Sa Pa District is located in Lao Cai Province, north-west Vietnam, and 350 km north-west of Hanoi, close to the border with China. Sapa is famous both for its fine, rugged scenery and for its rich cultural diversity. French used to consider Sapa as Summer Capital of Northern Vietnam in the early decades of the 20th century. Its naturally gifted beauty keeps attracting more and more people to spend their vacation there since then. Particularly, the place is the foremost choice for honeymoon couples!
It is most likely that Sa Pa was first inhabited by highland minorities of the Hmong and Zao groups, as well as by smaller numbers of Tay and Giay, these being the four main minority groups still present in SaPa district today. The Kinh (lowland Vietnamese) never originally colonised this highest of Vietnam’s valleys, which lies in the shadow of Phan-Xi-Pǎng (Fansipan, 3143 meters), the highest peak in Vietnam.
It was only when the French debarked in highland Tonkin in the late 1880s that SaPa, or Chapa as the French called it, began to appear on the national map. In the following decade, the future site of Sapa town underway to see military parties as well as missionaries from the Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) visit. 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 Sapa area, just to the south of this frontier, was placed under French authority. From 1891 the entire Lào Cai region, including Sa Pa, came under direct colonial military administration so as to curtail banditry and political resistance on the sensitive northern frontier.
The first permanent French civilian resident arrived in Sapa 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 Sapa.
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 in or around SaPa were destroyed, either by Việt 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 Sapa town entered a prolonged sleep.
In the early 1960s, thanks to the New Economic Zones migration scheme set up by the new Socialist regime, new inhabitants from the lowlands started to migrate to Sapa region. The short 1979 occupation of the northern border region by Chinese troops had little impact on Sa Pa town, but did force the Kinh (lowland Vietnamese) population out for a month.
In 1993 the last obstacle to SaPa's full rebirth as a prominent holiday destination was lifted as the decision was made to open the door fully to international tourism. SaPa was back on the tourist trail again, this time for a newly emerging local elite tourist crowd, as well as international tourists.
In 2006, the Chairman of The People's Committee of Sapa Province was elected to The Communist Party Central Committee as the youngest ever member (born in 1973).
Geographically, Sapa is exactly a mountainous area of Northwest Vietnam. The whole Sapa District is dominated by the Hoang Lien Son mountain range which is at the Eastern extremity of the Himalayas, being famous with the Vietnam’s highest mountain of Fa si pan at a height of 3,142 m above sea level. The town of Sa Pa lies at an altitude of about 1,600 m, bringing in a cool and foggy site of Sa Pa.
Let’s join a fancy trip to this romantic town!Taking a night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, and then 45 minutes more from Lao Cai City by bus, Sapa appears in fanciful fog. Thanks to the height of 1,600m above the sea level, the average temperature of the area is always 15-18°C, cool in summer, but a bit cold in winter.
Sapa takes its pride in its unique climate in Vietnam. It is highly seasonal, with a subtropical climate in the summer and a temperate climate during the winter. Mean annual temperature for Sa Pa town is 15.4°C, with a maximum of 29.4°C and a minimum of 1°C. The warmest months are July and August, and the coldest months are December and January. Snow falls in some years on the highest peaks. In the morning and afternoon, it is as cool as in spring and autumn. Yet, at noon, it is as sunny and cloudless as in summer. In the evening, it drastically changes into coldness just as in winter. This is actually a unique advantage, making Sapa different from anywhere else in the nation. However, travelers should be noticed that there might be sudden thunderstorm and heavy rains at noon in summer. Yet, subsequently, a rainbow appears turning Sapa into a beautifully magic land with seven colors! So, remember to bring your best camera so as not to miss this magnificent view!
April and May are the best time for tourists to watch the most scenic beauties of Sapa, or else it might be cold and foggy before that and rainy after that. During these two peak months, the town is blossoming with pink and white flowers, and green pastures in valleys. The clouds that settle in the valley in early morning would quickly disappear.
Sa Pa is a quiet mountain town and home to a great diversity of ethnic minority peoples. The total population of 36,000 consists mostly of minority groups. Besides the Kinh (Viet) people (15%) there are mainly 5 ethnic groups in Sapa: Hmong 52%, Dao 25%, Tay 5%, Giay 2% and a small number of Xa Pho. Approximately 7,000 live in Sapa, the other 36,000 being scattered in small communes throughout Sapa district.
Sapa would be of considerably less interest without the H’mong and Dzao people, the largest ethnic groups in the region. The billowing red headdresses of the Red Dzao are visible all over town, a surreal sight amid the accelerating development. The H’mong are more numerous and canny traders. Their villages may look medieval but most will have a mobile phone and an email address to stay in touch. Traditionally, they were the poorest of the poor, but have rapidly learnt the spirit of free enterprise. Most of the Montagnards have had little formal education and are illiterate, yet all the youngsters have a good command of English, French and a handful of other languages.
In Sapa, most of the ethnic minority people work their land on sloping terraces since the vast majority of the land is mountainous. Their staple foods are rice and corn. Rice, by its very nature of being a labour intensive crop, makes the daily fight for survival paramount. The unique climate in Sapa has a major influence on the ethnic minorities who live in Sapa. With sub-tropical summers, temperate winters and 160 days of mist annually, the influence on agricultural yields and health related issues are significant.
Sapa is famous for its special cultural diversity in a combination of ethnic minority groups’ culture. Visitors to Sapa will have opportunities to discover the unique customs of the local residents. Local markets are the town’s typically cultural element, which are always crowded and joyful, attracting hundreds of visitors. This is the common place for minority groups to gather and exchange goods. Market sessions are also a chance for local people to promenade. No foreign visitor could help joining such a market session, a typical cultural element of Sapa. What is more, tourists coming to Sapa at weekends have the great chance to learn about local ethnic people's courtship and martial life, through the Sapa love market and wife kidnapping ceremony of the H’Mong group. The ceremony will begin on April 29th. This is part of a five-day festival, titled Festival on the Cloud, to mark the beginning of the Sapa 2006 tourism year, in the northern mountain township of Sapa, in Lao Cai Province.
If ever asked to drop a quick comment, even the toughest person must admit the romance and peace of a magnificently cool and beautiful Sapa! I hope you should spend a short summer here, and you will soon share the idea!