Holiday in North Vietnam (Part 1: Sapa)

Our Holiday in North Vietnam (Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay and Ninh Binh), 6 – 12 October 2012

1.  The Itinerary

The Itinerary.

We booked our holiday through Saigon Tourist. It costed us S$560 per person for this 7 days 6 nights tour. This all-in amount covered all meals, all entrance tickets to tour sites, accommodation, transport, and train tickets. Together with a return air ticket of S$300 from Tiger Airways, each of us spent S$860 for this holiday… “pee ka lao yu”.

2.  Day 1: 6 October 2012

Arriving at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi.

In the arrival hall.

Ready to board our tour bus.

On board the tour bus upon arrival at Noi Bai airport.

Our holiday has just begun. By the way, what is 126?

Dinner at Pho Bien Seafood Restaurant before overnight on train to Sapa.

Enjoying a sumptuous dinner.

After dinner and while waiting for the bus to bring us to the Hanoi Train Station…

Watching Vietnamese girls.

Hanoi Train Station.

Inside the train station, waiting for the 9:00 pm train to Sapa. By the way, “si bay sian” in Hokkien means very boring.

Getting ready to board the train for Sapa.

In a train cabin with my wife, Brenda. Four persons per cabin.

Juju, her parents and cousin, Sarah.

Richard Kwan and Chan Khai Hoong along the train walkway.

Chan, his sister, Chan Siew Wai, their parents, Tomy Nguyen and Richard warming up in a cabin.

Getting ready to sleep.

Tomy Nguyen who travelled all the way from Ho Chi Minh City to be with us for this holiday. It’s wonderful to have her in the team.

3.  Day 2: 7 October 2012

350km north-west from Hanoi, Sapa, the capital of Sapa district in Lào Cai Province, lies at the attitude of 1600m. With the temperature ranging from the lowest of -1 degree C to the highest of 29 degree C, Sapa’s climate is moderate and drizzly in summer while chill and foggy in winter.

Sapa (or Chapa – the “sandy place”) first appeared in Vietnam national map in the late 1880s when the French disembarked in highland Tonkin. The first permanent French civilian resident arrived in Sapa in 1909, and by 1920, there were a number of villas being built in this area by prosperous professionals. Going through many ups and downs, Sapa is now a prominent holiday destination in Vietnam.

After about 10 hours of bumpy and noisy overnight train journey, we finally arrived at Lào Cai Railway Station at about 6:00 am.

A map showing the Hanoi to Lao Cai (Sapa) train route.

Arriving at Lao Cai Railway Station.

Our tour guide finally shows his face… Dai Thang speaks fluently in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. His service was excellent. He took good care of us.

Our tour guide, Dai Thang, from Saigon Tourist. Tel: 0913355568, Email:

After breakfast, we set out in the bus for about an hour for the Cat Cat Village, which is nested in a beautiful valley about 3km from Sapa town. This village is within easy walking distance from any hotel in downtown Sapa.

Cat Cat Village was formed in the 19th century by the gathering of some families belonging to some ethnic groups living in mountainous ares of northern Vietnam, especially Black H’Mong. They lived next to each other along the mountain side and cultivated surrounding their home. Rice and corn were grown in terraced fields, while traditional handicrafts such as twisting flax and weaving fabric have been well-kept. Through times, this village has transferred to one appealing feature of Sapa’s tourism.

Cat Cat Village attracts tourists from all over the world for its distinctive customs and practices which have been lost in most ethnic villages.

The entrance to Cat Cat Village. An entrance fee of 40,000 dong (S$2.40) is payable at the entrance.

Cat Cat Village was smothered by fog. The weather was not consistent. One second it could be dull and grey due to the mist, the next it could rain, and yet a minute later, the sun shines through.

Janet Leong at the entrance of the village.

From the village entrance, simply follow the relatively well-paved main path that leads further downhill until you come to the steps that descend to the Tien Sa Waterfall. To get back out to the entrance, you can either back track (not recommended) or take the path to the right of the bridge (on the left is the waterfall) and follow it. The trek is a looped path so as long as you walk where the road is well-trodden, you won’t get lost. This trek offers a glimpse into the daily life of local ethnic people and a variety of changing sceneries.

Gingerly walking down the stone steps.

The village has many shops, one shop after another lined up the narrow walkway downhill.

Tomy and James discussing a business plan.

A lot of walking.

Behind us is a beautiful mountainous view with green terraced rice and maize fields.

Tomy enjoying the peaceful picturesque scenaries.

Step aside, the buffaloes are coming.

Richard walking pass a row of timber plank roofed houses.

Richard saying “hello, Cô Gái Xin Chào” to an ethnic woman.

The beauty of an ethnic woman carrying her child.

A H’Mong woman in her ethnic dressing with a wooden pack on her back.

An ethnic woman working in her shop.

Life is never easy for this woman.

We were told that “pulling wife” is a unique custom of the people living in Cat Cat. A man can ask his friends to lure a girl he likes to his house and keeps her there for three days. During this time, if the girl agrees to become his wife, a wedding will be held. However, the girl can happily go home after three days if she does not like him.

You can shop more than just handicrafts and souvenirs.

Hand made handicrafts and souvenirs.

