The mountainous town offers a glimpse into a world of mysterious minority cultures and luscious landscapes.
The Queen of the Mountains, Sapa , overlooks a beautiful valley with lofty mountains towering over the town on all sides. The spectacular scenery surrounding Sapa includes cascading rice terraces which spill down the mountains like a patchwork quilt. The mountains are often shrouded in mist that rolls back and forth along the peaks, offering tantalizing glimpses of what lies in wait on a clear day. The valleys and villages around Sapa are home to a host of hill-tribe people who wander around town buying, selling and trading.
Close to the Chinese border in Lao Cai Province and about 376 kilometers from Hanoi, Sapa was built in 1922 as a hill station. It was nearly wiped off the map by a series of conflicts that swept over Vietnam. World War II, successive wars against the French and the U.S. and the 1979 border skirmish with China in 1979 all took their toll. The old hotels built by the French fell into disrepair and Sapa was forgotten by all but a handful of residents.
With the advent of tourism, Sapa has experienced a renaissance. Today, some buildings have been restored, notably the stone church in central Sapa. Several of the new buildings are vaguely based on long gone French villas. Apart from that, the only enduring memento of the French presence is the inclusion of open fires and chimneys in many buildings, a welcome addition as the temperature often slips below zero in winter.
At a height of 1,600 meters above sea level, the average temperature of the area is 15-18°C. Visitors to Sapa in summer can feel the climate of four seasons in one day. In the morning and afternoon, it is cool like the weather of spring and autumn. At noon, it is as sunny and cloudless as the weather of summer. The dry season in Sapa lasts from around January to June. January and February are the coldest and foggiest months. From March to May the weather is often excellent, and the summer is warm despite the rains between June and August.
It is quite easy to undertake day hikes through the valleys around Sapa without the assistance of a guide. However, for overnight stays in villages and longer treks into the mountains, it is advisable to hook up with a minority guide. There are endless beautiful places for trekking. The villages and the surrounding landscape are now part of Hoang Lien Reserve Park .
The nearest village within walking distance is Cat Cat, three kilometers to the south. Like other amazing inhabited areas, it’s a steep and very beautiful hike down. This is a fantastic spot to witness the daily activities of minority group residents and admire the magic of nature while shopping for local handicrafts.
Another popular trek is to Ta Phin Village, home to Red Dao and about 10 kilometers from Sapa. There are also overnight community-based tours to the nearby H’mong village of Sin Chai that offer a chance to learn about textiles or music and dance. Other popular communities to visit include the Giay village of Ta Van and the Black H’mong village of Matra.
Surrounding Sapa is the Hoang Lien Mountain range , named the Tonkinese Alps by the French, at the tail end of the Himalaya. These mountains include Fansipan, not only Vietnam’s highest peak but also the Indochina Peninsula’s “roof” at a height of 3,143 meters. The summit towers above Sapa, although it is often obscured by clouds and is occasionally dusted with snow. The peak is accessible all year to those in good shape and properly equipped but don’t underestimate the challenge. It is very wet and can be perilously slippery and generally cold. However, some local wildlife such as donkeys, mountain goats and birds plus the unique beauty of nature offers explorers a memorable expedition.
Just a stone’s throw from downtown Sapa to the foot of Ham Rong (Dragon Jaw) Mountain, the journey up to the peak provides a panoramic view of the whole Sapa where colorful wildflowers bloom almost all year round. Visitors to Ham Rong Mountain also have the chance to admire the orchid garden and numerous caves and stones in extraordinary shapes.
The incredible road between Sapa and Lai Chau crosses the Tram Ton Pass on the northern side of Fansipan , 15 kilometers from Sapa. At 1,900 meters, this is the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. Even if you are not planning to fully explore Vietnam’s unique northwest, it is well worth coming up here to experience the incredible views from the top of this pass.
Alongside the road, about five kilometers toward Sapa, is Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall). With a height of 100 meters, it is one of the highest waterfalls in the country, and the loop track is steep and scenic.
The main attraction of this area, apart from its natural beauty, is Vietnam’s largest concentration of ethnic groups including Red Dao, H’mong, Giay, Tay, Xa Pho, Kinh and Hoa. Their dress, buildings, traditions and lifestyles are a big magnet for visitors.
Sapa would be of considerably less interest without the H’mong and Dao people, the largest ethnic groups in the region. The billowing red headdresses of the Red Dao are visible all over town, a surreal sight amid the accelerating development. The H’mong are more numerous and canny traders. Their villages may look medieval but most will have a mobile phone and an email address to stay in touch. Traditionally, they were the poorest of the poor but have rapidly learnt the spirit of free enterprise. Most of the Montagnards have had little formal education and are illiterate, yet all the youngsters have a good command of English, French and a handful of other languages.
Sapa is also famous for its love market, which takes place on Saturday evenings. This cultural highlight used to be the place for tribal locals to find a partner and get married.
Tradition has it that young Red Dao hill tribes used to come to Sapa to sing songs to find their partners. Girls sang hidden in the dark and when a boy found them – if they liked each other – they disappeared into the forest for three days. Some of them got married after that.
But with the development of tourism, the real love market does not take place anymore. Currently visitors can only see a representation of the love market. Do not miss it, however, anyway if you are staying here on Saturday night.
Food, drinks and souvenir stores can be found near the stone church in the downtown area. The restaurants here offer a wide range of interesting Vietnamese and European meals at very affordable prices. The food is delicious and well-presented. The dining establishments also have respectable wine lists with French, South American and Australian wines, also at reasonable prices. The staff are very friendly and welcoming and usually speak quite good English.
With its beauty and unique lifestyle, Sapa is a rewarding destination where all the hustle of daily life vanishes.