Among several mysterious and charming mountainous destinations, Sapa is not only one of the most popular, but also most unique and mesmerized locations that could not be found elsewhere in Vietnam.
Lying at 38 kilometers far from Lao Cai Township and 376 kilometers from Ha Noi, the hanging garden Sa Pa was discovered by a Western person in the end of the 19th century. To reach this place, people can follow two ways: one way from Lao Cai Township and another from Binh Lu (Lai Chau), by different means of transporting like trains, cars or motorbikes.
In the 40s, the French people projected and made Sa Pa become an ideal place for resting and convalescing with full equipments and facilities like good hydroelectricity system, water providing station, governor general edifice, chief envoy building, coal department, treasury, forest management system, asphalted roads, and especially more than 200 villas with the Gothic architectural style in the 19th century of Europe in the central of the township, lying among peach forests and samu trees. This has brought the township the form of a European city.
Staying at the height of 1,500 meters above the sea level, Sa Pa used to be a small high land with the name of Lo Suoi Tung. The current name Sa Pa originated from Pekinese language. The word “Sa Pa” means “sand bank”. This place was named Sa Pa because in the old time, there was only a sand bank where the local residents organized kermis before a township was established.
Sa Pa has been known about its pure, temperate atmosphere and beautiful landscapes. In 1909, a convalescence and medical treatment area was built up. In 1917, a tourism office was founded in Sa Pa and one year later, the French people started to build up their first villas. In 1920, the railway Ha Noi - Lao Cai was completed and Sa Pa then was thought of as the summer capital of the North.
The best time to visit Sapa is from March to May and from September to November. At these times, the weather is relatively stable with sunny days and cool nights. The first period is the fall time. At this time of the year, the weather is very comfortable for tourism. It is dry, clear with much sunshine. The view of Sapa’s terraces is at its best between September and October. The cool and dry weather with the stable temperature makes it the perfect time for trekking and photos.
In the summer, although the weather is quite warm, it is not as hot as other regions in Vietnam. If you spend time in this town in the period between April and May, you will have the chance to see the wonderful scenes of many colorful flowers and green fields there. Many Vietnamese visit Sapa after the Lunar New Year to admire the blossoming cherry trees.
In the winter, from December to February, the weather in Sapa becomes very cold, especially at night. However, in return, visitors will have the opportunity to watch the sunrise over the valley in the morning. In recent years, there is snow in Sapa. If you have chance to travel to this picturesque town on this occasion, you will definitely see quite a romance scene. However, this is the reason why Sapa is always crowded at this time of the year.
MONTH BY MONTH
Sapa not only owns a special and unique terrain but also boasts a very distinctly sub-tropical climate which is rarely experienced in a tropical country like Vietnam. Located in the northern mountainous area, Sapa is endowed with favorable conditions for the growth of a versatile fauna and flora.
Sapa features a low average temperature of only 15°C. Winter in Sapa often lasts from December to February when the weather can become extremely cold, even leading to snow falling sometimes. This is also a fascinating feature which makes Sapa even more appealing to visitors. During these rare high peaks, the town is inundated by flocks of tourists both foreign and domestic longing to witness snow and make a life-time memory.
In December, Sapa is cold and foggy with ocassional sunny days when the view is much better. Temperature sometimes drops below freezing point while all the town seems to be covered in ice, creating such a picturesque scene to contemplate.
January is often the coldest month in Sapa when the weather seems to be foggy and cloudy all the time. Daily mean temperature is only 8°C, providing an exciting opportunity for one who can endure the coldness. The weather gets a little warmer in February, as the potential sign of an upcomming spring.
From March till May, Sapa enjoys a warm and fresh springtime when new buds start sprouting on the trees and the town is ornamented with cherry blossom. There come more sunny days and fresh air in March,creating the ideal ambiance for trekking and accessing remote hill tribes to get an insight into their dinstinctive traditions and lifestyles. The daily mean temperature experiences a significant increase of approximately 5°C compared with the previous two months.
