The Northwest preens its colourful feathers

February 19, 2017 - 09:00

Việt Nam’s northwest stays stunningly beautiful and colourful even in the harshest weather conditions; as such it is tailor-made for tourism all year long, report Lục Hương Thu and Nguyễn Mỹ Hà.

Contemplating: Sipping tea and gazing at terraced fields in Cát Cát Village near Sa Pa. VNA/VNS Photo Nhật Anh
Viet Nam News

Việt Nam’s northwest stays stunningly beautiful and colourful even in the harshest weather conditions; as such it is tailor-made for tourism all year long, report Lục Hương Thu and Nguyễn Mỹ Hà.

It is probably an ironic feature of tourism that harsh weather conditions which impose considerable hardships on locals add to the lure of a place for visitors from afar.

For instance, when the weather report on February 11 talked of a cold wave sweeping from the north reaching a record low point of four degree Celsius in Lào Cai Province, it meant that residents had to add extra layers of clothing for their children to be warm, provide extra care for cattle, including warm food, blankets and warm stables, and brace for some loss of vegetable crops.

And it is exactly such a forecast that got some tourists excited about seeing amazing landscapes of misty mountains and valleys, experiencing temperatures that they are not accustomed to as an adventure, and so on.

Cao Hương, an intrepid traveller in her late twenties, was one of those who saw an opportunity in the colder than usual weather.

“After each cold wave,” she said, “there will usually be a rise in temperature, and if you go up the mountains at this time, chances are that you can see the magnificent sea of clouds and capture it with your camera.”

The way up: The long and winding road in Tả Phìn Hamlet, Sa Pa. VNA/VNS Photo Trọng Đức

Indeed, members of online photography groups have been sharing tips on how, when and where extremely photogenic landscapes can enhance the experience of mountain climbing.

Hương has already climbed Fansipan, the tallest mount in Southeast Asia, twice during her sophomore year in college, opting for the harder routes. For better or worse, there was no cable car then to reach the peak 3.143m above sea level.

Colours of the Northwest

Fittingly, it is amidst this cold wave that the northwestern mountainous province of Lào Cai hosted a grand launch of the National Year of Tourism in the presence of Deputy Prime Minister Vũ Đức Đam on February 11.

This year’s campaign, themed “Colours of the Northwest”, will see a series of activities and events designed to attract more visitors to the mountainous areas. The weather office chimed in with: “This is the most special time of the year to enjoy the cleanest air up in the mountains during Spring…”

Speaking at the launching ceremony, Nguyễn Văn Bình, Politburo member and chairman of the Northwestern Steering Committee said, “The National Tourism Year 2017 will bring the Northwest to the world.”

He said that the region is home to 30 ethnic groups with a rich and diverse culture, magnificent landscapes and “golden destinations” like the Mai Châu Valley, the Mộc Châu Highlands, the Đồng Văn Karst Park, the terraced fields of Mù Cang Chải, the historic base in Mường Phăng Forest (from where General Võ Nguyên Giáp directed the Điện Biên Phủ Campaign agaínt the French) and Mt Fansipan.

Several shortcomings prevented the region from optimally exploiting its tourism potential, Bình said. Removing these shortcomings would bring in more tourism revenue and benefit locals, he added.

He said that the Party Politburo decided that until 2020, tourism should be a major economic sector in the region, stimulating socio-economic development.

Colourful: The striking colours of the Northwest can be seen everywhere, including the Bắc Hà Market Fair. VNA/VNS Photo Thanh Hà

“By 2030, we aim to place Việt Nam among the top countries in the region with a well developed tourism industry," he added.

Đặng Xuân Phong, chairman of the Lào Cai People’s Committee, said the province was proud to host the National Tourism Year.

“We are building roads and extending the electricity network. We are developing our human resources and maintaining our traditions. We have designed tours with different themes, like the soul-searching tours upstream Red and Black rivers, community tours where you live like a local, adventure tours to conquer mountains, tours to see beautiful, rare flowers, and market fair tours where you meet people who come to buy and sell tools, maize, cattle and poultry, maize liquor and indigo fabric, and tours to explore all the dimensions of our vast terraced fields.”

