Sapa came into existence as a hill station during the French occupation. Previously a Black H’mong village, it was ‘discovered’ early in the twentieth century and developed as a resort for French military officers, civil servants and business people. Its marked similarity to alpine areas in France and its temperate climate made it a haven from Hanoi’s clammy winter dampness and sultry humid summer. By 1940, it was a sizeable town populated almost entirely by French citizens.
As France’s grip on the country weakened, the buildings emptied. After their victory at Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh demolished most of the buildings. One that escaped was the summer residence of the Governor General of Indochina, which was commandeered by the Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party as his holiday retreat. That was also flattened during the 1979 Chinese invasion.
Sa Pa today:
Today, a few buildings have been restored, notably the church, shelled by the French as the Viet Minh began to advance through the northern mountains. Several of the new buildings are vaguely based on the long gone French villas – the Auberge Hotel is a good example. Apart from that, the only enduring memento of the French presence is the inclusion of open fires and chimneys in many buildings – a welcome addition as the temperature often slips below zero in winter.
Sapa has several reasonable local hotels, and one of international standard. A recent arrival is a small four-room guest house owned and managed by the Hoa Sua organisation. It’s comfortable, friendly and puts money into the local economy.
The ethnic minority groups:
The main attraction of this area, apart from its superlative natural beauty, is Vietnam’s largest concentration of ethnic groups. Many distinct groups live in this area and, apart from those living around the tourist centre of Sapa, their dress, buildings, traditions and lifestyles have changed little over the last hundred years.
Two main roads wend their way into the north western mountain area: the latter part of the trip offers good views, but the roads are poor and the twelve-hour journey is tiring. For most visitors, overnight train travel to Lao Cai and by road to Sapa is the best option.
The original Lao Cai town was destroyed during the 1979 invasion of Vietnam by the Chinese Army. As none of the present buildings predate the event, the only attractions for visitors is the road to Sapa and the border gate with China.
Fansipan Mountain is located 9km south-west of Sapa Townlet in the Hoang Lien Mountain Range. Fansipan is branded “the Roof of Indochina “at the height of 3,143m; Fansipan is to be approved as one of the very few eco-tourist spots of Vietnam, with about 2,024 floral varieties and 327 faunal species. The topography of Fansipan is varied. Muong Hoa Valley, at the lowest altitude (950-1,000m), is created by a narrow strip of land at the base on the east side of the mountain.
Geologists say the Hoang Lien Mountain Range, with Fansipan as its highest peak, did not emerge in the mountainous North West of Vietnam until the neozoic period (circ. 100 million years ago). Fansipan, a rough pronunciation of the local name “Hua Xi Pan” means “the tottery giant rock”. The French came to Vietnam and in 1905 planted a landmark telling Fansipan’s height of 3,143m and branded it “the Roof of Indochina”. Very few people climbed to the top of Fansipan at the time. Then came the long years of war and Fansipan was left deserted for hunting and savaging. The trail blazed by the French was quickly overgrown by the underbrush. It takes six or seven days to reach the 3,143m summit, the highest peak of the Indochina Peninsula.
In 1991, Nguyen Thien Hung, an army man returned to the district town and decided to conquer Fansipan. Only on the 13th attempt did Hung, with a H’Mong boy as his guide, conquer the high peak by following the foot steps of the mountain goats. Scaling the height was meant to satisfy his eager will and aspiration to conquer the mountain without expecting that his name would be put down in the travel guidebook. After that the Sapa Tourism Agency started a new package tour there. It seemed the Fansipan Tour was meant only for those who wished to test their muscular power.
The summit of Fansipan is accessible all year round, but the best time to make the ascent is from mid-October to mid-November, and again in March.
Foreigners like best to book Fansipan tours between October and December, as this period is more often than not free from the heavy rains that obstruct the jaunt. But the Vietnamese prefer their tours to the peak of the mountain from February to April, as it is not so cold then. However, the best time for the trek to the mountain is from the end of February to the start of March, when the flowers all flourish and the climbers may behold the carpets of brilliant blossoms, violets and orchids, rhododendrons and aglaias.
Start planning your tailor-made Vietnam tour by contacting one of our specialists…