April in Sapa manifests beautiful weather with more sunshine, low level of humidity and reasonable precipitation. As the weather sometimes varies dramatically during the day, tourists with be rewarded with phenomenal chance to witness four seasons throughout the day.
Scorching hot weather and burning sunshine, the typical summer elements witnessed in other parts of Vietnam, are totally absent there in summer lasting from June to August. Sapa highlights a stably cool summer with daily temperature ranging from 20 to 25°C and night temperature hovering around 15°C. However, this is also the rainy season in Sapa so tourists may not enjoy the most favorable conditions for a stroll around this lovely town.The highest rainfall of 480 mm is recorded in July. The rains usually come suddenly and briefly so be well prepared with umbrella and raincoat. While the temperature remains quite stable in August, it is not considered the ideal time to visit Sapa as it is the peak month of rain and typhoons.
Along with the spring, fall is a highly recommended time to visit Sapa. The level of rainfall reduces considerably, letting the weather become drier and milder. Moderate level of precipitation combines with stably cool temperature make falltime such a delight to admire the beauty of Sapa. Since the nice weather continues in November with slightly lower temperature, Sapa also welcomes a lot of tourists during this time
Sapa - fairy home of ethnic minorities
There is nowhere in Vietnam can tourists easily meet the local ethnic minorities like in Sapa. The district is the home of a great diversity of ethnic people, including five main groups of Hmong, Yao, Tay, Zay and Xa Pho. They do not live in center area but in hamlets scattering on the valleys throughout Sapa District. Actually, not until the 20th century did a majority of the ethnic people changed to sedentary lifestyle with intensive farming method on sloping terraces, instead of slash-and-burn culture like in the past. Town of Sapa is where ethnic minority people gather, trade or sell their farming products such as rice, corn, fruits, as well as handicrafts and souvenirs to tourists. There is one interesting fact about ethnic minority people in Sapa that besides their dialects, many of them, especially small children, can speak English pretty well with clear pronunciation.
Spending time visiting ethnic minorities’ villages, observing their daily’s activities or even living homestay, in order to understand more about their culture is now the top priority of visitors, especially international ones. A trip to Sapa would definitely more meaningful with participatory activities, such as learning to make handicrafts or helping the local with farm work! In case time does not allow, you can always hire a local guide for your trekking routes. Chances are these boys and girls will tell you lovely stories about their traditions, their lives or even ask you to join their family activities.
Sapa- challenging for mountainous trekking
Sapa is voted to be the best trekking spot in Vietnam, by both natives and foreigners. The whole district is dominated by The Hoang Lien Son mountain range, which also includes Mt. Fan Si Pan- the highest peak in Vietnam and the entire Indochina peninsula with the height of 3143m. This mount is not only a tough challenge to trekking enthusiasts but also an opportunity to witness the splendid mountainous vista.
The scenery of the Sapa region represents a harmonious relationship between the minority people and nature, which can be seen perceptibly in the paddy fields carpeting the rolling lower slopes of the Hoang Lien Mountains. It was the elements wearing away the underlying rock over thousands of years that created this impressive physical landscape.
The geographical location of the area makes it a truly unique place for a rich variety of plants, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects, some of them can only be found in northwestern Vietnam.
Sapa- thunderstruck local food
Sapa’s specialties are another reason attracting more and more tourists travelling to this town. A wide range of sub-tropical vegetables such as white cauliflower, red beet, or chayote are planted here. There are dishes that will be a must to enjoy for every visitor - boiled chayote consumed with sesame or “lon cap nach”- pig carried under armpit, which are home pigs but are raised in the field or forest.
The cool weather of the region makes barbecued meat and fish with mushroom and vegetables the most preferred street foods in Sapa. People grill corn, sweet potatoes, dumpling, bamboo-tube rice, or even eggs as well. Nevertheless, tourists can try many other local foods like purple sticky rice or “thang co”- horse meat right in Sapa market.
