In the hill country of Vietnam…

THE air in Sa Pa is refreshing after the broiling lowlands of Vietnam. It feels strange to be wearing shoes and a jersey in this, Southeast Asia’s version of an alpine resort.

Views from Sa Pa, Vietnam

Views from Sa Pa, Vietnam. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

After many centuries of southwards migration from China and northwards migration from Indonesia, the hill country of Vietnam is a fascinating mix of ethnic minorities.

They are a tiny, strong, proud people wearing colourful and detailed costumes. With their elaborate headdresses, embroidered tunics and jingling silver jewellery, they  crowd into the town of Sa Pa to market their wares.

In the market piles of pomegranates look a manky greenish brown but the outer skin is peeled away to reveal translucent fruit that turns to sweetest water between your teeth.

Vietnam hill tribes in Sa Pa market

Vietnam hill tribes in Sa Pa market. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

A handful of women make careful examination of a new sickle in the market. Each chicken must be pinched, prodded and weighed.

A walk through terraces of rice growing takes me to the nearby Black Hmong village of Cat Cat, where I watched the dying of the indigo hemp cloth from which they fashion their clothing.

I pass people walking up the hill road to the market town, loaded down with goods to sell, or carrying empty bamboo carriers ready to buy.

A few people have donkeys or small horses loaded down with saddle packs, tempted onwards by long poles of sugar cane.

The village houses are made of packed earth and built around an altar. One I saw had a page of newspaper for each year carefully pasted on the walls.

The rice paddies are green velvet slivers along the wooded valleys, or curving patchworks of yellows and greens in the flatter areas.  The rising terraces are steep against the skyline like the steps of an ancient temple.

Vietnam rice terraces

A view of the rice terraces. Pic: Natasha von Geldern.

Each field is divided by earth dykes along which children lead their buffalo or ride their bikes.

A few hours drive away is the village of Bac Ha, where a weekend animal market is attended by hundreds of Flower Hmong people from miles around.

Vibrantly embroidered skirts, turbans and shirts, combined with the cacophony of livestock noise make this market an assault on all the senses.

Back in Sa Pa I enjoy the views over misty fields, thick jungle and mountainous country from the café and hotel terraces.

The evening air cools quickly as I chat to the young jewellery vendors and decide how badly I want to eat a pizza at the café after months of Asian food.