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The tourist capital of Vietnam’s mountainous north, SA PA is perched dramatically on the western edge of a high plateau, facing the hazy blue peak of Fan Si Pan, and is surrounded by villages of ethnic minorities, particularly the Red Dao and Black Hmong. Its refreshing climate and almost alpine landscape struck a nostalgic chord with European visitors, who traveled up from Lao Cai by sedan chair in the early twentieth century, and by 1930 a flourishing hill station had developed, complete with tennis court, church and over two hundred villas. Nowadays only a handful of the old buildings remain, the rest lost to time and the 1979 Chinese invasion, as well as those involved in the current hotel development spree. Although height restrictions are finally being enforced on new buildings, the damage has already been done and Sa Pa’s days as an idyllic haven in the hills have been concreted over. However, what the modern town lacks in character is more than compensated for by its magnificent scenery, and it makes an ideal base for tours of the area’s varied collection of minority villages.
Sa Pa itself is ethnically Vietnamese, but its shops and market serve the minority villages for miles around. Every day is bright and lively in Sa Pa, with the women coming dressed in their finery – the most striking are the Red Dao, who wear scarlet headdresses festooned with woollen tassels and silver trinkets. Black Hmong are the most numerous group – over a third of the district’s population – and the most commercially minded, peddling their embroidered indigo-blue waistcoats, bags, hats and heavy, silver jewellery at all hours. In fact, young Hmong girls can often be seen walking hand in hand with Westerners they have befriended prior to making their sales pitch. By contrast, the Red Dao, another common group here, are generally shy about being photographed, despite their eye-catching dress.
Sa Pa’s invigorating air is a real tonic after the dusty plains, but cold nights make warm clothes essential throughout the year: the sun sets early behind Fan Si Pan, and temperatures fall rapidly after dark. During the coldest months (Dec–Feb), night temperatures often drop below freezing and most winters bring some snow, so it’s worth finding a hotel room with heating. Often a thick fog straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel can creep over the whole town, lending a spooky feel to the market. You’ll find the best weather from September to November and March to May, though even during these months cold, damp cloud can descend, blotting out the views for several days.
Things to Do and See in Sapa
Sapa is such a colourful town thanks to the H’mong and Dzao people from the local hill tribes who head into the town’s market every day to trade their produce. There’s a main market every Saturday when the place is packed but there’s a lower key one every other day during the week. These people will have undergone no formal education but the arrival of foreigners has made them well aware of the value of money and many of the youngsters have picked up a basic level of English. They sell clothing and handicrafts which are popular with tourists.
Read the exciting story of some Dutch travellers who visited the Sapa Valley which they describe at Adventure Travel Tales & Tips. Many visitors sign up for trekking expeditions out to local villages and beyond. All hotels and travel agencies in town offer half day visits to Cat Cat just 3km outside of Sapa and full day hikes to Ta Phin village which lies 10km outside town. Spectacular scenery abounds on all treks in the area. Overnight stays in minority villages such as Sin Chai are also popular options.
For stunning scenery you must get out to the Tram Ton Pass 15km from Sapa. At 1900m is the highest in Vietnam and connects Sapa to Lai Chau. All around you are surrounded by almost vertical rice terraces and stunning mountain peaks with regular mists hovering on them. The 100m high Thac Bac waterfall on the same route is spectacular.
For the seriously fit there is a hike to the top of Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak at 3143m. This isn’t a climb to be taken lightly with potentially treacherous conditions when the weather turns bad. From Sapa to the peak is only about 20km yet experienced hikers take three or four days to complete it carrying all their own equipment as there is no accommodation en route. Taking a local guide and even porters is highly recommended. If you are up to such a challenge the rewards are breathtaking.
When to Go to Sapa
The dry season is from January to June with March to May the best time to visit. Temperatures in January and February are regularly around 0ºC. The rainy season falls in June and August. September marks the end of the rainy season which is a good time to visit then by mid-December temperatures start to fall significantly making this September to mid-December period the best time to be there.
Getting to Sapa
Sapa is 380km from Hanoi and various options exist to get there. The most popular is to sign up for one of the overnight trips which includes a train journey to Lao Cai followed by minibus transfer up to Sapa. Many such trips are on offer in the travel agencies and hotels of Hanoi but from personal experience we have no hesitation in recommending Handspan Adventure Travel.
Their tour itinerary is as follows:
Depart from the Handspan office (80 Ma May) at 8.30pm by private coach to Hanoi train station. Take the 10pm night train for Lao Cai.
What initially attracted visitors to Sa Pa was the weekend market, which is when it’s at its busiest, though it’s now a bustling place on weekdays too. These days it’s housed in a concrete eyesore, a far cry from the original Saturday “love market” where the local ethnic minorities would come to court their sweethearts. Plenty of minority people still turn up to peddle ethnic-style bags and shirts to trekkers, though more authentic market fairs can be found on the other side of the Red River on Saturdays at Can Cau and on Sundays in Bac Ha.
Sa Pa Ethnomuseum
This new museum features video presentations and wall displays informing visitors about Sa Pa’s history and the lifestyles of the local hilltribes, so it’s worth dropping in here when you first arrive to fill in the background. Other exhibits include a Hmong shaman’s altar and the social architecture of ethnic minority groups.