More surprisingly, Western restaurants, from Italian to French ones, can also be found around the center of Sapa, at a very reasonable price.
Originally the site of a Black H’mong settlement, Sapa first came to the attention of the French in 1901. A military garrison arrived two years later and named their camp Sapa after a nearby market known as Sapa, which was situated some six kilometers north east of the present town. All of the existing Black H’mong in the area was forcibly resettled to Sin Chai, some 6 kilometers to the west.
Soon after the completion of the railway line from Hanoi to Lao Cai in 1906, the first visitors began to arrive. The Cha Pa Hotel was opened in Sapa in 1909, and by 1913 a military sanatorium had been established to treat sick expatriates who, it was believed, would benefit from the clean mountain air.
From 1914 the French authorities began opening branches of major government offices in Cha Pa with the aim of establishing it as a summer capital to which colonial administrators could retreat in order to escape the heat of the Red River Delta. In 1922 a summer residence was constructed here for the Governor General of Indochina. Thereafter, as news of the quasi-European climate and the beautiful scenery of the ‘Tonkinese Alps’ spread throughout French Indochina, Cha Pa developed rapidly as a health resort. The Fan Si Pan Hotel was built in 1924, and later that year a paved road from Lao Cai was completed, linking Cha Pa with the railway network and its nightly sleeper trains to and from the capital. The luxurious Metropole Hotel, located at the foot of Ham Rong Hill, opened its doors in 1932. The Hotel du Centre was added in 1937.
By the 1930s Cha Pa was a sizable settlement, with well over 200 French buildings – including a large prison – situated in the area immediately to the north west of the present town. The town had its own running water and sewage, telegraph and telephone systems, with electricity provided by a power station constructed on the Cat Cat Waterfall. Throughout this period Cha Pa was renowned for its many parks and flower gardens, each beautifully maintained through the forced labor of Vietnamese prisoners.
Cha Pa Church was built in 1934 and entrusted to the care of a parish priest appointed by the Bishop of Hung Hoa. In 1941 a Cisterican convent was established at nearby Ta Phin , housed by a small group of nuns who had escaped persecution in Japan. After 1943 the convent farm became the main provider of dairy and other fresh products for the town.
In February 1947 Viet Minh troops launched a devastating attack on Sapa, destroying military installations and forcing civilian residents of the town and the Cistercian nuns of Ta Phin to flee to Hanoi. Government offices, hotels (including the Metropole) and private villas were seriously damaged during the attack, and the main Ta Phin Convent building was also burned to the ground. Cha Pa was re-occupied by the French in March 1947, but with the security situation deteriorating rapidly its days as a fashionable colonial resort was over. In October 1949, as Viet Minh forces went on the offensive throughout the far north, the French left Cha Pa for good.
In March 1952 the French high command ordered its air force to bomb the town. The Governor’s summer residence and other government buildings, the sanatorium complex and most of the French villas were destroyed. At this time the remaining Vietnamese population fled and did not return until the early 1960s, when the town – now known as Sapa – began once more to develop.
Opened to foreign tourists in 1993, Sapa has within the space of little more than 15 years changed from a sleepy backwater into one of the busiest tourist resorts in the country. Just a day’s drive or overnight rail journey from Hanoi, its cool weather, stunning scenery and photogenic ethnic minorities have quickly made it the jewel in the crown of the Vietnamese tourism industry.
To travellers arriving from Lai Chau, the combination of crowds of foreign tourists, persistent ethnic minority vendors and up-market hotels and restaurants initially comes as rather a shock, yet it quickly becomes apparent that Sapa is still a delightful little town with much to offer the visitor.
Most visitors to Sapa arrive on Friday night and leave on Sunday morning, so that they can visit the town’s colorful Saturday market. However, those wishing to avoid the crowds of foreign tourists who are more interested in taking peaceful walks amidst the beautiful hills surrounding Sapa may prefer to visit the town on a quieter weekday.
