Arguably, the most famous rice terraces in South East Asia are in Sapa, a district centred around the town of the same name in the Highlands north of Hanoi and close to the Chinese border. Sapa is a regular inclusion in Vietnam travel packages. If you talk to an experienced Hanoi travel agent about the best things to include in a Vietnam tour itinerary, it is likely that Sapa will be among the top recommendations.
This region is located at around 1,500 metres above sea level, and that inevitably impacts on the climate. Life has barely changed in generations and the ethnic tribes in these mountains have maintained their customs and culture despite the increased numbers of overseas tourists that now visit Sapa.
There is both comfortable train and bus connections from Hanoi up to see the Sapa Terraces. You can travel overnight but then you will miss the countryside in-between. Buses are likely to take up to 6 hours, and trains a little longer and if you are on an organised tour all the arrangements will be made in advance for you, as well as any accommodation you will need once you arrive. A homestay in one of the villages is very popular and can be arranged when you book your Vietnam holiday.
The Kinh, ethnic Viet and the Hmong are the largest tribes but there are several more around Sapa including the Red Dao whom hikers are likely to meet when they are exploring the region. The peasant farmers that live around the small town of Sapa rely on agriculture to feed themselves even though the arrival of tourists has given many a market for their local crafts. In addition, you can expect to be able to listen to traditional music and enjoy the dancing.
The local museum will tell you more about the history of Sapa and the lives of the tribes that have always inhabited these mountains. Heaven’s Gate offers plenty of photographic opportunities. Whether you want shots of mountains, the lovely waterfall or Sapa Lake, you will get some pictures that will make friends and family very envious.
The rice terraces are sown in the spring once the cold weather of winter has departed. Initially, the terraces shimmer when the sun shines on the water trapped in the terraces. As the shoots come through, the overall colour gradually changes to green. While the summer is the rainy season, it is also the time when the scenery is at its most spectacular.
The climate in the Northern Highlands may be slightly unpredictable. There will be cold nights in the winter, and rainy days during the summer. However, what is certain is that the terraces are at their least attractive during winter yet once water fills them and the rice is planted, you will not be disappointed by whatever they show you, shimmering, green or finally gold. When you sit down at night with a plate of rice, you will certainly know where it came from.