Sapa

 
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.

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Choice 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 era. 

Before the French came, Sapa was home to several ethnic minorities, and now that the French are gone — they're still there. Dzao, Red H'mong, and particularly Black H'mong have adapted to the tourist trade with considerable zeal, and their notoriously aggressive sales techniques should probably be attributed to how poor the region is, and how hard it is to eke out any kind of a living. 




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. 

Mountaintop Sapa began life as a hilltop retreat for French colonists desperate to escape the searing heat of the Vietnamese plains. They chose the lofty cool of Fansipan's surrounds, and it's easy to see why — the humidity of Hanoi peels away as you ascend the mountain peaks skirted with finely-sculptured, emerald-green rice terraces. 

If you're only in Sapa for a few days, be forewarned that the views do not come with a money-back guarantee. The 'best' time to visit Sapa is in the summer months of August to December, when skies are more likely to be clear. These months are rainier but they are also warmer, and sometimes you can't beat a nice summer rain for atmosphere — showers are typically brief, but it pours in buckets. Winter can be cold, foggy, and rainy, but every three or four days, the weather clears and the views are more gorgeous than they are any other time of year. 

No matter what time of year you arrive, Sapa has its drawbacks and advantages. Your top priority when selecting a room in January and February should be heat. Some places have electric blankets or heaters built into the bed frame, but that means the rest of the room is going to be freezing. Electric space heaters are better, and best yet, many places come with wood-burning fire-places. Make sure the fireplace worksbefore you hand over your passport — some we saw were only ornamental.




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. 

Since the advent of tourism these tribes have reinvented themselves as hawkers of handmade trinkets and textile goods. They are the genuine 'native' inhabitants of the area, and they clearly regard all of the political nonsense that has been going on for the past 1,000 years as background noise. People invading and leaving. Governments coming and going. Many tribes straddle the border with China, which they ignore, circulating freely on both sides. As far as they are concerned, the lowland ethnic Vietnamese who have shown up in recent years to make a buck are simply arrivistes


Sapa is sharply stratified — almost all the businesses in town are owned and staffed by Viet Kinh, and the only trade the tribes do is on the streets in the form of handicrafts, fruits and vegetables. 

 




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. 

Life is probably better for the tribes than it once was, but it still takes all day to make a few dollars profit. Despite the steady flow of tourists, supply far outweighs demand. You may notice that if you wander beyond the last tourist-oriented business on any street, there are precious few businesses thriving on local dollars alone. In a sense, it's not really a town at all — the tribes live elsewhere and come into town to do business — often trudging along on foot for hours — or nowadays just as likely to jump on the back of a motorbike . The ethnic Vietnamese, for their part, are from other cities in Vietnam. Many live in cheap, shabby rooms but it still takes a lot of postcards and sweet potatoes to make the monthly rent. And there are few other options: other than family farming, since there are no major industries in the area aside from tourism. 

To describe Sapa as 'over-touristed' is a bit beside the point, since that is the sine qua non of its existence — something to think about when you are having brocade thrust into your hands or being dragged against your will into a shop. Visitors are often surprised by both the ruthless selling prowess and candour of the minorities. If you feel you've just been cursed in Hmong after refusing to buy, rest assured, you probably have. But their cunning and sales routines come just as naturally as their giggles and smiles. The Hmong in particular are as tough as they are sweet and naive as they are savvy. Patience, curiosity and a sense of humour are requisite attributes for all visitors.

TRAVEL FISH