The small mountain town of Sa Pa was originally established for military purposes by the French, and eventually attracted wealthy civilians who favored the cool climate. Located close to the Chinese border in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range at an altitude of 1600m, Sa Pa boasts spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and terraced rice fields. The area is home to a large number of ethnic minorities, mainly H'mong and Dzao. Sa Pa is also the base for hikes to the top of Mount Fansipan, Vietnam's highest peak at 3143m, as well as for many wonderful excursions to hill tribe villages.
Places to See/Activities
At 3143m Mount Fansipan is Vietnam's highest peak. The hike to the summit is a memorable experience, but only recommended if you are very fit and experienced. The round trip from Sa Pa to the top and back typically takes 3 days. Those who make it all the way are rewarded with beautiful scenery and breath-taking views of the surrounding mountains, bright green terraced hill sides, and small villages.
The mountain receives a lot of precipitation, and it can get accordingly muddy and very slippery. The best time to undertake the climb is between October and December. There are no facilities on the mountain, so it is essential to bring your own tent, sleeping bag, food, etc. Make sure to bring a waterproof jacket or rain coat and warm clothes as it can get very cold, especially at night. Hiring a guide and possibly porters is a must, and can easily be arranged with a reputable tour operator in Sa Pa or Hanoi.
The market in Sa Pa is open all week, but it really kicks into high gear on Saturdays. This is also when most tourists visit, so it's a good idea to come during the week. People from the surrounding hill tribe villages come here in their colorful outfits to do business, shop, or socialize. This is a good place to shop for local handicrafts and souvenirs, bargaining included!
The area around Sa Pa is dotted with small hill tribe villages, many of which can be visited. The closest and easiest to reach is Cat Cat Village, which is about 3km from Sa Pa. The trail down to the village winds its way through vegetable gardens and rice terraces, and it is not uncommon to encounter people working in the fields or children playing along the way. There's a picturesque waterfall at the village as well as a hanging bridge, and it is possible to visit families and watch them dye fabric with natural indigo (notice their stained blue hands). More remote villages can be visited on longer treks, and tour operators can arrange for overnight home stays with hill tribe families.
Sa Pa is an excellent place to buy ethnic handicrafts. The market is a good starting place to screen the selection, and you will encounter hill tribe women and children in and around Sa Pa selling their wares. The best choices include silver jewelry, colorfully embroidered textiles, and indigo dyed clothes (it is best to wash these before wearing as they will stain your skin and other clothes). Be sure to bargain, but be fair.
For recommended hotels in Sapa, click here: Sapa Hotels.
Distinctive seasons with subtropical summers and temperate winters. The average annual temperature is 15C, with highs up to 30C and lows around 1C. The area receives considerable amounts of rain, with the rainy season lasting from May to September. Humidity remains high throughout most of the year, and it is not uncommon for the higher peaks to be shrouded in mist. Snow can fall in higher elevations during the cold winter months.
Notes From the Field
“Sapa and the surrounding areas are fascinating to say the least. This area of Vietnam is unlike any other, due to the extremely colorful hill tribe people that inhabit it, particularly the Dzao and Flower H'mong.
We arrived as most everyone does, after an overnight train ride to Lao Cai and then a mini-bus to Sapa. The first thing we noticed aside from the spectacular terraced hills was that it was significantly colder in Sapa. Be sure to bring a jacket when visiting the north of Vietnam during the winter months!
We took a walk to Cat Cat Village on our first morning, which was amazing. The people were very friendly, and of course wanted to sell us their beautiful handmade products from elaborate pillow cases to jewelry, all exquisite and inexpensive by any standard. Hiking around Sapa is well worth it!
The market in Sapa is very interesting, especially on Saturday. But the markets in Bac Ha and Can Cau are even more remote and spectacular...and also more difficult to get to. Definitely either visit the market in Sapa on the weekend, or the markets in Can Cau and Bac Ha on a Saturday and Sunday. All of Vietnam is fascinating coming from the West, but these markets will make you feel like you're on another, really interesting planet!”
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