Sapa highlights and travel guide
Every year, thousands of people flock to Sapa to experience the remarkable scenery and discover the amazing cultural diversity of its many villages. Today, Sapa is an overwhelming vista that reminds you of the greatness of nature. The vivid green mountains climb high into the dramatic skies before cascading down the other side, the balconies of rice paddies forming hypnotizing patterns all the way down to the valleys. However, the peace and serenity that you feel when drinking in the fresh mountain air has only been reestablished in recent years.
The H’mong and Dao ethnic communities had settled among the peaks and troughs but were disturbed by the French invasion from the late 1880s onwards. From 1881, Lao Cai, was placed under the authority of the French colonial military and they began their development of the area. One of the biggest developments was the military sanitarium which was erected. The fresh mountain air was thought to have a wealth of health benefits. More and more French villas were built and Sapa was established as a hillside station. These impressive buildings and villas, did not, however, stand the test of time as the majority of them were destroyed in the American – Vietnamese War. It was in the 1960s that new inhabitants started to migrate from the surrounding areas to set up homes in Sapa.
It wasn’t until 1993 that Sapa opened its doors to tourism and since then it has undergone rapid development. Sapa Town has changed to suit the ever-expanding tourism industry with many local people earning their main income from restaurants, cafes, homestays and the local markets. The town itself has a whole range of restaurants and places to stay to suit all budgets and preferences. The real magic lies a short walk out from the main town as you journey through the rolling hills and valleys meeting the people that live, work and farm on these stunning lands. It is easy to see why Sapa is one of the most popular trekking areas of Vietnam. Each year people trek over the rolling countryside to remote villages where they can stay in a local homestay to get a first-hand look at the rich history and traditions of each community. Another big draw is Fansipan Mountain. Also known as the “Roof of Indochina,” this peak stands at an impressive 3413 m high with its head often shrouded in a cloak of clouds.
Whether you are here for the trekking or the cultural discovery, the fresh mountain air, incredible scenery, and rich heritage will surely be a refreshing experience.
Located in Sapa Town itself, the Sapa Museum is a good port of call to unlock some of the local history and get an insight into some of the diverse cultures living in the area. Here you can take a journey through the history of Sapa stopping off at the French colonial period and arriving in modern Sapa. You can see how the interplay between, invasion, tradition, and the environment has created many unique communities. The museum showcases the artistry of many of the different ethnic minorities of Sapa and serves as a good basis for further discovery.
It is no surprise that one of the most popular activities in Sapa is trekking. With sweeping views of mountains and rice paddies that echo into the distance and clusters of scattered villages, this is the ultimate in natural beauty. The trekking opportunities in this area are abundant and there are routes to suit all ages and abilities. From trekking up the majestic mountains for panoramic views, to following the snaking paths through the valleys, you will find your perfect route. A popular option is to trek to Cat Cat Village where you can meet the H’mong ethnic community or trek a little further to the quieter Red Dao village of Sin Chai.
Sapa is also home to the famous Fansipan Mountain, the tallest peak in Indochina. ‘The Roof of Indochina’ stands at an impressive 3143 m high and takes you through the challenging yet beautiful mountain terrains. You will negotiate rivers, jungles, bamboo forests and steep inclines as you ascend into the clouds at the peak. Although challenging, this climb is accessible to those with a reasonable fitness. Most choose to camp overnight at the basic campsite which perches on the mountain at 2800 m. If trekking is not your thing then fear not as there has been the recent addition of the Fansipan cable car that will carry you up over the forests and jungles all the way from Sapa to the summit of Fansipan. This is the world’s longest three-rope cable car and will complete the ascent in just 20 minutes, a fraction of the time it would take on foot. This is a relaxing way to take in scenery as you drift up into the clouds.
Culture and Art
Here culture and art can be found in every tiny village that dots the landscape. The five main ethnic minorities inhabiting the Sapa region are the H’mong, Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho and each has its own unique culture. As you venture through the valleys you will meet the communities living there and have the chance to uncover their traditions and artistic trade.
