Located 38km from Lao Cai City, Sapa is a mountainous district of Lao Cai Province. Set amidst spectacular, misty, mountains, Sapa is the centre of tourism in this uniquely beautiful region on Vietnam’s border with China.
What to expect?
At the height of 1,600m above sea level, the average temperature of the area is 15-18°C. It is cool in summer and cold in winter. Sapa in summer has the climate of four seasons in one day. In the morning and afternoon, it is cool like the weather of spring and autumn. At noon, it is as sunny and cloudless as the weather of summer. And it is cold in the evening. With no advance warning of a thunderstorm short and heavy rains may come at noon on any summer day. Subsequently, a rainbow appears, transforming Sapa into a magic land, which for years has been a constant source of poetic inspiration, lights up the whole region.
The best time to witness the scenic beauty of Sapa is in April and May. Before that period, the weather might be cold and foggy; after that period is the rainy season. In April and May, Sapa is blooming with flowers and green pastures. The clouds that settle in the valley in early morning quickly disappear into thin air.
Sapa has many natural sites such as Ham Rong Mountain, Silver Waterfall, Rattan Bridge, Bamboo Forest and Ta Phin Cave.Sapa is also the starting point for many climbers and scientists who want to reach the top of Fansipan Mountain, the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3,143m. Hoang Lien Mountain Range is also called the Alps of the North Sea area since Fansipan Mountain is not only the highest peak in Vietnam, but also in the Indochina Peninsula. The pyramid-shaped mountain is covered with clouds all year round and temperatures often drop below zero, especially at high elevations.
The first thing you notice when approaching the resort town are some detached wooden mansions and villas perched on a hill top or hillside, behind thick pine forests and almost invisible on this foggy morning. Old and new villas with red roofs now appear and now disappear in the green rows of pomu trees, bringing the town the beauty of European towns. Fresh and cool air in Sapa is an idea climate condition for growing temperate vegetables such as cabbage, chayote, precious medicinal herbs, and fruit trees such as plum, pear…
Sapa is home to various families of flowers of captivating colours, which can be found nowhere else in the country. When Tet, the Lunar New Year Festival, comes, the whole township of Sapa is filled with the pink colour of peach blossom brought from the vast forests of peach just outside the town. Sapa is regarded as the kingdom of orchids. Here, orchid lovers are even amazed by the choice, when trekking in the forest filled with several hundred kinds of orchids of brilliant colours and fantastic shapes, such as Orchid Princess, Orchid of My Fair Lady's Shoe. Some orchids are named after lovely singing birds such as the canary, salangane's nest, and more. Sapa is most beautiful in spring. Apricot, plum and cherry flowers are splendidly beautiful. Markets are crowded and merry, and are especially attractive to visitors. Minority groups come here to exchange and trade goods and products. Market sessions are also a chance for locals to promenade and young men and women in colorful costumes to meet, date or seek sweethearts.
Sa Pa was first inhabited by highland minorities of the Hmong and Yao groups, as well as by smaller numbers of Tày and Giay, these being the four main minority groups still present in Sa Pa district today. The Kinh (lowland Vietnamese) never originally colonised this highest of Viet Nam’s valleys, which lies in the shadow of Fansipan, 3143 meters, the highest peak in the country.
It was only when the French debarked in highland Tonkin in the late 1880s that Sa Pa, or Chapa as the French called it, began to appear on the national map. In the following decade, the future site of Sa Pa town started to see military parties as well as missionaries from the Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) visit the site. The French military marched from the Red River Delta into the northern mountainous regions as part of Tonkin’s ‘pacification’. In 1894-96 the border between China and Tonkin was formally agreed upon and the Sa Pa area, just to the south of this frontier, was placed under French authority. From 1891 the entire Lao Cai region, including Sa Pa, came under direct colonial military administration set up to curtail banditry and political resistance on the sensitive northern frontier.
The first permanent French civilian resident arrived in Sa Pa in 1909. With its attractive continental climate, health authorities believed the site had potential. By 1912 a military sanatorium for ailing officers had been erected along with a fully fledged military garrison. Then, from the 1920s onwards, several wealthy professionals with enough financial capital also had a number of private villas built in the vicinity.
At the end of the Second World War a long period of hostilities began in Tonkin that was to last until 1954. In the process, nearly all of the 200 or so colonial buildings were destroyed, either by Viet Minh sympathisers in the late 1940s, or, in the early 1950s by French air raids. The vast majority of the Viet population fled for their lives, and the former town entered a prolonged sleep.
In the early 1960s, thanks to the New Economic Zones migration scheme set up by the new Socialist regime that new inhabitants from the lowlands started migrate in the site.
The short 1979 occupation of the northern border region by Chinese troops had virtually no impact on Sa Pa town besides forcing the Kinh population out for a month.
In 1992 the last obstacle to Sa Pa's full rebirth as a prominent holiday destination was lifted and the decision was made to open the door to international tourism. By the following year, Sa Pa was back again on the tourist trail, this time for a newly emerging local elite, as well as international tourists.
Shrouded in mist, Sapa was originally a hill station built by the French in 1922 for summer retreats from Hanoi. Here, people can relax and enjoy the breathtaking views. The best way to get around Sapa is to walk and almost everywhere it's steep. Besides, Sapa is also a good base for trekking, climbing, cycling and motorbike trips to explore the mountainous region as well as hill-trible villages. Visits to markets are also a highlight of most trips.
The best time to visit Sapa is March and May or mid-September to early December when the weather is pleasant. Before or after these periods, it is different experiences. The winter is cold and brings fog and drizzles while the summer is warm and has frequent showers. The rainy season starts in May through September.
In Sapa, you will meet ethnic vendors, who keep following you to sell handmade articles. It is fine to buy, but if you are not interested, you might want to take care to show lack of interest. Also please note that it'd better to separate handmade articles within your bag preventing some color bleeding as those beautiful articles are used natural dyes. Riding on motorbikes around Sapa is interesting, adventurous and becomes a popular option. However, just do it with experienced riders or a tour guide.
The train journey from Hanoi to Lao Cai, gateway to Sapa , is around 9 hours. There are day train and night train. The ticket is available at the main train station at Le Duan Street. The prices of ticket vary according to both the type of seat purchased and the season during which you are travelling. The times around Vietnamese holidays are particularly expensive and tickets cannot be assumed available for same day travel, so book ahead if possible. Travellers are highly advised to purchase a berth in a sleeper car, though the trip can be made in uncomfortable fashion on one of the cheaper bench seats. From Lao Cai, you’ll drive the remaining distance to Sapa. The ride is about an hour of beautiful views more than 1000 meters up into the mountains.