Sa Pa sits at 1,650m above sea level in the hills near the Chinese border, and was founded by the French in 1922 as an escape from the hot and sweaty summers in Hanoi. After the French left in the 1950s, the church and villas were left to rot, and the small town took a pummelling from the Chinese during a border conflict in 1979. Now, however, it has risen like a phoenix from the ashes and development on a grand scale has made this the undisputed capital of tourism in North Vietnam.
While tourists inevitably enjoy the novelty of the cool climate and scenic views (most hotels have a view across the valley to Vietnam’s highest mountain, Mount Fansipan at 3,143m), the greatest attraction of a visit to Sa Pa is to encounter the brightly-dressed ethnic minorities that live in the region. Around Sa Pa, the groups most easily seen are the Black Hmong and Red Dao, who live in villages around and come into town to buy and sell at the market.
The Black Hmong, as their name suggests, dress predominantly in black, or to be more correct, a deep indigo produced from natural dyes. These people, especially the youngsters, make a habit of befriending foreigners in the hope of selling some souvenir, such as a shoulder bag or jacket. Take care if you buy such products, as the dye is often not properly fixed and rubs off on the skin, as is noticeable with many locals. The Red Dao wear huge red head-dresses, often festooned with tassels, which make them very photogenic, though they are also extremely shy and cover their faces when someone points a camera at them.
The town is famed for its weekend market, though these days it has been moved into a characterless concrete building, and a smaller market also takes place on weekdays. Since weekends are more crowded and hotel rates go up, it’s worth considering a midweek visit, when you’ll be less troubled by the over-the-top development that has transformed a sleepy mountain village into a bustling, hustling tourist town.
Since the main activity for visitors to Sa Pa is a trek to nearby villages of ethnic minorities, it pays to choose your time well. Temperatures often drop below freezing in December and January, and although it’s difficult to predict clear skies and sunny days, your best chance is between March and May and from September to November. For a short, self-guided trek, head for the radio tower above town, where, depending on the weather, you’ll be treated to some spectacular views.
Local tour companies and others from Hanoi organize one, two or three-day treks that take in several minority villages and scenic views. On these excursions, you’ll stay in basic huts in the villages and eat local food, though guides are careful to make sure dishes are palatable to Western tastes.
Some of the most popular villages for these treks are Cat Cat, a Black Hmong village that lies just three kilometres down a steep path from Sa Pa into the valley, Ta Phin, a Red Dao village about 12kms north of town, and Ban Ho, a Tay village situated on the Muang Hoa River to the south of Sa Pa.
A more demanding trek is to the summit of Mount Fansipan, which requires no special equipment, but does require above-average levels of stamina and fitness, and can be completed in three-to-four days. The route climbs up steadily from Cat Cat along a rough path for nearly 17kms to the mountain’s peak, which is often obscured by clouds. There are no special facilities for trekkers, so you’ll need to carry a tent, waterproofs and warm clothing.
Bac Ha and Can Cau markets
For anyone who gets intrigued by the ethnic minorities and wants to visit other groups, there are organized tours to more authentic weekly markets at Bac Ha and Can Cau on the east side of the Red River, a couple of hours’ drive away. The predominant minority group here is the Flower Hmong, so-named because of the blaze of bright colours that the women in particular wear.
Can Cau’s market takes place on Saturday morning and Bac Ha’s on Sunday, and fortunately the Flower Hmong are not as shy as the Red Dao, so it’s easy to take some dazzling photos of women shopping for accessories and foreigners wandering round in a bemused daze.
Where to stay in Sa Pa
In a sense, Sa Pa has become a victim of its increased popularity and there are now more than 100 hotels and guesthouses scattered in town and on the hillsides around. This inevitably detracts from the relaxed, rural atmosphere of the place but does at least mean that visitors can usually find somewhere that suits their budget. Prices are hiked up during summer, at weekends and for rooms with particularly good views. Find hotels in Sa Pa here.