A TRAVELLER’S GUIDE
The mist filled mornings and sprawling mountains of the Sapa landscape has always been nothing short of breathtaking. It has been 7 years since I last stepped foot onto its luscious green valleys.
Much has changed since then, and not always for the better…
In the pictorial below, I wished to highlight where the true beauty of Sapa lies, in its people and its scenery. With large corporations and misguided business ventures encroaching on Sapa’s minority population and its iconic countryside, it’s unsure how much longer this beauty may last.
The curving lines of the terraced rice fields are etched into the rolling hillsides. In a territory filled with hills, the lack of space to farm outwards means rice can only be cultivated upwards, thus the iconic stairways of rice are formed.
An aerial view of Sapa. The town has gone through a massive face lift in recent years.
Hotels, hostels and homestays are plentiful in all price ranges, while the main strip is lined with bar, nightclubs and restaurants serving everything from hotpot and BBQ to pizzas and hamburgers.
The centre of Sapa Town contains a large open space near the Notre Dame Church, where locals come to relax and sell goods.
This is also a great spot to hire a motorbike driver or tour bus to take you further into the rice fields and remote villages.
One of largest construction projects to boost tourism is the cable car running up to Fansipan, the tallest mountain in Vietnam. For many in the past, scaling this once formidable mountain was a badge of honour for those willing to brave the two-day hike to the mountain’s summit.
Now, the top can be reached via a 20-minute cable car ride (600K VND), courtesy of Vietnamese entertainment conglomerate Sun World.
You still need to walk some 600 stairs after the cable car to reach the peak, but Sun World has also built a tram which can take you the rest of the way (100K VND for a roundtrip).
But despite the ease in which the peak of the Fansipan mountain can now be reached, there is no denying the view from the cable car is stunning.
The chances of visiting Fansipan on a clear day is not assured. Due to the mountain’s high altitude, the mist and clouds often obstruct visibility.
To better your chances of clear skies try going during the afternoon hours.
If things were not easy enough, there are also plans to build a mini-railway, which will ferry tourists from the Sun World Hotel to the Fansipan cable car station in the near future.
More tourist attractions such as this Buddist temple are yet to come to the mountain…
The Fansipan peak sits 3,143m above sea level. After reaching the highest point of the mountain, you’ll now be greeted with a sky deck and a chance to buy souvenirs for your accomplishments.
The true beauty of Sapa lies in its nature, people and culture. The territory is home to eight different ethnic minorities, not including their sub-cultures (such as the Dao Do, Dao Quan Chet, Dao Thanh Y, Dao Ao Dai, Dao Quan Trang).
Differentiated by their clothing, the Hmong and Dao makes up the bulk of the Lao Cai province’s population.
For many who live here, life revolves around tending the rice fields, making and selling textiles and distilling corn liquor…all of which are held together by strong family bonds and a sense of community.
Even the children help the family tend the fields.
The domesticated Water Buffalo are incredibly powerful.
These gentle giants are loyal creatures. They work diligently alongside the farmers in plowing the fields day in and day out and are treated as the family pet.
Local villages and the rice terraces they tend to, dot the Sapa landscape.
From a distance, the picturesque landscape rivals the works of the most serene Zen gardens of Japan, only here the master gardeners use fields of rice as their canvas rather than sand.
Rice production comes in stages. Starting in the month of March the fields turn green just as the rice begins to spout.
During the rainy months of May and June, the fields begin to flood, creating a mirror-like reflection over the land.
Mid-September is when the rice begins to shift from a green to yellow hue (pictured here), which means it is ripe for harvesting. After which the land becomes to cold for rice production and yellow flowers known as “hoa cai” begin to bloom.
Each season has its own unique beauty, as the entire landscape of Sapa transforms along with its rice production
A woman walks home carrying beyond her weight in goods, after her trip gathering supplies into the jungle.
The vegetables are to feed her family and livestock, while the wood is used to make the fire for cooking.
While another young child carrying her sister is in Sapa Town selling souvenirs to tourists.
The intricately embroidered clothing the Hmong woman.
This young woman lives in the small village of Sin Chai, about a 30-minute motorbike ride from Sapa Town.
Born in 1999, her father died when she was young and her mother has since re-married and left the family behind.
