December 24, 2010

Local tour guides provide an insight into the real Sa Pa, Vietnam

It's a strange land that leaves me with different feelings whenever I come to rediscover it.

Sa Pa is an incredibly picturesque town in the Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range near the Chinese border in northwestern Viet Nam, 350km from Ha Noi.

The terraced fields in Sa PaThe terraced fields in Sa Pa

It can be explored almost year-round from March to early December. Vietnamese most like to visit during June and July to escape the summer heat in other parts of the country. Sa Pa is 1,500m above sea level so the weather is quite mild, and cold at night. The best time to go to Sa Pa is on a weekday, as weekenders tend to flock here. However, the famed "love market" only takes place on Saturday nights, so visitors often extend their tour to Saturday to experience it.

Tourists can see many hill tribe people, their villages and rice terraces. The ethnic minority groups generally retain their lifestyles and traditional costumes.

The area's high mountains, deep ravines and lush vegetation rise to the peak of Mt Fansipan – the highest point in Indochina. The combination of fresh mountain air, relaxed ambience, sweeping panoramas and fascinating hill tribes make Sa Pa a must-see destination.

A trek took us deep into a hill tribe region where tourists are still something of a novelty. Staying in village homes allowed us to experience firsthand a lifestyle that has been little touched by the modern world and a curiosity from our hosts just as great as our own. The trekking is fairly strenuous at times but the spectacular scenery and sense of adventure make it worth the effort.

Ta Phin Cave, at the far end of Ta Phin village, is an attractive destination which tourists often bypass without a local guide's suggestion. The cave requires a guide with a flashlight, and the guide will shine the torch on a variety of stalactites.

Some of the locals invite visitors to go to their homes to show how they live and what they have, and tell them about their families. On following them to their houses, tourists find out how simply they live. The tour guides suggest you to buy the merchandise you like from them as repayment for what they have shown for you. Local tour guides also lead the trips to the forests and mountains because they know thoroughly the terrain.

Trekking tour in Sa PaTrekking tour in Sa Pa

City lovers may find Sa Pa is not the place for them as its rich ethnic lifestyle is far removed from modern life. If you expect to go shopping in malls, Sa Pa has nothing to offer. The only way to go shopping is to go to the local market where you can find unique handicrafts, jewelry and fabrics with colourful embroidery. While tourists don't know how to bargain or choose the best items, the local guides are ready to help.

Sa Pa is famous for its "love market" where local young people go to show off and find partners. It is held every Saturday night and provides a unique and unforgettable experience.
The love market is a tradition in the culture of the Mong, Tay and Dao. All the people around Sa Pa live in isolated villages and can only get together once a week during the Sunday morning market. The night before, young men and women from all around come to the love market to meet and express their emotions through playing the khen (pan pipe) and singing according to traditional customs of their people.

The experience of Sa Pa trip is not something that everyone can buy, but adventurous people and those who seek to know the hidden charm of Vietnamese hill tribes living in their old traditional mountain villages cannot miss this place.

Source : VNS

Recommendations:
Sapa Trekking & Homestay
Heaven Gate Route

December 16, 2010

Where and how to meet minorities in Southeast Asia

Minority cultures in Southeast Asia are often time capsules of earlier lifestyles that have escaped the full force of globalisation’s effects. Consequently, they are a highlight for travellers to the region who want to get a sense of a country’s past…as it collides with the present.

But how do you ensure that while visiting, you don’t cause unintended damage or offence? You can show your respect for a culture by being educated about its ways, beliefs and taboos. Here are a few general guidelines:

1. Always ask permission before taking photos of tribespeople.

2. Don’t touch totems at village entrances or sacred items hanging from trees.

3. Avoid cultivating a tradition of begging, especially among children.

4. Avoid public nudity and don’t undress near an open window.

5. Don’t flirt with members of the opposite sex.

6. Don’t drink or do drugs with the villagers.

7. Smile at villagers even if they stare.

8. Ask your guide how to say ‘hello’.

9. Avoid public displays of affection, which might be viewed as offensive to the spirit world.

10. Don’t interact with the villagers’ livestock; avoid interacting with jungle animals, which might be viewed as visiting spirits.

11. Don’t step on the threshold of a house, prop your feet up against the fire or wear your shoes inside.

The local annual
The local annual "love market" in Ha Giang, Vietnam

Where to meet Southeast Asia’s minority cultures

If you want to meet minority cultures, you’ll often have to get away from popular tourist centres; how far you’ll have to go depends very much on the country and how popular it is with visitors.

The trekking industry in Thailand is very developed and a minority visit can be a disappointment for some, but much depends on the operator organising the trip. Northern Vietnam and the Xīshuāngbǎnnà region of Yúnnán have emerged as popular places to experience minority cultures. Laos is really taking off as a destination to meet minority groups, partly due to its ethnically diverse population and in part due to the relatively small numbers of visitors venturing off the beaten path.

Cambodia and the Central Highlands of Vietnam provide a home to some minority groups in the northeast, but as they dress like lowland Khmer or Vietnamese, they have been less exposed to mass tourism than elsewhere. As for the effects of trekking on the host tribes, many agree that individuals within the village might financially benefit when the trekking companies purchase supplies and lodging, but the overall pluses and minuses are considered to be minimal compared to other larger institutional forces.

Lonely Planet has a suggestion of the top 5 spots for a genuine interaction with a minority culture in Southeast Asia:

1. Cambodia: Ratanakiri
2. Laos: Muang Sing
3. Thailand: Chiang Rai
4. Vietnam: Sapa
5. Yúnnán: Xīshuāngbannà

December 11, 2010

Adventure hike in Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam


Only 170 kilometers from HCMC, Cat Tien is an ideal piece of the wild for an Vietnam adventure trip.

Vietnam National Parks
At more than 71,000 hectares, Cat Tien National Park has plenty of untamed places that are off the beaten track.

Hiking or biking are the best ways to travel on the forest tracks. The park has important conservation value because of the rainforest, mountains, river and rich biodiversity that attracts thousands of tourists and scientists from all over the world.

Instead of risking it alone, the team at Vietnam Adventure, organizes hiking and biking trips into the Cat Tien jungle with a back-up crew to make sure nothing goes wrong.

Catch the bus from HCMC in the afternoon to the national park in Tan Phu Commune, Dong Nai Province, arriving in plenty of time for a good night’s sleep in accommodation at the park headquarters. The hike starts early the next day to avoid the mid-day heat and jungle humidity.

The destination is Green Hill; to get there the track goes past ethnic minority Ma and S’Tieng villages then continues through a thick bamboo jungle following one of the local tribe’s tracks. It’s likely to pass some of the minorities as they go about their business in the forest and see some deer and birdlife but the going is not easy. The tour arrives at the top of Green Hill, an inactive volcano over 300 meters above sea level in time for lunch. Before getting to the top, there’s a cave containing thousands of bats.

Another village path is taken for the trip down, which is a scramble over the loose red basalt soil. The scenery is different with streams, tall grass and bamboo.

Source: SGT

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