Almost every day of the week, somewhere in the area around Sapa the local hill tribes will be gathering for their weekly market. As well as providing the opportunity to buy and sell anything from vegetables to buffalo, these are also important social occasions. Those who live in the region’s more isolated villages have the chance to meet friends and family, exchange news, eat, and even indulge in some of the locally brewed spirits - which can be up to 55% proof!
Some of the most popular markets are:
On Tuesday you can visit Coc Ly Market, a small gathering of the Flower Hmong, Black Zao, Nung and Tay minorities. Among the goods for sale you’ll find vegetables, livestock and local textiles, all the subject of some lively bargaining. We also recommend a boat ride along the Chay River followed by a short walk to the Tay minority village of Trung Do, although in July and August the boat ride is often not possible due to high river water levels.
Wednesday is market day in the hamlet of Cao Son, in the Muong Khuong District of Lao Cai Province. An early start is a must to reach this market, but we think it’s worth it. The trip takes you through beautiful scenery ranging from tea plantations to pine forests, and on arrival you’ll find a bustling market packed with buyers and sellers from all the main communities who live in this area, including Flower H'Mong, Phu La, Dao and Tu Di.
Relatively inaccessible until recently due to its remote location, the small Sin Cheng Market in Si Ma Cai District is arguably the most unspoilt of the markets in this area, and so comes highly recommended by Selective Asia. What it lacks in size is certainly made up for by the stunning rural location close to the Chinese border, along with the extremely photogenic display of traditional costumes from the White H'mong, Flower H'mong, Black Dao, Tay and Giay who live in the area. This is also one of the best places to gain a true sense of the importance of the social role of these markets, as young and old take the opportunity to catch up on all of the local news and gossip.
An option for Thursday is a trip to the small Lung Khau Nhin Market, travelling via the Tram Ton pass, which at 1900 metres is Vietnam’s highest. This tiny market is another of the most traditional in this area, and a variety of minority tribes people gather to sell their wares. Expect to meet the friendly and hospitable Tai Lu, Tai Laos, White Tai, and H'mong amongst others. After exploring the market, you’ll have the chance to visit the Black Dao village of Sin Lung Chai.
The alternative to Lung Khau Nhin is the Thursday market at Tam Duong Dat, which is usually attended by a very photogenic mix of White H'mong, Flower H'mong, Lu, Phu La, Black Zao and Giay - often sporting their traditional dress. Once again, visiting this market involves crossing the Tram Ton pass, offering beautiful views on a clear day. The market has a very authentic feel, and serves as a centre for those who live in the many small villages in this area.
One of Vietnam’s most interesting markets, the small but unique gathering at Can Cau takes place every Saturday. Groups such as the Flower H’mong, Black Zao, Tay and Phu La come from near and far to trade and socialise with each other, and with their neighbours from across the Chinese border. The Flower H’mong in particular are known for their elaborate costumes, which ensure the market is always a riot of colour. Keen photographers will enjoy the chance to capture the picturesque scenes of local life, as well as the beauty of the surrounding landscapes.
Saturday is the day of Sapa’s famous ‘love market’. In the past this was where boys and girls from the surrounding valleys would have come in search of partners, and whilst it’s not really the genuine article anymore, it’s well worth a visit. Young Red Dzao and Black H’mong girls still arrive every weekend to sing songs, although mostly for the tourists it has to be said!
Finally, the week ends with perhaps the most famous of all the markets of this region, held at Bac Ha, around 3 hours from Sapa. This huge gathering of minority people offers everything, from local produce to some of the intricate textiles and handicrafts for which the area is so well known. You can also see many other interesting facets of local life, such as the practise of traditional medicine. This area has a particularly large Flower H’mong community, so called due to the bright and striking colours of their traditional costumes.