Nestled high in the Tonkinese Alps near the Chinese border in Lao Cai province of the Northwest region, Sapa is perhaps the most colorful town in Vietnam. It was founded by the French in 1922 as a hill station to serve as a short respite from the heat of summer in Hanoi. With pleasing cool climate year-round, Sapa has become a big draw in weekends when hundreds of people flocking to the town for a glimpse of the famous Love Market, a great trek to local hill tribe villages or a trip to conquer Mt. Fansipan.
Despite its early tourism boom, Sapa still remains a must on any northern Vietnam route. On a clear day, you will be rewarded to views of steeply ridgelines, primitive mud-thatched villages, winding rivers and amazing waterfalls. Of course, the real attraction is the minority hill tribes whole live in the surrounding valley for hundred years. Some eight ethnic groups inhabit Lao Cai province including Hmong, Dao, White Thai, Giay, Tay, Muong, Hao and Xa Pho. You don’t need to travel far to meet them. Most prominent in town are the Hmong, easily identified by their embroidered, indigo attire and the Red Dao, distinguished by the coin-dangling red headdresses and intricately embroidered waistcoats worn by the women.
Deep in the mountains, the Muong Hoa valley area offer some of the greatest trekking and cultural experiences in Southeast Asia. The Muong Hoa River sluice a wild, zigzag course among settlements oof Hmong, Giay, Red Dao and White Thai, their tiny dwellings poking out of the cascading rice terraced fields like diamonds on a putting green. Many of the locals that frequent Sapa – especially the women and children – can speak surprisingly good English and are incredibly friendly. Hire a local guide to escort you on a trek down into the valley or book one to four day treks offered by many outfitters. You will get an authentic tribal experience by spending nights staying in local homestays. If you want to catch a deep inside of local village lifestyle, you’ll have to venture further afield. Adventurous travelers use Sapa as a jumping off point, hiring a guide and a driver for multi-day journeys, taking in any number of villages and colorful local markets held throughout the week, such as Can Cau (Saturday), Bac Ha (Sunday), Coc Ly (Tuesday). These markets are a photographer’s delight so make sure to have your camera fully charged.
Topping out at 3,143 meters above the sea level, Fansipan has become one of the most challenging trek in Vietnam. There are several routes that people usually choose to conquer the summit. Carefully check if you are ready for the challenge!
The best times to visit Sapa are in spring with colorful blooming flowers and festivals of hill tribes and in autumn when the vivid green rice terraces fields turn yellow. Summer tends to be rainy and wet while in winter the temperature can drop to below freezing and snows may occur. Weather really does make a difference because the spectacular scenery is all but blotted out when there is cloud cover and rain. However, the infamous Sapa mist does make for some incredible photographs.
Sapa can be reached by an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai or by overnight bus. The newly opened highway from Hanoi to Lao Cai in August 2014 helps to shorten travel time to Sapa to 5-6 hours.