Most people travel to the hilltribe village of Bac Ha on a day trip just to visit its colorful Sunday market. Then off they go to the hill station of Sapa, the most popular trekking destination in the northern highlands of Vietnam. If they stay a bit longer, they would discover that Bac Ha and its surrounding villages offer an even more rewarding trekking opportunities. Like Sapa, trekking in and around Bac Ha offers magnificent landscapes and glimpse of colorful cultures of different groups of indigenous mountain people – but without heavy tourism and any touch of commercialism on the trails.
I trekked in Sapa in 2005. While I found its landscape beautiful and was fascinated by the colorful and unique cultures I encountered, I was disappointed by its commercialism. The trails were overrun by tourists. Hawkers, very young and old, followed us all over the trail. For photographers – you will encounter many beautiful, colorful indigenous people on the trail who are willing to be photographed, BUT they are also the same ones who sell you trinkets relentlessly.
On this recent trip, Keith and I decided that we definitely wanted to explore the off-beaten path and with some research, we found our ideal trails in Bac Ha and its surrounding villages.
This is a lovely village of Ban Pho in the outskirt of Bac Ha. It is home to Flower Hmongs, who largely inhabit this area. Hmong is an ethnic group with several sub-cultural groups. Aside from Flower Hmongs, there are Black Hmongs, White Hmongs and Green Hmongs. They are all distinguished by the clothes they wear and each sub-group inhabit different areas of the highland. Some of them are found in Laos.
We bumped into this mother and child who were returning home from the farm. The Flower Hmong people make a living mainly on agriculture. They grow rice, corn and wheat in terraced fields. They also grow medicinal plants as well as fibers which they use in weaving their colorful clothes.
The pictureque terraced fields where the locals grow their crops.
Typical homes in the Flower Hmong village are built with thatched roofs with wood/ bamboo foundation and sidings.
Happy kids were playfully circling around Keith in one of the villages we passed by.
A steep climb ahead. Leading the way was our wonderful guide, Tihn.
After working out a good sweat, we finally made it to the highest point of the first mountain.
The trail started to descend and we could see the beautiful view of the rice terraces below through the curtain of mist. That’s our wonderful guide, Tihh. He maybe young (he’s 21) and small in stature but he is very mature, physically strong and intelligent. He came from one of the hilltribe villages and takes pride of the mountain cultures. He was very knowlegeable about the traditions of every ethnic group we encountered.
A healthy mother pig nursing her piglets. Aside from farming, Flower Hmong families also raise animals for livelihood.
Inside this big blue drum, an alcoholic homemade brew is being fermented. Flower Hmongs manufacture the brews out of corn or rice and are very popular items in the Sunday market. They are said to be so potent that they can ignite a fire.
As we were approaching this backyard, we saw a sack on the ground that was strangely moving from side to side and was emitting a squeaky, oinky sound. And then this lady opened the sack and out came a piglet! (Our guide Tihn said that this piglet was just probably purchased earlier from the market.)
The lady brought the piglet to her husband and daughter. Some kind of choreographed movement followed. The wife held the back hinds of the piglet, the daughter held the front while the husband straddled it. Then the poor piglet started to scream. Tinh explained – the husband was castrating the genital of the piglet !
Why, oh why??? According to Tihn, it is a common procedure performed on piglets who are raised for the purpose of being sold as meat in the market. The procedure, he said, would make the piglet grow healthier. The funny thing was, after the piglet was let go, it happily ran around like nothing had happened. That made us feel better.
After passing through several Flower Hmong hamlets, we finally made it to the village of another ethnic group – the Nung people. Our guide Tihn belongs to this group. These beautiful, friendly Nung girls voluntarily posed for a photo for us.
Nung people wear colorful clothes but very simple compare to what the Flower Hmongs wear. We noticed that the homes of the Nung people were more modern, built mostly on concrete with metal roofing rather than indigenous materials. Also the village road was paved for the most part. It looked more like a city surburb than a mountain village.
We were entering the village of the Tay people in the area of Na Lo. Tay is one of the largest ethnic group in Vietnam and is closely related to Nung people. Like most mountain ethnic groups, they are mainly into farming and raising animals.
People in this Tay village were very welcoming. The kids were curious and friendly and the man that is walking away stopped to chat with us and invited us to his house to enjoy a “local brew.” We politely declined with an honest excuse that we were tired and hungry to parttake anything potent.
Our host family consisted of a father, a mother, a son, a daughter and this lovely grandmother. We were offered to share a tea with them as soon as we arrived. Grandma was very cheerful and animated. She told us stories about her family in her own language and, amazingly, we somehow understood them. She used a lot of hand gestures and pointed to objects, which made it easier for us to decipher her stories.
We enjoyed a delicious tradtional dinner with the family which was prepared by the daughter, the son and Tihn. The meal consisted of plenty of homegrown vegetables, meat and rice. The father and son were in and out of the house that evening as they were attending a pre-wedding festivities (‘drinking party’) of one of the neighbors.
We had a toast of the infamous local brew (a corn liquor) with our lovely hostess and grandma. It tasted rough and strong at first but it grew on us. It was actually a good digestif and we bet it killed any bacteria intake we may have had. And, it gave us a good night sleep.
After dinner, we continued sipping the brew while watching TV with the family. We watched Chinese comedy shows with Vietnamese voiceover. They said that they didn’t like the Chinese much (probably due to their historical rift) but they loved their shows.
Grandma showed me and Keith our beds. Although we are married, by Tay tradition we cannot sleep on the same bed as guests of the house. Our hostess making Tihn’s bed. Our sleeping area was in the huge space in the second floor of the house
We had a blessing of a good night sleep (thanks to the help of the local brew!) which we badly needed. The second day of the trek, although shorter, turned out to be more challenging but with more breathtaking landscapes along the way. To see the Day 2 of our trek, please click here.
This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday. Check it out to see more interesting travel photos.
Booking the Trek: We booked this trek through a company based in Bac Ha called Huang Vo Tours or BacHaTourist.com. It was highly recommended by Lonely Planet and we highly recommend it, too. Lonely Planet refers to its owner Mr. Nghe as a “one-one tourism dynamo.” He offers trek from one day to one week duration and only employs people who are from the local area. Our guide Tihn spoke highly of him and the good things he was doing for the community.
Getting there: We took an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. We arranged for a private transfer from Lao Cai to Bac Ha through BacHaTourist.com. With the improved roads, the drive took less than an hour. There is also a bus service between Lao Cai and Bac Ha.
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