01_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamMost 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.

02_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamThis 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.

03_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamAfter walking few miles from Bac Ha, we caught up with this group of Flower Hmongs who were walking home from their weekly trip in the Sunday market.

04_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamSome of those prosperous ones headed home by motorbikes!

05_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamAnd some imbibed so much local alcoholic brews in the market that they had to make several “rest stops” on the way home.

06_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamWe 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.

07_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, Vietnam A woman returning home from the farm with her horse laden with some harvested crops. Horses are the typical mode of transportation in this mountain region.

Rice Terraces in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamThe pictureque terraced fields where the locals grow their crops.

A house of Flower Hmong, Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamTypical homes in the Flower Hmong village are built with thatched roofs with wood/ bamboo foundation and sidings.

08-Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, Vietnam

Happy kids were playfully circling around Keith in one of the villages we passed by.

11_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, Vietnam

A steep climb ahead. Leading the way was our wonderful guide, Tihn.

12_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamAs the climb get higher, the vegetation became more lush and beautiful wild flowers abound.

13_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamFurther up, the trail was clouded with mist. It looked beautiful and mysterious.

Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamAfter working out a good sweat, we  finally made it to the highest point of the first  mountain.

15_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamAs we continue, the trail get even mistier. We could hardly see Tihn who was walking ahead of us.

18_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamThe 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.

19_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamWe reached another village on the foot of the terrace cliffs.

 20_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamWe passed by a home of a Flower Hmong family and were delighted by the sights of all the animals running around the yard.

Pig and piglets - Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamA healthy mother pig nursing her piglets.  Aside from farming,  Flower Hmong families also raise animals for livelihood.

22_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamInside 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.

23_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamA giant jar that is used to store water. We saw them in a lot of homes we passed by.

25_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamThis young Flower Hmong lady was returning home after gathering a huge bundle of weeds to feed the animals raised by her family.

Flower Hmong Village-Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamA home adorned with colorful clothesline is a typical sight in the villages.

Flower Hmong Village-Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamAs 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.)

Flower Hmong Village-Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamThe 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.

   Nung Girls - Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamAfter 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.

30_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamWe met more friendly Nung kids and Keith entertained them with his magic trick.

32_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamWe 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.

33_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamPeople 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.

Tay Village - Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamFinally, after trekking for 16 kms, we made it to our lovely homestay. It was a home to a wonderful Tay family and was one of the largest homes in the village. And yes, it had a satellite dish!

35_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamOur 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.

36_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamWe 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.

37_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamWe 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.

Homestay with Tay Family while Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamGrandma 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.  39_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamOur hostess making Tihn’s bed. Our sleeping area was in the huge space in the second floor of the house

 40_Trekking in the Hillribe Villages around Bac Ha, VietnamOur hostess rolled down our bed nettings and she literally tucked me to bed.  That bed with pink net was Keith’s :)

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.


Travel Notes: 

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.

Feel free to leave you comments below.

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About Marisol

Taking you on our journey one photo - and footstep - at a time.

42 responses to “Vietnam: Trekking in the Off-The-Beaten-Path Hilltribe Villages (Day 1)

  1. Sarah

    Oh Marisol, I don’t know where to start, this post was SO beautiful! The photos of you guys, of village life, Keith the magician, that delicious looking meal, that gorgeous grandmother, your lovely guide, I just loved every bit of this and will be bookmarking this experience for when I make it to Vietnam. So beautiful (as are you guys together)!
    Sarah recently posted..Thoughts on Valentine’sMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Sarah, Thanks! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. We truly enjoyed the experience and the people we met. I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it, too, when you get there. Yes, Keith the magician is always fun to have around :)

    • Traveling Solemates

      Thank you, Shalu! The trail was beautiful with a lot of point of interests that it was not hard to capture a good photo. Interesting to know that you have that kind of bed nettings in India as well.

  2. Bama

    Looks like a great trekking experience, Marisol! I would love to try it myself one day. I hope it won’t be overrun by mass tourism by then though. It’s so funny to see Keith showing some magic tricks to local kids. Kids will be kids, no matter where. That makes me think, maybe I should learn some magic tricks too so that when I can’t communicate with locals, at least I can entertain them. :)
    Bama recently posted..Grand Palaces of the OttomansMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Bama, it truly is a great experience. I hope you get to try it sometime soon. I don’t think it will be too commercialized anytime soon like Sapa. Yes, good idea to learn some magic tricks! It’s a good interaction tool. Keith does it every where we go and he’s always a big hit with the kids:)

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Jan, it truly is much peaceful than Sapa. No one approached to sell us anything at any point in time. And it was wonderful to see the kids approaching us because they were just being friendly and not because they wanted to sell us something. I felt sad for those adorable little girls in Sapa who had to leave school early so they could sell trinkets/souvenirs on the trails.

  3. Marisol, it was such a delight reading this great and informative post. I love the scenery but especially these wonderful pictures of the children. Is that a blonde Nung girl? They’re all adorable. What a great cultural immersion experience for you guys. Love learning about them and love your photos!
    Mary {The World Is A Book} recently posted..Our 5 Favorite Free Things to do in Paris with KidsMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Mary, thanks! The children were truly adorable. Yes, that was a blonde Nung girl! She really stood out. I asked our guide if a blonde was normal for Nungs and he said she was one of those who had rare recessive genes. It truly was a precious cultural immersion for us. We’re glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. I’ve been to Vietnam 4x now, but I have never made it further north than Nha Trang. I would really love to book this tour. I like it that it seems to be a small group (just you and the guide?). Those Flower Hmong girls are so cute! I would love to wear their clothes, though I’m sure it would be too hot here in Manila haha
    Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com recently posted..Snapshot Sunday—The Fisherman on Virgin IslandMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hey Aleah, we hope you made it norrthward on your next visit. It truly is different from the south. It was a private trek – so yes it was just us and the guide. Most treks originating from Ba Cha are on this basis.

