In Lao Cai s verdant hills
Flower Hmong girls at Coc Ly Market near Sapa, Vietnam. Picture: Richard Pennick

Smiling faces appear at the windows as Red Hmong women - some carrying babies in baskets on their backs or holding toddlers by the hand - wait as we step down from the minibus. As we do, each one falls in beside us to act as our "guide" for a tour of their village.

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There is no shaking them but we are soon captivated by their charm - and surprisingly good English - as they lead us along the dusty winding road through the village and out into the rice paddies.

Their colourful costumes are capped with large red turbans and we are surprised to learn that this elaborate clothing is their everyday wear, even in the paddies.

Earlier that day, we stepped down from the Sapa Express into the cool dawn mountain air at Lao Cai station. The train had climbed through the night from the heat of Hanoi as we slept in our air-conditioned cabin. We eagerly transferred to the shuttle for the hour-long drive up through the terraced rice paddies to the hillside community of Sapa.

For three fascinating days, we are immersed in the charm, simplicity, exquisite artistry and memorable cuisine of the colourful Hmong people of North Vietnam - the Red Hmong, Black Hmong and Flower Hmong, the three major hill tribes of the Sapa region. Often shrouded in mist, Sapa surrounds a lake and garden park that stretches up into forested hills and north to Mt Fansipan, Vietnam's highest peak in what the French called the Tokinese Alps. In the early 20th century, the settlement was a French colonial summer escape and some excellent examples of colonial architecture remain.

After breakfast, we drive out into the lush green hills - a patchwork of water-filled rice paddies - to the village of Dzai, home of the Red Hmong. We are invited into one of their homes, a low sprawling wooden structure under an ornamental lintel. Dogs and chickens scurry about the earth floor of the central living area where a brazier glows beneath an opening in the roof. An old woman busies herself preparing a meal, while children watch cartoons on a tiny TV in one of the raised sleeping alcoves.

Edible venomous snakes for sale in Sapa market. Picture: Richard Pennick

We are pleasantly surprised to see a small government-built hospital and a well-maintained school in the village. Beaming with pride, the teachers show us the children's exercise books and drawings.

Our "official" guide explains that, although they receive some government assistance, the Hmong are fiercely independent (Hmong means "free"). The nearly 600,000 Hmong belong to 50 tribes in Vietnam.

During the weeks prior to our visit, we had watched the mouth-watering SBS travel/cooking series, Luke Nguyen's Vietnam. His caramelised pork and ginger with garlic sauteed vegies was on our to-do list and that evening we do, at the Red Dao restaurant in Sapa. We also sample the strong rice wine - an acquired taste - but do enjoy the sweet apple wine. The following morning, we stroll around Sapa's blossom-draped old town streets to the central square opposite the beautifully maintained colonial church. From here, the bustling Sapa market flows down through streets and alleys; some so steep they are stepped.

The Red and Black Hmong sell their produce - vegies, spices, mountain honey, flowers, chickens, pigs (even live snakes and dog meat) - in one area, and medicinal herbs, embroidered bags, slippers, Hmong traditional dress, embroidery and musical instruments in another. We buy three intricate Hmong wall hangings loaded with artistic and tribal symbolism.

This is hungry work, so we duck into a busy cafe for pho (pronounced "fur"), a steaming bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup. Throughout Vietnam we have seen the locals bent over their pho of beef or chicken seasoned with basil, green onion, lime, unpronounceable herbs and, of course, noodles.

After lunch, we drive back out into the Muong Hoa Valley to Loa Chai, a hillside village among the paddy fields and home of the Black Hmong. The Black Hmong are distinguished by their embroidered indigo hats and costumes and live in mud, wattle and bamboo houses and do not seem quite as prosperous as the Red Hmong.

As at the Red Hmong village, the men and young women are planting wet-rice seedlings. We watch as they form a line across the paddy and work their way backwards, planting beneath the water as they go. The older men guide water buffalo, each pulling a plough, around adjacent paddies in preparation for planting. And so it goes through to the end of May until each village has planted its arable land.

On our last day, we visit the Flower Hmong market at Coc Ly on the Chay River.

The drive from Sapa, towards the Chinese border, leaves the paddies for the cooler forests and green tea plantations of the north. The Flower Hmong women are most attractive in their layers of brightly coloured clothes. There is a festive air as they greet and embrace relatives and friends. The girls promenade in their brightest costumes and jewellery for the benefit of the young men gathered.

Fresh produce, herbs, rice wine - and those exquisite embroidered goods - are displayed at stalls or on blankets on the sloping hillside. At the rear of the market, families gather in a canvas-covered area of braziers and bench tables to eat and exchange gossip.

Black Hmong plant rice seedlings. Picture: Richard Pennick

On the other side of the dusty market road, time and use have tiered the hillside. Fine horses and donkeys are traded on the hilltop. Beef cattle and the placid water buffalo are bought and sold on the red clay below.

On our last night in Sapa, we enjoy another dish on our culinary wish list at the Lotus Restaurant. We tuck into chargrilled Hmong black pig skewers with honey, sesame seed and peanuts, plus apple wine. Swathed in silk, a Hmong girl sweetly sings to the strains of a flute and dan bau, a wooden one-stringed instrument.

As we walk back from the restaurant beneath a canopy of stars, we reflect on our Sapa experiences and it is the Hmong - their friendly manner and captivating smiles - we will most fondly remember.

For train schedules and prices, see sapatrain.com

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