Ever since Sapa was established as a hill station by the French in 1922, the small mountain town in northwestern Vietnam has been offering visitors respite from the heat and crowds. While not much remains from French colonial times other than the pretty stone church in the town square built in 1930, Sapa’s charms have remained undiminished by time, the perfect marriage of exotic cultures and stunning landscapes.
Most visitors arrive at the gateway town of Lao Cai right on the Vietnam-China border and make their way an hour or so up to Sapa. Located 1,500m above sea level and surrounded by plunging valleys and verdant mountains dominated by the 3,143m high Mount Fansipan, Sapa is the ideal base for hiking and trekking the rugged landscape highlighted by cascading terraced rice fields.
The town of Sapa itself is a pleasant mix of trendy boutiques featuring clothing and home décor inspired by the nearby hilltribe villages, a host of restaurants serving both Western favorites and Vietnamese traditional cuisine including some that incorporate some of Sapa’s very own products like farm-raised salmon and Sapa mushrooms, and a handful of spas and massage shops to soothe sore muscles post-trek. There’s also a wide range of accommodation options from simple guesthouses to chic mountain lodges that offer a glimpse into what life must have been like for the elite during Sapa’s early history.
But to truly appreciate Sapa’s natural and cultural beauty, visitors must get out of town and explore the surrounding local villages populated by ethnic minorities and the truly breathtaking scenery, all part of the Hoang Lien National Park. Sapa makes hiking and trekking accessible to almost everyone, with paved roads leading to the nearest village of Cat Cat, just 3km from the city center. Or take a car or motorbike to Ta Phin Village, the starting point of a 14km loop along both paved walkways and muddy paths past villages inhabited by Red Dzao, Black H’mong, Giay and other minority groups. Sharp-eyed visitors will be able to distinguish identifying features in their colorful costumes, often woven from hemp, dyed in natural indigo and embroidered in colorful patterns, all done by hand. Day hikes will take you past women working on batik fabrics in between rice harvests, friendly children on their way to or from school, and mesmerizing rice terraces snaking their way up the hillsides. For the more adventurous, multi-day treks are also easily arranged, highlighted by climbing to the summit of Mount Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest peak. (For the less athletic, the same views can be had with significantly less effort via the recently built cable car.)
Guests who book tickets online at www.chapaexpresstrain.com.vn also enjoy complimentary shutlle bus service between Lao Cai and Sapa.