The largest group is the H’mong people who originated from China over 300 years ago. You can meet the H’mong communities in Cat Cat Village, Lao Chai Village and many others. The artistry that goes into their textile production is evident in their amazing outfits. The women weave fabric from hemp or cotton which is then dyed a rich, heavy blue using indigo dye. From here the fabric receives great attention as it is adorned with exquisite, colourful embroidery. Another form of textile decoration practised by the H’mong is batik. Wax is applied to fabric using intricate, hand carved stamps which creates a pattern when the ink is dyed. There are opportunities for you to try this first hand, taught by the local H’mong women. Textiles are not the only artisan craft that the H’mong create, they are also known for their skilled production of bronze and silver jewelry. If you visit at the weekend you will be treated to traditional music and folk dances that fill the town with frivolity and joy, see the people gather round to enjoy the live music and watch the jovial dances. The musical instruments are hand made and simple; boys play the flute and girls play a creation made up of two leaves, but the atmosphere they create is fantastic.
The second most populous ethnic minority group of Sapa is the Red Dao who live in Ta Phin village whose bright red turban, decorated with silver coins and tassels, sets them apart from the other communities. Even the babies wear elaborately decorated hats and colourful outfits. The women here are known for their exquisite hand woven brocade and intricate embroidery that is synanimous with the image of Sapa. Wherever you look you are sure to see women working away with a needle and thread. This community has some interesting rituals that you can learn about when you visit their village. They worship family ancestors and and the spirit Ban Vuong who they believe to be the earliest ancestor. You can discover their fascinating method of choosing land to build a house on involving the ritual placing of a bowl of rice in the land overnight.
Also living at the foot of the mountains and along the rivers, are the Tay communities who are famous for their stilt houses. These agricultural communities are known for their production of rice, corn and tabacco. You will see the local people in their simple yet beautiful hand dyed, indigo outfits tirelessly tending to their crops throughout the day. They also craft handmade tools using rattan and bamboo that is grown locally. As you admire their handywork you can also discover the interesting belief systems that underpin this community. As well as worshipping ancestors, this ethnic minority group also worship the house spirit, the kitchen spirit and the midwife.
Food and Drink
Sapa also has some signature dishes that will satisfy even the hungriest of hikers, with dishes being served to suit the cooler climates of the mountain region.Hot pots are a popular dish here for warming you from the inside out. See the enormous cauldrons of the hot pot stalls on Xuan Vien. The steam drifts into the cool air and carryies the mouth-watering scent of fresh vegetables and meat through the streets. A Sapa speciality is, the somewhat unusual, salmon hot pot. Visitors are often amazed that due to the cooler climates, Sapa is a prime spot for cultivating Salmon which goes into the steaming broth and is mixed with fresh Sapa vegetables.
Another classic dish, which originates from the H’mong communities, is Thang Co. The soup uses all of the different parts of a horse, sometimes in combination with other meats, fresh vegetables and is seasoned with a warming combination of spices. This dish is cooked slowly by well-practiced chefs to create a fresh and spicy soup.
The people of Sapa also have a special way of preparing rice to create Com Lam. Bamboo shoots are skilfully prepared by expert hands, each piece cleaned and chopped into sections. They are then stuffed with rice that has been cooked using the fresh mountain water and seasoned with salt. The whole thing is then grilled and making for a unique and delicious take on the well-loved dish.
Although the traditional dishes of Sapa feature a meat-heavy menu, due to the increased tourism industry, there are plenty of options for vegetarians too. More traditional Vietnamese restaurants serve a range of flavorsome vegetable dishes and often have tofu options and the more upmarket restaurants will also have some delicious meat-free dishes too.
Festivals and Events
The Cau Tau festival is a traditional H’mong event held in order to express gratitude to the gods and ancestors and to pray for wealth and happiness. This festival is arranged by individual families who perform rituals with the help of the village shaman. After they host a celebration which welcomes other villagers to partake in games, activities, and entertainment. Here you can see the younger generations competing in sporting events and dance competitions, this being the perfect opportunity to impress a future husband or wife. The villages also be echo with the sound of traditional music with people singing and playing instruments.Roong Boc Festival originated from the Giay ethnic group of Ta Van Village but today draws crowds from other ethnic communities and travellers en route through Sapa. This colourful and lively festival takes place on the first dragon day after the first full moon as a way giving thanks to the guardians and celebrating and blessing the new farming season. After a sacred offering of food and drink, people enthusiastically join in with traditional games where the men and women are usually divided to symbolise the moon and sun, yin and yang. These practices, as well as being fantastic fun and a great social occasion, are thought to welcome prosperity for the coming year.A traditional Tay festival is Long Tay Festival. This is another celebration of agriculture which is held in the first lunar month to pray for fruitful crops, good animals, and healthy people. After a ritual in which the previous year’s crops are reported and offerings are given, the village will choose the best farmer to ceremoniously plough through the first furrow. This is followed up with lively village games such a con throwing.