The small market town of Sapa is perched dramatically on the edge of a high plateau, at approximately 1500 metres, in the Tonkinese Alps of North Western Vietnam. During the colonial period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the French favoured Sapa as a cool mountain retreat when the heat of Hanoi became too much. As a result, Sapa today retains an air of an Alpine town, with architectural remnants of the colonial period to be found throughout the charming town.
One of the primary reasons to visit Sapa is to trek in the surrounding countryside. The scenery is typically rolling hills and bright green rice paddy terraces, backed by imposing mountains, and dotted with traditional wooden village stilted houses. The inhabitants of the area are mostly from minority hilltribes and a large proportion of the inhabitants wear traditional, often very colourful and intricately decorated clothing that is particular to their ethnic group, the main ones in the area being Hmong, Dao, and Tay.
On certain days of the week, inhabitants of the villages surrounding Sapa, travel to a particular market to sell their agricultural produce and colourful handmade textiles, and these bustling and colourful markets are certainly worth experiencing. Practice your bargaining skills, and come away with some stunning, intricately produced textiles to take home.
Besides trekking through hilltribe villages, serious hikers can tackle Vietnam’s highest peak, Mount Fansipan, at 3,143 metres. Although the peak has seen infrastructure development, with a cable car connection, the trail is still very wild, and will not disappoint those looking to climb to the roof of Indochina.
It is possible to travel to Sapa by road from Hanoi, but it is a long journey, so we recommend taking a train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, on the Chinese border nearby. There are several train companies operating overnight trains with very comfortable private compartments. From here, it’s a scenic, relatively short road journey into Sapa town.
Experiencing the cool air of the Vietnamese mountains and catching sight of the highest peak in the Indochina region makes a wonderful contrast with the rest of Vietnam, largely hot and tropical. If you would like to incorporate a visit into a tailormade tour of Vietnam, Sapa can easily be combined with Hanoi and other parts of northern Vietnam.
- Matthew Nicklin, North India
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