  5. jenjenk

    wait. wait!! you trekked??? you are a rockstar!!! did you trek with your stuff or check it in somewhere? i’m really jonesing to go to vietnam!!!
    jenjenk recently posted..Paris: MarketsMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hey Jen, yes we did trek! We’ll take the rockstar title!!:) Yes, we trekked with our stuff but it was only a two-day trek so it was a light pack. Yes girlfriend, go jones in your way to Vietnam. It’s really wonderful.

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Suzamme, it truly is a wonderful experience. We highly recommend it.

  6. Mitch T

    I really enjoyed the pictures and narrative Marisol. You truly have a gift. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.:)

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Mitch, our pleasure. We’re glad you enjoyed the post.

  7. Wonderful images – especially of the people and village life. I would love to do a tour like this. Thank you for taking us with you.
    Have a wonderful week. I am linking up to you through Travel Photo Thursday.

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Jill, thank you. I’m sure you will enjoy doing this trip yourself. Your camera will have a feast!

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hello Johanna, the trek, the places and the people we met were all truly fascinating. I’m sure it’s an experience you will enjoy yourself.

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Jackie, we’re glad you enjoyed the trip with us:)

  8. What a fascinating story. I’m forwarding this to my brother because he worked with Homong when he was in the AirForce stationed in Vietnam. You are kind to document every step of your journey and share it!
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted..Snow, Snow, Snow and more SnowMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Vera, thank you! We’re glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for forwarding the post to your brother. His story is so fascinating.

  9. Bro

    These photos brought back memories of a wartime journey (1969) a Ranger friend and I made through the Central Highland tribal country. These people were called Montagnards (or moi [savages] by the Vietnamese). As I reviewed some of my photos from that trip, I noticed many similarities in the recent photos of the Hmong tribal folks. The housing, village pigs, and smiles of the chidlren are the same. The indigenous peoples, having experienced centuries of oppression by the dominant culture, allied themselves with the Americans and were considered very trustworthy guides for our troops as were the Hmongs, who resuced our downed pilots. I don’t know if the Communist government allows them to remain for quaintness sake. In my California community today there are several refugee Hmong families. It’s pleasing to see they are doing quite well in this very different culture. One image from the villages in 1969 stands out in my mind: a very old Montagnard veteran in a ragged French army jacket. What a history of war and change these people have lived through.

    • Traveling Solemates

      Thank you so much for sharing with us your fascinating story. It’s good to know that the tribal folks have retained so much of their culture based on how you witnessed them in the late-60’s. Learning that they experienced oppression for a long time, we have now realized how much resilient they are. It’s also fascinating to learn about their collaboration with Americans. One of the sons of our host Tay family fought in the war and died but we didn’t know then which side he was fighting for. The current government seems to be taking care of them – building them schools and community centers. The government also started building roads in some villages which we had mix feeling about (we will cover this in our next post). Thanks again for sharing your valuable insight about the montagnards.

  10. This sounds like a wonderful experience. I was right there with you!
    That pig is black, right? It looks almost blue. So what did you think of the local brew?
    InsideJourneys recently posted..Reach Falls JamaicaMy Profile

    • Traveling Solemates

      Hi Marcia, it was a wonderful experience indeed. Glad you enjoyed it. The pigs did have some funny color, some kind of bluish-black-gray. The local brew was a bit revolting at first but after some sip we kind of acclimatized to it:)

  11. Love the photos, absolutely gorgeous.

    • Traveling Solemates

      Thanks Ayngelina!

  12. Aren’t Vietnamese kids adorable! And I love the colourful clothes they wear too. It looks like a fascinating hike.
    Arianwen recently posted..The downside to solo travelMy Profile

  13. Alison

    These pictures are beautiful. My boyfriend and I are considering going in January. What time of year did you go? Do you think it will be too cold?
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    • Marisol

      Hi Alison, we went end of November/early December. The weather was cool but not cold. It was a perfect weather for hiking. January maybe just a little bit cooler. Just layer and you will be fine. It was truly a beautiful and rewarding trek. I hope you get to do it.

  14. Tandy

    I see you share interesting stuff here, you can earn some additional money,
    your blog has big potential, for the monetizing method, just type
    in google – K2 advices how to monetize a website
    Tandy recently posted..TandyMy Profile

  15. thank for your help information i think anyone red your report will travel Vietnam but iam suggest you come to ha Giang which more interest.

  16. Klara Reddersen

    HI! Really enjoyed your photos and post. We, my boyfriend and I, are going to Bac Ha on late September and would love to do a trek there for approx. 4-6 days. You hired a guide, but how is the conditions along the road? Would it be possible to go on the trail without a guide and would it be possible to communicate with the village people i.e. book accommodation along the trail?

    We hope you are still active here and able to respond to our questions :)

    Sincerely, Klara

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