“Come to see the real colours of the Northwest with your own eyes,” Phong exhorted.

New stamps have been issued to mark the year. One stamp carries the terraced fields and another the Mt. Fansipan.

Broadcast live on national television, the ceremony gathered more than 100 performers, dancers and singers who highlighted the diverse cultures and colours of the region.

Friends in high places

An active traveller since she was a student, Cao Hương said she trained herself by climbing steps everyday in order to scale the peaks in northwest Việt Nam.

“Fansipan has become accessible by cable car, but there are other mountains you can still climb with your feet and hands, and, in some cases, with the help of ropes, steel hooks and a porter,” she told Việt Nam News on the phone.

Up and down: Adventure travellers take other routes to mountain tops, now that Fansipan is accessible by cable car. VNS Photo Cao Hương

Việt Nam’s fourth highest peak, Bạch Mộc Lương Tử on the Hòang Liên Sơn Range stands tall at 3,040m above sea level.

Hương said it took her three days and two nights to get there. “In total, it’s only 30 kilometres, but there are many dangerous slopes. There was a cliff that we had to boulder and belay with the help of two porters who carried rice and other amenities for the group.”

When Hương and her friends reached the top of Bạch Mộc Lương Tử, they met a man in his sixties from HCM City.

“He said to me, our country is so breathtakingly beautiful!”

Once she reached the peak, Hương did not know how to give vent to her elation, so she started to sing the national anthem. Soon, she was joined by a few other groups who were also at the top.

In the first three days of the Lunar New Year holiday, a record 40,000 people visited Sa Pa, 5,000 of them foreigners.

“We expect to receive 3.1 million tourists this year,” said Hà Văn Thắng, head of the Lào Cai Culuture, Sport and Tourism Department. "About one million of the tourists would be foreigners," he added.

More visitors mean more income and job opportunities for local businesses.

The flip side

While tourism has generated greater revenues for localities and their populations, some of the lasting negative impacts cannot be ignored.

The most obvious downside of tourism is environmental pollution. 

“Along the road up to Mt Bạch Mộc Lương Tử, the fourth tallest mountain top of Việt Nam,” said Hương, “There has to be garbage bins along the way and at all the usual . We can see a large amount of plastic garbage on the way.”

Profusion: Pink rhodendrons bloom on the way to the top of Mt. Bạch Mộc Lương Tử. VNS Photo Cao Hương

Hương said that while her group of young mountain climbers buried organic garbage on roadsides, they brought back non-organic waste back.

“Self-decomposing toilets also need to be installed at the stops,” she said.

According to some travellers, even at 2,000m above sea level, locals have cut down trees in protected forest areas to make huts and temporary shelters for overnight stays.

Forest fire is another risk. "All tourists need to be warned of possible forest fires if they light fires in prohibited areas. Even locals and porters need training on this issue," Hương said.

An adverse social impact of tourism seen in the past several years is that children drop out of school to work for tourists. Local administrations have taken the problem seriously, though, and convinced the parents and students not to do this. These days, children are no longer seen working during school time.

Some tourists have taken photographs of young people clad in ethnic Mông attire panhandling in downtown Sa Pa. Several reports have spoken of rising prostitution. While these are not phenomena unique to one country, authorities can take care to prevent them.

Many travellers who’ve visited the mountains, lived there and made friends with Mông men, women, elders and children have remarked that they are a proud people.

Experts, including sociologists, have said that when authorities promote tourism in the region, they should ensure that locals, especially ethnic minorities, derive sustainable benefits that improve their standard of living and help them preserve their original traditions and lifestyles as much as possible. -- VNS



Swinging: A local woman plays "Striking the ball," a popular game at spring fairs in the northern highlands. VNA/VNS Photo Hoài Nam
Staying cool: Streams along the way to the top of the mountain are a calming sight. VNS Photo Cao Hương
In full bloom: A flower that can weigh nearly one kilo. VNS Photo Cao Hương
Floral highs: A "rose tree" about 20m tall with light yellow flowers. VNS Photo Cao Hương
Different views: The landscape varies from season to season. VNS Photo Cao Hương