.”

For those who do, Barbieri adds, “…we create extensions. We have a Sappa extension where you take an overnight train from Hanoi and spend a couple of nights and take a night train back and that’s a really nice addition to On the Essence of Vietnam.” In Sapa, you can visit Cat Cat, the village home to the Black H’mong tribe and visit the hill tribe villages of Lao Chai and Ta Van. On Sundays, you can experience the Bac Ha Market. The train the company uses, the Victoria Express, has 2-berth sleeper cabins and 4-berth bunk cabins with air conditioning, individual reading lights, baggage storage, and extra large windows. Toilets are shared and there are no showers, but there is a dining car on board open on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from Hanoi and Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, from Lao Cai in Sapa. The train departs Hanoi at 9:55 p.m. and arrives in Lao Cai at 6:55 a.m. the following day and leaves Lao Cai at 9 p.m. and arrives in Hanoi 5:30 a.m. the following day.