Day tripping Sa Pa

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Tourists with Red Dao ethnic minorities at Ta Phin Village

The sun was shining brightly over terraced hills dressed in brilliant emerald folds. Summer had finally arrived in Sa Pa, and so had we.

The stunning mountains of Sa Pa lie roughly 200 miles from Hanoi, in Lao Cai Province. During the 19th century, it served as a retreat for French colonists. Today, it has become a major tourist draw for foreigners looking to explore some of Vietnam's rural ethnic minority communities.

In the morning, we made our way to the town's central market, which was filled with members of minority tribes selling traditional breakfast foods.

They sold everything from bamboo sticky rice to horse tripe, creating a pungent bouquet of smells and their bright, handmade clothing brightened the market with a swirl of rich colors.

We found our local tour guide, Giang Thi Hoa, plying tourists in English and Vietnamese.

The tan, 17-year-old girl, cut an impressive figure in the handmade black ensemble that identified her as a member of the Hmong Đen (Black Hmong) tribe.

She claimed to have only completed fifth grade, but spoke remarkably good English. She said she'd learned simply by chatting with foreign tourists.

As she spoke, a golden tooth a customary adornment among the Black Hmong flashed in her smile.

Indigo girl

We followed Hoa to a nearby valley and visited the small Hmong village of Cat Cat.

She took us to a small wooden home where sleeping children carpeted the floor. A large cask filled with indigo leaves sat near the doorway, steeping.

"The women here are in charge of making new clothing for the whole family," Hoa explained.

Women spend three days soaking the deeply colored leaves until the water becomes thick with the dark essence. Then, she said, cloth is washed in the dye, yielding a durable, dark fabric that serves as the identifying colors of the people.

We continued to walk with Hoa, she climbed quickly and the air cooled as we marched past green corn fields.

A murmur of water grew louder as we neared an overlook that seemed like it had been cut into a shallow staircase, fit for giants.

Bamboo irrigation pipes carried water down into the seemingly endless recess of wet rice paddies.

"We live in high mountains, so water is very precious," she said. "If Hmong villagers discover a stream passing down a mountainside, then we build terraced fields there. It takes weeks, sometimes months, to make a single paddy."

Before long, we arrived at Sin Chai, a small village filled with simple wooden houses surrounded by green vegetable gardens and modest rice paddies.

Each garden was surrounded by bamboo fences designed to protect the family greens from raids by white chickens and black pigs.

After a brief rest, we walked back to Sa Pa, in time for lunch.

Red Dao Village

Refreshed and eager to see more, Hoa suggested that we ride out to see a Dao Đ (Red Dao) ethnic minority village.

The Red Dao people prefer living in the lower mountains, she said.

The three of us flagged down xe om (motorbike taxis) drivers to take us to Ta Phin Village about an hour's ride from the central market.

We descended into the rich valley through beautiful pine forests.

As our drivers loped through the foothills, the remains of a ruined French church surrounded by a peach orchard and a small vineyard came into view.

The ruins served as a faded reminder of the area's role as a colonial retreat.

As we continued, our driver passed the dark mouth of the Ta Phin Grotto, a sinuous cave system covering a small river. Hoa explained that this cave system lead all the way to the remote Muong Khuong Village.

As Ta Phin neared, clusters of Red Dao women clad working terraced rice paddies in red headscarves came into view.

Just as our drivers entered the dirt drive leading to our destination, a small wooden home, Hoa told them to turn around.

"We shouldn't enter this house," she said explaining that a tree branch had barred the front of the gate, indicating that the host family either has received bad news, was experiencing a childbirth or was in the midst of a special ceremony.

We entered a small, modest village. Hoa popped her head into a home and greeting the family inside.

The Red Dao homes seemed larger than their Hmong counterparts; the gardens were smaller, yet better kempt.

The houses featured a bedroom for each family member. The room nearest the fireplace always belongs to the oldest man in the house, Hoa explained.

A large wooden basin sat at the center of the home principal means of administering homemade medicinal treatments.

The women of Red Dao are famous for making labor-intensive concoctions out of foraged roots and forest leaves.

Each ingredient must be collected at a specific time of the day and Hoa says that only the Red Dao women know when and where the ingredients can be found.

The potions are known to be so powerful, they enable Red Dao women to return to their rice paddies immediately after giving birth.

"At first, the bath may make you feel a little bit woozy but after that you feel so relaxed," Hoa said.

We had to keep moving, so my Red Dao host offered to send a sachet of fresh herbs to my hotel, for about VND200,000 ($10).

The following morning, she arrived at my hotel carrying a huge, five kilograms bag of fresh ingredients on her back, like a mule. I left the gift with my friends in Sa Pa, as a token of thanks and headed home.

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