Despite its commercialization during the last seven years, Sapa is still a must-see on any northern Vietnam itinerary. On a clear day you will treated to views of steeply terraced rice fields, towering verdant ridgelines, primitive mud-thatched villages, raging rivers and astounding waterfalls.
Nestled high in the Tonkinese Alps near the Chinese border, Sape was built as a hill station during French colonial days, to serve as a respite from stifling Hanoi summers. These days, weekends are still the biggest draw in this crumbling hill-tribe center. Visitors from the capital flock to Sapa for a glimpse of the famed "Love Market," a trek to local hill tribe villages, or an ascent of Vietnam's highest peak, Fan Si Pan.
Some eight ethnic groups inhabit Lao Cai province: Hmong, Dao, White Thai, Giay, Tay, Muong, Hao and Xa Pho. The most prominent in town are the Red Dao, easily identified by the coin-dangling red headdresses and intricately embroidered waistcoats worn by the women, and the Hmong, distinguished by their somewhat less elaborately embroidered royal blue attire. Groups of ethnic Hmong youngsters and women can be seen hauling impossibly heavy, awkward baskets of wood, stakes, bamboo, bricks, mud and produce. Deep in the valleys surrounding Sapa, the Muong Hoa River sluices a wild, jagged course among Giay, Red Dao and White Thai settlements, their tiny dwellings poking out of the neon rice fields like diamonds on a putting green. One- to four-day treks are offered by a handful of outfitters. Guests sleep in tents or in the homes of villagers, their gear hauled by Hmong porters. Be warned: Despite what the local innkeepers will tell you, both the Hmong and the Dao really do not enjoy having their photographs taken unless they're paid for it. It's a certainty that any brochure you see of smiling, care-free ethnic hill people was shot under a Screen Actors Guild contract.
Sa pa is famed for its "Love Market" – sort of a cross between a peacock mating ritual, a Middle Eastern arms bazaar, an Amish square dance, a bad Pavarotti concert and Bangkok's Patpong (except here the people wear clothes). On Saturday nights, Red Dao hill tribe youths of both sexes congregate in a weekly courting rite, singing tribal versions of Loretta Lynn love songs to woo the opposite sex. The songs are highly personalized and boast of the composer's physical attributes, domestic abilities and strong work ethic. While Dao women are indeed highly industrious, the men, it seems, prefer to spend most of their time drinking, smoking opium or sleeping, only occasionally slapping the rump of a lethargic bovine moving more slowly than they are. Few of their songs, though, are about drinking, smoking opium, sleeping or slapping rumps.
Topping out at 3,143 meters, Fan Si Pan has become the Mount Everest of Vietnam, with queues of yuppie trekkers in their latest TravelSmith "totally-packable" rainwear forming mountaineering traffic jams at base camps. Footprint Travel can arrange guided ascents.
Sapa itself is a somewhat bedraggled village meshing crumbling, mildewed French colonial architecture with the pencil-thin, brick-and-concrete mini-hotels that have become so ubiquitous in recent years all across Vietnam. This neglected, cultural mishmash would be an eyesore in any place less spectacularly scenic than Sapa. Because of its Shangri-la-like setting, Sapa actually seems quaint – a tranquil, restful village. Which is, of course, what the French originally intended the place to be. Amenities are limited unless you choose to stay at the Four Star Victoria Sapa, a sprawling alpine campus nestled discreetly into a hillside in the center of town.
The best times of the year to visit Sapa are in the spring and fall. Summers tend to be rainy and muddy, while winter temperatures can drop to the freezing mark (Sapa ushered in 2000 with snow!). Weather really does make a difference here, because the spectacular scenery is all but blotted out when there is cloud cover and rain. Ignore the other Nikon-toting tourists in the villages and get out into the countryside, where you just may still catch a glimpse into hill-tribe life of a couple of centuries ago.
Sapa Info Sapa Tours Sapa Trains Sapa Hotels Sapa Photo
views of Fansipan are the prime commodity on sale in Lao Cai's signature
destination, Sapa, a
hill station high in the mountains which is a vestige of the French colonial
Sapa ranks along Ha Long Bay and Hoi An in
terms of attracting tourists solely on the merit of its natural beauty and
surrounding attractions. It's particularly rich in opportunities for treks,
homestays, and (on clear days) the kinds of panoramic views that leave travel
writers searching for fresh adjectives.
Here you can come into close
contact with a multitude of ethnic minorities. Chief among them are
the Black Hmong, so named partly because their dress is black,
ornamented with colourful brocade and silver jewellery, but mostly because of
their black, fez-like headgear. The Red Hmong dress in black
as well, but the women wrap up their hair in a red scarf bedecked with
silver-beaded tassels. The Dzao also have distinctive headwear
— a pile of coiled, braided hair, with an elaborate, rectangular ornament of silver
metal sticking out of the top. They will happily remove their headdress for
tourists to show that it's just a hat and not their real hair.
The fact that the tribes continue to live a very basic
existence is partly economic and partly cultural. To them, a rice field, a
garden, some cattle and a stilt house are all the prosperity they ever hoped
for, going back countless generations. Homestays in these same stilt houses are
very popular, of course, though some villages are more 'authentic' than others.
The most-easily accessed destinations feel more like 'theme resorts' for
tourists, where they get to rough it local-style, though technically they are
real villages. But if you venture to the more remote hamlets, they offer
fascinating glimpses of lifestyles seemingly stolen from history.