Despite its commercialization during the last seven years, Sapa is still a must-see on any northern Vietnam itinerary. On a clear day you will treated to views of steeply terraced rice fields, towering verdant ridgelines, primitive mud-thatched villages, raging rivers and astounding waterfalls.
Nestled high in the Tonkinese Alps near the Chinese border, Sape was built as a hill station during French colonial days, to serve as a respite from stifling Hanoi summers. These days, weekends are still the biggest draw in this crumbling hill-tribe center. Visitors from the capital flock to Sapa for a glimpse of the famed “Love Market,” a trek to local hill tribe villages, or an ascent of Vietnam’s highest peak, Fan Si Pan.
Some eight ethnic groups inhabit Lao Cai province: Hmong, Dao, White Thai, Giay, Tay, Muong, Hao and Xa Pho. The most prominent in town are the Red Dao, easily identified by the coin-dangling red headdresses and intricately embroidered waistcoats worn by the women, and the Hmong, distinguished by their somewhat less elaborately embroidered royal blue attire. Groups of ethnic Hmong youngsters and women can be seen hauling impossibly heavy, awkward baskets of wood, stakes, bamboo, bricks, mud and produce. Deep in the valleys surrounding Sapa, the Muong Hoa River sluices a wild, jagged course among Giay, Red Dao and White Thai settlements, their tiny dwellings poking out of the neon rice fields like diamonds on a putting green. One- to four-day treks are offered by a handful of outfitters. Guests sleep in tents or in the homes of villagers, their gear hauled by Hmong porters. Be warned: Despite what the local innkeepers will tell you, both the Hmong and the Dao really do not enjoy having their photographs taken unless they’re paid for it. It’s a certainty that any brochure you see of smiling, care-free ethnic hill people was shot under a Screen Actors Guild contract.
Sa pa is famed for its “Love Market” – sort of a cross between a peacock mating ritual, a Middle Eastern arms bazaar, an Amish square dance, a bad Pavarotti concert and Bangkok’s Patpong (except here the people wear clothes). On Saturday nights, Red Dao hill tribe youths of both sexes congregate in a weekly courting rite, singing tribal versions of Loretta Lynn love songs to woo the opposite sex. The songs are highly personalized and boast of the composer’s physical attributes, domestic abilities and strong work ethic. While Dao women are indeed highly industrious, the men, it seems, prefer to spend most of their time drinking, smoking opium or sleeping, only occasionally slapping the rump of a lethargic bovine moving more slowly than they are. Few of their songs, though, are about drinking, smoking opium, sleeping or slapping rumps.
Topping out at 3,143 meters, Fan Si Pan has become the Mount Everest of Vietnam, with queues of yuppie trekkers in their latest TravelSmith “totally-packable” rainwear forming mountaineering traffic jams at base camps. Footprint Travel can arrange guided ascents.
Sapa itself is a somewhat bedraggled village meshing crumbling, mildewed French colonial architecture with the pencil-thin, brick-and-concrete mini-hotels that have become so ubiquitous in recent years all across Vietnam. This neglected, cultural mishmash would be an eyesore in any place less spectacularly scenic than Sapa. Because of its Shangri-la-like setting, Sapa actually seems quaint – a tranquil, restful village. Which is, of course, what the French originally intended the place to be. Amenities are limited unless you choose to stay at the Four Star Victoria Sapa, a sprawling alpine campus nestled discreetly into a hillside in the center of town.
The best times of the year to visit Sapa are in the spring and fall. Summers tend to be rainy and muddy, while winter temperatures can drop to the freezing mark (Sapa ushered in 2000 with snow!). Weather really does make a difference here, because the spectacular scenery is all but blotted out when there is cloud cover and rain. Ignore the other Nikon-toting tourists in the villages and get out into the countryside, where you just may still catch a glimpse into hill-tribe life of a couple of centuries ago.