Today we feature how to make Vietnamese-style, five spice grilled pork from Sapa Town in northern Vietnam. Photographers, tourists, and hikers all love Sapa and with good reason. Colorful markets, the vibrant dress of the local hill tribes, spectacular rice terraces throughout the valleys, great food, and fantastic hiking are easy to find. The local traditions are strong and it is a bit different to the rest of Vietnam.
Sapa is a town (as opposed to a city) and the surrounding areas are rich in agriculture. It is a little cooler than other parts of Vietnam due to the altitude and the mountains. With a number of local markets to choose from you can see how the locals trade and barter for everything. Need a water buffalo? Yep, those are at the market!
Hiking in Sapa
The hiking ranges in difficulty and remoteness. Cat Cat Valley is the closest to town, the easiest, and the most commercial. You can walk downhill and the ever-enterprising locals wait at the bottom on their motorbikes and for a small fee (negotiate), they will bring you back to the top.
If you want to go further afield you can walk to Ta Phin, the village of the Red Dao people. We walked up to this village one morning. Along the way we met one of the ladies from the local village. We talked to her as we walked (it is a few hours). It was most interesting and we learned quite a bit. She had walked to Sapa that morning to have breakfast with her daughter who was in boarding school there. She spoke English quite well having taught herself in order to host families in her home. (Home stays are very common in Sapa and the surrounding villages). Her other income was from handicrafts. It was a pleasant walk and the scenery was stunning. You pass a lot of terraced rice fields.
There were people out working their fields. Several times we saw men in their bare feet in the rice paddies using a plow and water buffalo to till the soil. Hard work!
In an effort to diversify and bring more income to these families, several other agriculture projects have begun, including growing herbs and artichokes for medicinal purposes. Most rice production is for food. Most families do not grow enough to have surplus for income.
Another good downhill hiking option is Ta Van. You wind through several villages and this allows an opportunity to see the Mong people and how they live. At Ta Van you can eat lunch or just return to Sapa. We again used local transport on the back of a motorbike to return to Sapa.
Each of these hikes has a “gate” at the beginning of the hike where you need to purchase a ticket. This is a nominal fee and provides income to the town.
There are other hikes that can include overnight homestays. There are several organizations in Sapa arranging homestays and a guide for an overnight hike. Day hiking you will be fine without a guide but you may choose to use one. Many women wait at the start of the hike and you can find a guide here or arrange one in advance.
Ethnic Minority Hill Tribes
There are a number of ethnic minority tribes in the area and all dress in their traditional clothing. The dress varies considerably and you can tell their ethnic origin by their clothing: Red Dao (red headdresses), Black Hmong (dark indigo clothing), and Flower Hmong (colorful skirts and double breasted jackets) tribes are the most common.
Common handicrafts include weaving (textiles), wood or silver work, baskets, and incense. All of these are still made by hand. As you walk through the villages there are plenty of opportunities to see them working. Incense is often seen drying on the rooftops of buildings.
There are a number of local markets, each held on a different day. All are a day trip from Sapa. Depending on when you visit, you can arrange transport to the appropriate market at your hotel. The pictures we have from the Bac Ha market and the ethnic dress of the ladies are just beautiful. It is highly recommended as both a photo opportunity and a chance to explore the local culture. While there are many tourists there and you can buy souvenirs and other goods directed toward tourists, it is also where the locals shop and trade. Many of the vendors have products that are directed to the locals, not the tourists.
Sapa was originally established as a hill station by the French in 1922. French influence can be seen in both the architecture and the cuisine.
Some of the minority hill tribes have come to Vietnam from Thailand or Laos so the food shows more of their influence in the far north of Vietnam. Soups, stews and grilled foods are common. Rice is usually served as an accompaniment.
The Sapa market (which begins on a series of steps from the main street) is large and diverse. You can find everything here! It is worth a wander just to explore the diversity of herbs and vegetables. Throughout the market (and the wider town) there are a large number of shops selling traditional medicines. Some of these have the labels in English and it fascinating to see what some of the stuff actually is!