Sapa: the Gem of the Northern Mountains

When the French took control of Vietnam in the 1880s, many places in the northern mountains had not yet encountered a foreigner. One such spot was the Black Hmông village of Sapa, sited at 1640 meters altitude, across the valley from Phansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3141 meters. A French missionary discovered it in 1918, considered it a great location to launch a conversion campaign and oversaw the construction of a church several years later.

Once they learned of it, his compatriots had other ambitions. They expelled the inhabitants, who resettled in nearby Sinchai, and transformed Sapa into a health resort and retreat from the heat of the plains, with villas, tennis courts, parks and a small hydroelectric station at the Cát Cát waterfall below Sinchai. It thrived in the 1930s, but after 1945 the French ceased coming. Party officials later took over some of the villas for vacation use, but these, too, were destroyed in the 1979 Chinese invasion. Sapa didn’t really recover until the onset of foreign tourism in the early 90s.

It was no wonder it quickly became the most popular destination in the mountain provinces. Besides the wonderful views of the mountain and valley, filled with terraced fields climbing the slopes, the area is home to several ethnic minorities, who still dress in their colorful traditional clothing. At any given time Sapa streets and markets will be full of Black Hmông and Red Dao. Market days in Sapa itself and other towns within a couple hours drive—Tam Đường Đất, Bắc Hà and Mường Hum—offer opportunities to see other Hmông and Dao sub-groups, as well as Lừ, Thái, Giáy, Xa Phô and Hà Nhì.

Besides the ethnic attractions, several scenic waterfalls enhance the immediate countryside, a quiet and picturesque lake sits at the top of town and a park on Hàm Rồng Hill, behind the church, features limestone pillars and boulders in unusual shapes. Diners can try anything from beefsteak to pizza to venison, or the salmon and sturgeon raised in ponds in the hills. Recently a cable car has started taking visitors to the top of Phansipan. A new highway has reduced the drive from Hanoi to Lào Cai to just four hours, plus another half hour up to Sapa. Vietnamese tourists, as a result, have multiplied, while parts of the town are under construction for more hotels. Yes, it’s a popular destination and often crowded. But some places are so popular because they have always deserved the attention.

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