From the hilltop, I admired the vibrant scenery of Sin Suoi Ho, with pink cherry blossoms and yellow boat orchids meeting my gaze.
A house of H'mong people amid cherry blossoms. Photo by Xu Kien.
Situated at 1,500 m above sea level, Sin Suoi Ho is a commune of Phong Tho District, 30 km from Lai Chau Town, capital of northwestern province Lai Chau. The commune's H’mong ethnic residents primarily survive by cultivating boat orchids and rice and organizing homestay services for travelers.
At mid-noon a day in late January, I left A Pa Chai, the westernmost point of Vietnam in Dien Bien Province, heading towards Sin Suoi Ho along with four companions. As the cold winds chilled us to our core, we reached our destination at 10 p.m. We quickly had a hasty meal before collapsing into a deep sleep. Waking up the next day in a H'mong home, I finished a quick noodle breakfast before exploring the commune.
Walking around Sin Suoi Ho, you can easily find a hostel or a homestay, with most households operating one. Though not affluent, all buildings in the commune, especially those used as homestays, display great craftsmanship, from pillars, walls, to furniture, all created by hand.
Cattle barns are situated at a distance from the houses, which makes Sin Suoi Ho smell fresh with no obtruding odor. The great osmic atmosphere corresponded greatly with the visual, with no sign of improperly disposed garbage anywhere.
Due to the commune’s high altitude, each house in the commune has a small garden of boat orchids, a type of flowering plants common to regions with a cool climate. The flowers spread throughout the commune, blanketing it with a vibrant yellow and green orchid shade.
The commune grows boat orchids for commercial purposes, using organic fertilizers such as aged tree bark, sawdust and cattle manure. The plants are reared for a full year before being sold at approximately VND200,000 ($8.6) a branch, and up to VND20 million ($862) a plant. Due to its high economic value, the living conditions of Sin Suoi Ho locals have improved greatly, compared to many other H'mong ethnic communes I had visited in the past.
Perennial trees are communal meeting places. Photo by Xu Kien.
Walking out of a lush orchid garden, I reached one of the most significant milestones of my visit to Sin Suoi Ho, the commune’s perennial trees, standing tall as if they were the community’s guardians against spiritual foes. No local here knew when the trees were planted, as they have stood resiliently for longer than any villager’s lifetime. With their large trunks and canopies, the trees have become communal meeting and resting places.
Reaching the old trees, I took a relaxing rest on a bench, enjoying the rare tranquility in my hustling cross-nation journey. Besides me were blooming peach blossoms, which further soothed my active mind.
As I traveled deeper into the commune, I reached the Heart Fall (Thac Trai Tim). It is named after a folk tale about a loving ethnic couple. With the male lover off to battle, his partner received fake news about his sacrifice on the battlefield, making her cry her heart out and turn into a waterfall. When he returned and learned her tragic fate, the former soldier himself turned into a heart-shaped stone in the middle of the pond at the end of the fall.
Parking my motorbike outside, I approached Heart Fall via a set of concrete steps lined by trees hundreds of years old.
After a few minutes of walking, the sounds of the waterfall slowly increased. The sound was further boosted with the surrounding absence of human presence. There were no stalls, and no one to meet, as if you were step-by-step getting closer to the core of nature. Faintly surrounding the sound of the waterfall was the chirping of natural insects and birds, audibly guiding travelers toward the natural tranquility.
Reaching the fall, I stepped into its transparent pond, chilling me to my core.
Heart Fall in Sin Suoi Ho Commune. Photo by Xu Kien.
Besides the boat orchids and Heart Fall, Sin Suoi Ho is also famed for its picturesque terraced rice fields, an iconic mountainous spectacle. As if the fields were constructing a staircase to heaven, they spread throughout the commune, reaching to the horizon.
Next to every terraced field stood a small lodge for local farmers, all temporarily deserted as if hibernating until the next spring.
Terraced rice fields are a part of Sin Suoi Ho's charm. Photo by Xu Kien.
As I reached the commune near the weekend, on Saturday, I joined the local fair along with the ethnic H'mong and Dao people. The fair was crowded with laughter, with each household bringing household products to trade.
Throughout the fair, you may come across many signature souvenirs, from brocaded scarfs, handbags, and clothes to handmade smoking pipes. Besides these handmade products, a lot of harvested roots and trees are sold, traditionally believed to be medicinally beneficial.
Later in the late afternoon of the second day, I made a few extra rounds of the commune before taking a moment to admire the sunset. The last sun rays cut across the scenery, highlighting the roof of H'mong homesteads. Behind stood rows of cherry blossoms, partially blurred by kitchen smoke. All contributed to the mesmerizing scenery that I would never forget.
Sunset as seen from a mountain top at Sin Suoi Ho. Photo by Xu Kien.
Motorbike: It is a great way to travel to Sin Suoi Ho Commune. When traveling across Vietnamese mountainous regions, it is better to choose more crowded national roads, which are more frequently maintained. Coming from Hanoi, the best road is to take Hanoi – Lao Cai Expressway to Lao Cai Town, before turning onto National Road 4D heading to Lai Chau Town, following the road signs. Another option is taking National Road 12 from Dien Bien Town to Lai Chau Town. It is best not to take National Road 100, a mistake I made, as this road is badly maintained and would cause travelers many problems. After reaching Lai Chau Town, it only takes an additional 30 km to reach Sin Suoi Ho, all well-paved with peaceful side scenery.
Car/Coach: From Hanoi, you can take a coach to Lai Chau Town using coach services like The Anh, Ngan Ha and Toan Thang. After reaching Lai Chau Town, you can rent a small car, with or without a driver, to reach Sin Suoi Ho, as it is impossible for large cars to traverse the commune’s small roads.
*Lodging: Sin Suoi Ho has many homestay options. My recommendation is Xa Cha Homestay (Tel: +84 0368 996 0113), operated by a local clergyman. It provides good services, while the host could teach you much about local culture.
*Food: Visiting Sin Suoi Ho, you can enjoy many H'mong ethnic specialities, such as mountain pig, mountain chicken, smoked buffalo, corn alcohol and ginger alcohol.
*Ideal time to visit: The best time to visit Sin Suoi Ho and Lai Chau Province is in the rice blooming season between September and October. Another good time to visit is during the H'mong ethnic New Year festival, which occurs during the last month of the Lunar New Year (approximately at the end of December, early January). Traveling here at this time, you have a chance to experience many ethnic cultural activities and new-year games.
*Hiking: Lai Chau Province hosts many of Vietnam’s tallest peaks. From Sin Suoi Ho, you can hike Ta Lien Son, Pu Ta Leng, Pu Si Lung and Khang Su Van peaks (Lai Chau Province) or Bach Moc Luong Tu and Fansipan (Lao Cai Province), all of which are situated nearby. You can contact the homestay’s host to hire a porter to assist your hiking experience, many of whom are Sin Suoi Ho locals with years of experience.