Sapa is a district-level town in the Lào Cai Province. Established as a hill station by the French colonialists in 1922, Sapa today is the tourism centre of the Northwest region of Vietnam.

The town is in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains. It is a popular trekking base. It overlooks the terraced rice fields of the Muong Hoa Valley; and is near the 3,143m-tall Phang Xi Pang peak, which is climbable via a steep, multiday guided walk. Hill tribes, such as the Hmong, Tay and Dao, make up much of the town’s local population. 

Sapa is known for its cool mountain atmosphere and community of ethnic minorities. It offers a wide range of experiences from tasting the indigenous horse meat stew (thang co) to riding a cable car to Vietnam’s highest peak. Horse meat has a distinctive and tender taste, unlike any other meat.

Sapa attractions

The area has many attractions. Fansipan is one of the most beautiful. It is the peak of Indochina with an elevation of 3143m. Muong Hoa Valley is known for its scenic hiking paths through undulating rice terraces & traditional villages. There are aerial cable cars between Sapa & Fansipan Peak, with temples, restaurants & shops at either end.

When you walk through the stunning Cat Cat Village, local people line the track selling all manner of goods and keepsakes. You get to see some of the true history and beauty of this village. The photo opportunities are outstanding and plentiful. The old French colonial power station built about 1915 has now been turned into a theatre which showcases local dancing.

In the early morning, the streets are filled with hundreds of Hmong and Red Dao people in colourful ethnic attire heading to the Sapa market. The traditional Sunday market, which is bustling until late afternoon, is not only for trading; but also for socializing and unwinding after hard working days. The market sells a variety of ethnic handicrafts from local minority women.

Black Hmong are the most numerous group – over a third of the district’s population – and the most commercially minded, peddling their embroidered indigo-blue waistcoats, bags, hats and heavy, silver jewellery at all hours. 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 generally shy about being photographed, despite their eye-catching dress.

Sapa has the widest range of food in the north outside Hanoi; one benefit of the building boom is that there is plenty of choices, with many places serving a mixture of local cuisine and foreign dishes. To go where the locals are, try the street stalls on Pham Xuan Huan, parallel to Cau May, which serve pho and rice; some stay open late into the night; when the focus shifts to barbecued meat and rice wine.

My wife and I booked our trip through Impress Travel – they offer a wide range of trips. We opted for the “Amazing Northwest and Halong Tour” ten-day trip. This departs from Hanoi, discovering the northwest and driving up on the winding road to Mai Chau, Moc Chau, Sa La, Dien Bien, Lai Chau, and Sapa – Lao Cai.

The highlight of the tour: Easy trekking in Lac Village, getting to know people in Mai Chau, visiting Cow Milk Farm Moc Chau & Green Tea Farm in Moc Chau, and visiting So La museum & Battle of Dien Bien Phu. There is a stopover in Tram Ton Pass to take pictures and some easy trekking to some hill tribe villages. After that, the trip heads to Halong bay for 2 days/1night on the cruise boat and then, the trip heads back to Hanoi.

Author: Piers Midwinter
I am an artist and a teacher. I am currently teaching at a Cambridge International School in Vietnam.