Beyond the clouds in Sa Pa

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VietNamNet Bridge – If you're looking to escape from the summer heat, you could do worse than hop on an overnight train to Sa Pa – after all, that was why the French established the hill station in the first place.

I, for one, was not disappointed. Sa Pa, which lies some 1,600m above sea level, is beautifully refreshing in summer. But more than that, the views of forests, the inhospitable peaks of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range and the terraced paddy fields are to die for.

On the advice of my experienced ethnic Tay tourist guide, I rented a motorbike so I could visit the Giay people's village in Ta Van Commune, which nestles in the hills some 10km from Sa Pa town centre along a tree-lined zigzagging road.

On the way, Luong Ngoc Khoa, my guide, informed me about local hill tribe customs.
"Among the several villages in the Muong Hoa Valley the best known are Sin Chai, Cat Cat, Lao Chai and Ta Van Giay. Most of the houses lean against the hills and face a small streamline," he says.

Unlike the houses built by the ethnic Mong and Dao in the same commune, the Giay's houses are far more sturdy, with higher ceilings and walled with solid timber. Recently, a number of households have added second floors for homestay tourists, who are mostly foreign.

There are about 160 households in his village. I noticed that on closer inspection, at the entrance to the 30-odd houses at the centre of the village – the oldest – swallows have built nests.
Khoa pointed at one particular nest, which he said was typically constructed of mud, dry grass and feathers. Above and around, swallows darted this way and that.

We visited one of the oldest houses in the village, whose owners offered rooms to tourists.
"We do not know why the swallows keep flocking to our house to build nests for their children," Vang Thi Soi, owner of the house, tells me in Vietnamese in a soft, slow and thoughtful voice. "Maybe because they know we love nature and everything belongs to the forest."

Soi says her family were among the first households in the village to offer homestay services in 2004. Now about 20 households have started to tap into the lucrative tourism market.
She says the biggest house in the village can host up to 40 guests a night in its upper storey. And facilities are far from basic.

"The Giay people are catching up with the city-dwellers in installing comfortable and clean facilities for tourists," Khoa says. "However, I prefer them to offer guests a basin of hot water in their houses, and no shower, which is more traditional and closer to real local life. I believe tourists want to experience the real thing when they live in the village."

Roger Clark, an Australian tourist, is quite happy to forego the conveniences of modern life. "This village is unlike any other tourism villages in Sa Pa. And there are no wandering hawkers! I love the peaceful life and fresh atmosphere here."

To make things easier for their foreign visitors, Khoa says most of the homestay hosts now speak a bit of English, French or Spanish – or all three.
But tourism has not come without a price, and Khoa and Clark both admit they are concerned about damage to the environment.

Khoa says most local villagers simply dump rubbish in the nearby stream.
"If local authorities do not implement proper waste-disposal measures, the river will soon be blocked with rubbish," he warns.

In addition, Khoa says the dirt track leading to the village should be cemented over to reduce soil erosion, while trees should be planted to replace those used for firewood or timber.
Soi says the best time to visit the village is from the end of August to October, when the terraced paddy fields surrounding the village are turning from green to yellow and the air is scented with the perfume of rice.

Khoa says he is still captivated by the familiar sight of rice plants waving in the breeze. "I have to admit that I am often dazzled by the sight of our beautiful rice terraces, the plants waving to and fro in the breeze, while I trek with tourists around the village," Khoa says. "The air is perfumed with the smell of rice. You can't help feeling closer to nature."

Ly Thi Lien, who also opens her house to tourists, is proud of the food she serves her visitors, which includes locally grown fruit and vegetables and free-range cattle and poultry.

With my own stay at an end, I snapped away happily at the intoxicating scenery around me in the hope that on returning to Ha Noi I would be reminded of the happy time I spent in Ta Van Giay. There is surely nothing that can beat getting up with the sunrise to the sound of swallows at night chattering in the eves. I will be back.

VietNamNet/Viet Nam News

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