These bags are for sales too.

Small kids like this young girl (carrying her sibling) running around you and trying to sell something to you… to make a living.

Women making exquisite and beautiful woven clothes, bags and other handicrafts.

A H’Mong woman weaving fabric. From the plain brocade, these women can carefully dye them with special leaves and embroider beautiful patterns of flowers and animals on them.

They made these too.

James trying out the rice grinder.

What a way to collect water and channel it to a common pool.

Chan and Siew Wai distributing sweets and candies to the children.

An ethnic woman and her children in their house.

The children were so excited when we visited their home.

Traditional houses in the village have three rooms with three doors and covered with po mu wood roof. In the house there are three columns that stand in round or square stones. The walls are made from sawn timber and the main door is always closed and only opens when people in the house organize important events. The altar, inlaid floor containing food, places for sleeping, kitchen and receiving guests are indispensable parts of the houses.

The children playing around in the village.

More children in the village.

Siew Wai and this cute village girl who looks a little like her.

The Chan Family.

Sally, her sister Chee Lan and brother in-law Lum Wah.

We trekked pass the bamboo forest and finally descended to the most scenic part of the village, the Tien Sa Waterfall which flows from Hoang Lien Son mountain range. It was really beautiful to see the raging water dropping to the huge boulders and flowing to what seemed to be a small patch of dense jungle.

Descending this path to the waterfall.

The Tien Sa Waterfall.

Mr & Mrs Lum (Loh Chee Lan and Lum Wah).

Behind us is the Tien Sa Waterfall.

Richard in front of the waterfall.

A closed up view of the waterfall. The fall looks splendid like a silver carpet under the glistening sunlight.

Tomy at the waterfall.

Mr and Mrs Vincent and Janet Leong.

James and his wife, Sally Loh, at the bridge leading to the waterfall.

Another scenic view of the waterfall.

With the waterfall behind us, we took a long and winding road back up the valley.

This Cat Cat Valley trek is not suitable for people with leg ailments as there are a lot of stairs and slopes to climb, as well as the slippery conditions of the trek. Lastly, make sure you wear proper shoes.

We would recommend anyone who loves adventure to trek in Cat Cat Village in Sapa.

After about 3 hours of trekking and a well-deserved lunch at a cafe in Sapa town, we walked tiredly to our hotel, about 100m away. At last, we will be able to enjoy the much-needed shower after 2 days.

Tomy playing tricks on Chan at the cafe.

Looking out from the entrance of Vietnam Trade Union Hotel.

Information about Vietnam Trade Union Hotel in Sapa.

Checking our luggages.

All ready to check into our hotel rooms.

We are housed in these 2 blocks.

The green surrounding.

A scenic view of the hotel.

Two hours later…

Getting ready to walk around the nearby Sapa town.

Sapa district is the home of a great diversity of ethnic people, including five main groups of H’Mong, Tay, Zay and Xa Pho. They do not live in the town but in hamlets scattered on the valleys throughout the district.

Tomy in front of Sapa Church.

An ancient church, Sapa Church is also named Stone Church or Rosary Church. It is located just outside the entrance of our hotel right in the centre of Sapa town. It was built by the French in the early 20th century.

A service in progress in the church.

“Pasar Malam” in Sapa town. Many ethnic locals setting up stores. Sapa Church in the background.

Ethnic women and girls selling their handicrafts and souvenirs.

Where are the ethnic men? These women and children work long hours in this open square.

A clothing shop.

Beautiful scarfs.

The ethnic people on the street of Sapa town.

Brenda window shopping.

Brenda window shopping.


Tomy and Richard in Sapa town.

Tomy and Richard in Sapa town.

Western restaurants from Italian to French ones can be found in Sapa town.

Taking a break in a cafe in Sapa town.

Finally, dinner time…

Waiting for dinner to commence.

A sumptuous dinner.

The “Pasar Malam” continues into the night. A girl at her store.

Janet enjoying bargaining with the children. The children were so good at holding on to their price. Even with a lawyer beside, Janet was unable to make a deal with them.

4.  Day 3: 8 October 2012

After breakfast and by 8:30 am, we were all gathered at the entrance to our hotel ready to climb the Ham Rong Mountain.

Ham Rong Mountain looks like a jaw of a dragon opening wide to the sky.

Legend has it that in the distance past, all animals lived together in a chaotic environment. One day, the Jade Emperor gave an order that every species of animal had to find for them an area to live. Having heard the order, they scrambled for a place to reside.

The three brothers of dragon who were living in a large lake hurriedly ran to the east but could not find any place; they then ran to the west. The two older brothers ran faster and came to the destination first. The youngest brother ran slower and strayed into the crowds of lions, tigers and big cats. Fearing that these animals would attack it, the dragon opened its mouth to defense itself.

At that time, the order of Jade Emperor was no longer available, so the three dragons petrified. The two older dragons, which were waiting for their brother, face Lao Cai City, and the youngest one raising its head and opening mouth faces the Hoang Lien Mountain Range. So the mountain is named Ham Rong (Jaw of Dragon).

I will stop here…

In my next blog, I will share with you about our journey up the Ham Rong Mountain: Holiday in North Vietnam (Part 2: Sapa)