If you really want to explore Sa Pa and the surrounding area, you need to get a motorbike. My first attempt at driving Kanako on the back of a rental motorbike in Phong Nha almost resulted in a couple of scraped knees and an early divorce, so we decided to hire motorbike drivers in Sa Pa to ensure the longevity of our marriage.
Unlike most travelers to Sa Pa, we decided to spend almost a week there. We like to be out of the city as much as possible and it’s not always easy because transportation is less available and less reliable when you’re leaving major cities, so when we have a chance to get out, we try to stay out for awhile. It gives us time to relax, recharge and, most importantly, catch up on Game of Thrones. OH. MY. GOD. THE. VIPER.
Finding a motorbike driver, also known as xe om, is easy in Sa Pa. They’re all hanging out on the corner of the main square waiting for people to come by and there’s a big board with prices to popular sites so ignorant tourists like us won’t get ripped off. The more proactive drivers roam around the town asking tourists if they need a motorbike. We decided to use the services of one of these guys to visit the two main waterfalls in the area, Silver Falls and Love Falls. The ride itself is worth the money. The unobstructed view of the mountainside on the back of a motorbike is stunning and the mountain air is refreshing as long as you’re not unlucky enough to get stuck behind a water buffalo that just dropped off a steaming turd. I’d also pay that money twice over to avoid the vomit-inducing minivan ride on the same road.
Our drivers dropped us off at Love Falls and we paid 20,000 VND each to hike two kilometers to the waterfalls. The hike to the falls wasn’t the most scenic, but at least it was relatively easy. The waterfall itself is lovely and with a name like, Love Waterfall, you know there’s a story behind it. The legend goes something like this. The waterfall was the bathing place of fairies from heaven — because there are also fairies from hell but they hang out somewhere else — and one day a fairy heard a boy playing a flute nearby. She was mesmerized by the sound and went back every night to listen to him play. Her parents (I didn’t know that fairies had parents, but I guess in Vietnam they do and being typical Vietnamese fairy parents they were really strict) found out her little secret and forbid her from returning to the falls. What do yo think happens next? No, the fairy didn’t kill herself. That wouldn’t make any sense! She did what any fairy would do; she turned herself into a bird. Uhhhhh. This story makes no kind of sense. I mean what the hell would a boy do with a bird? The best he could do is build a birdhouse or maybe a birdbath for her to visit. It’s not like he can marry the bird. Anyway, that’s the story of Love Falls. I was kind of hoping it would involve the more classic story of ill-fated young lovers who would rather jump to their deaths in the falls than live apart.
After Love Falls we met up with our drivers and headed to Silver Falls. These falls cost 10,000 VND to enter, but it wasn’t worth it. There were a lot more people here because the local government decided to build stairs and bridges to make it accessible to everyone. It’s also right off the road so you don’t have to hike anywhere to see it. I don’t think there’s a story behind Silver Falls, so feel free to make up your own. Maybe the fairies from hell lived here.
A couple of days later we decided to hire the two drivers again to explore the areas in the north where the Red Dao, pronounced Red Zao, people live. This ride was more scenic than the first one. We stopped at the top of a field of rice paddies and snapped some pictures of village people planting rice. You haven’t seen the color green until you’ve seen it on the hills of Sa Pa. I don’t have beautiful enough words to describe the scenery so check out the pictures.
Another stop on our motorbike tour was an abandoned French monastery that was left to ruins when the Communist started their assault on the French colonial formations in the North. The contrast of a decaying French building against the lush Sa Pa mountains is alluring. Kanako ran around like a kid in a candy store since she absolutely loves abandoned buildings. It’s even more fun when there’s broken glass, asbestos, and lingering evil spirits. Luckily this place was nothing like that and we were there during the day so I just had to keep her from falling through one of the open windows or doorways.
The drivers took us to Tai Phin village where a group of Red Dao women ranging in age from 20 to 55 offered us herbal baths, which we declined, and then walked us around their village, to their homes, and back to the motorbikes where they asked us to buy their handmade embroidered goods. Here’s something you need to know about Sa Pa. As soon as you arrive, the native village women will try to sell you stuff and if you visit any of the villages you will be followed around by more women trying to sell you stuff. Try not to be annoyed by this. It’s their only way of making money. Sure they’ll inflate the prices a bit and you’re expected to negotiate the inflated price down a bit, but remember that when you leave there you will most likely return to a job where you make more money in one hour than they make in an entire day to support a family of at least three, if not more. Keeping this in mind, we bought a few items from the women and then headed off with our stash of embroidered indigo purses and wallets. Our guides later told us that the Red Dao are the poorest of the village people although I’m not sure why. Perhaps because they are one of the smaller ethnic groups and have less resources. I noticed that many of the Red Dao women didn’t have eyebrows and looked like they they were bald under their headgear. I later learned that they shave their eyebrows and foreheads as a beauty ritual. Fascinating!
More Sa Pa pictures on our Flickr album.