Forty kilometers southwest of Lao Cai and the tourist capital of Vietnam’s mountainous north, Sapa is perched dramatically on the western edge of a high plateau, facing the hazy blue peak of Fan Si Pan. Its refreshing climate and vaguely alpine landscape struck a nostalgic chord with European visitors, who traveled up from Lao Cai by sedan chair in the early twentieth century, and by 1930 a flourishing hill station had developed, complete with tennis court, church and over two hundred villas. Nowadays only a handful of the old building remain, the rest lost to time and the 1979 Chinese invasion, as well as those involved in the current hotel development spree. Although height restrictions are finally being enforced on new buildings, the damage has already been done and Sapa’s days as an idyllic haven in the hills have been concreted over. However, what the modern town lacks in character is more than compensated for by its magnificent scenery, and it makes an ideal base for tours of the area’s varied collection of minority villages.
The region is home to many ethnic groups, principally Hmong, Dao and Giay. The group most frequently seen in Sapa is the Black Hmong, who are not intimidated by the presence of foreigners in their midst. In fact, young Hmong girls can often be seen walking hand in hand with Westerners they have befriended prior to making their sales pitch. By contrast, the Red Dao, another common group here, are very shy and not at all happy to be photographed, despite their eye- catching dress.
Sapa’s invigorating air is a real after the dusty plains, but cold nights make warm clothes essential throughout the year: the sun sets early behind Fan Si Pan, and temperatures fall rapidly after dark. During the coldest months, night temperatures often drop below freezing and most winters bring some snow, so it’s worth finding a hotel room with heating. Often a thick fog straight out of a Sherlock Holmes novel can creep over the whole town, lending a spooky feel to the market. You’ll find the best weather from September to November and March to May, though even during these months cold, damp cloud can descend, blotting out the views for several days.