Travel and Escape
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Travel Time:
September

Reviewer Background:
This was my first visit to Vietnam.
Review:
I spent a week in Northern Vietnam (Hanoi, Sa Pa and Halong Bay) traveling with a guide from HandSpan and checking out the area for a potential tour. The beginning of my trip was an overnight train to to the SaPa region. The train journeys itself was an experience. Fortunately I was moved to the new Tulico Carriage and avoided sharing a small train cabin with 3 men. I guess I'm getting a bit spoiled and prefer some level of privacy or at least to share with people I know or other women grin. Most higher end western tourist book the Victoria Express (Orient) carriages. However, you need to stay at the Victoria Hotels (the package is for the hotel and the train (and very expensive).

SaPa is a wonderful area though I realize the term "eco-tourism" is used a bit too lightly. There are many issues to consider around homestays and touring local villages to "visit" some of the fifty-four distinct ethnolinguistic minorities recognized in Vietnam. The walks, through local paths used to connect villages and rice fields, are great as long as you jump out of the way of motor-scooters which make their way through even the muddiest of trails and have become the mountain bikes of the hill country.

My homestay experience was good though I am not confident that this is an experience my guests (generally boomers) would enjoy. The family was wonderful (the mayor of the village and his wife hosted me for dinner). The accommodations very basic. What I find lacking is the education around what to expect and what is appropriate behavior while staying at these homes. How to use the bathrooms, eating protocol, greetings etc. The EcoLodge I stayed at for one night was lovely yet had it's own issues to deal with: how are they really interacting and supporting the local community and the environment? Is building a spa and offering European food (the bread was great!) appropriate?

The people in the area really are lovely....and the further away from the villages you get the more authentic the experience.

The Red Dzao is one of the ethnic groups that live in the north of Vietnam. Their name denotes the use red to decorate their clothing. There are two unique features of this tribe. The first is that you can know how rich a woman is by the size of her hat. The second is that to be beautiful it is thought that women should have as little body hair as possible...thus they often shave their hair and eyebrows.

Black Hmong and Red Dzao live in neighboring villages in this region. An interesting feature of Black Hmong women is to bind the calves with material and leather string to hold it in place. This is thought to prevent this area from growing large and muscular. Small calves (and feet) are a sign of beauty for women. Black Hmong like to wear their hair over the crown of their heads. Often wigs made of horse's tail are used to add more body to the bun and then wrap it to form a tall “pin box” type hat.

It was told to me that women generally marry around the age of 16, at that time men often “steal” these young women and bring them to their homes. If the woman refuses to eat for three days she is let go to return to her home. Should she take food, she is “accepting” of the man and will likely marry.

This minority group is also said to pick up languages very quickly. Many of the women selling textiles in town have picked up English and possibly French from the tourists and may end up becoming local guides.

I met this woman during a walk to the village of Ta Phin,Ta Phin, a lush valley nine miles out of Sapa near Sapa and spent the morning with she and her friends, visiting one woman’s home and watching the rice harvest.
Best Time to Travel:
During the Rice Harvest...I hit it just right!
Operators:
HandSpanTopaz Eco Lodge
Finally...:
Lodging Details:


In Spa I stayed at Chau Long Hotel (new wing) in Sapa before heading out for my homestay experience in the Tay village. I then on to the Topaz Eco Loge (aprox one hour drive from Sapa).

Reviewed by Kathy Dragon

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