Her husband occasionally works construction and tends the local rice fields. She now takes care their daughter and her other siblings by living off the land and a diet of beans and rice.
The homes of the local villagers are simple. Build from wood and aluminum, a fire sits in the middle, which is used for cooking and keeping warm during the cold winters of the northern mountains.
The lack of proper smoke ventilation has caused many illnesses. Some social enterprises such as ETHOS – Spirit of the Community have come to the villager’s aid by helping to install chimneys, as well as providing villages with clean water and proper sanitation.
The metal bridge over the Muong Hoa stream, which leads to the Lao Chai Village. Along with Cat Cat Village this village is on the route of many tours provided by the local hotels.
Prepare to be swamped by children wanting to sell you souvenirs.
The crowded Bac Ha market is a three hours drive north of Sapa Town.
Running only on Sunday mornings and afternoon, the market sees locals from miles around eagerly buying and selling everything from textiles and fresh vegetables to pigs, chickens and even cows and water buffalo.
It has become increasingly difficult to find proper handmade goods in Sapa. An unfortunate victim of supply and demand…
If tourists are not willing to pay 2 million VND for an elegantly hand-stitched blanket—which takes days to make—then the local villagers are weary of spending the time and effort in producing such expensive textiles when procuring and selling a cheaper, mass produced version is only a short trip across the Chinese border.
The livestock market in Bac Ha in full swing. You too can have your very own water buffalo for 40-50 million VND.
…depending on your bargaining skills.
A man looking to sell his buffalo…if only I had a sack of magic beans to trade.
Also for sale are live ducks, chickens, pigs, cows and even dogs.
Another one of Sapa’s key exports is corn liquor. Some villages have dedicated themselves entirely to growing, drying and then distilling the alcohol.
Any surplus of corn is then used to feed the families and the livestock.
A woman works over the kiln, distilling the mash of the incredibly potent alcohol.
I could not get a clear answer on its alcohol content, but after trying a shot, I knew it was well over the usual 80 proof of a typical whisky or vodka.
Much of Sapa Town is under construction. Tourism is hitting this once untouched land hard.
Currently, there are an estimated 9000+ hotel rooms being built. Along with plans for an amusement park, golf course and rail system in the near future.
Sitting on the balcony of our hotel room, enjoying an Egg Coffee, complete in its own warming bowl.
It is said that Vietnamese Egg Coffee was invented in the 1950s, due to the scarcity of milk at the time.
After a lifetime of loyal service. Once the family Water Buffalo has reached its last legs, its final contribution is to feed the family.
One of the things you can make from their meat is Buffalo Jerky (700-900K VND/kg).
As night ascends over Sapa Town, the mist returns to blanket the sky.
Sapa Town has a vibrant nightlife, with bars and restaurants lining main strip from Huong Hoa to the Notre Dame church.
The town get especially busy during the weekends as tourists begin arriving from all over.
During the weekend, the main street of Cau May leading to the Notre Dame Church is gated off, allowing only pedestrian traffic.
The Walking Street, which runs from 7pm to 10pm is packed with women and children selling bags, bracelets and other trinkets.
Technically, the walking street should be the only time vendors are allowed to sell souvenirs on the street according to local laws, but you will undoubtedly have women and children coming up to you trying to sell you their wares all day, every day.
Many families will buy elaborate traditional dresses for their young children in the hopes to entice tourists to buy souvenirs from them.
Some children have also forgone schooling in order to spend the day selling souvenirs. This has caused illiteracy to increase exponentially in the Sapa.
It is advised to not give children candy. Since proper hygiene is not often practiced or taught in many villages, giving sweets has been leading to an increase in tooth decay among children.
During the night, there are plenty of BBQ stalls that open along the Notre Dame Church area.
Just grab a few shish-kabobs, put them on the plate, and they will grill them for you for 15 to 50K VND per skewer.
Even though corporations such as Sun World have already begun to change the Sapa landscape with the construction of the cable car to Fansipan, they are not finished yet.
There are still plans for a 5-star hotel, an amusement park, a golf course and a railway system to connect all these attractions together in the near future.
Sapa is truly at a crossroad. With changes coming so quickly, many of the buildings being constructed go unchecked and have little regard to its impact on the stunning landscape and the villages that occupy it.
The future of Sapa and the incredibly resilient people who inhabit it remain uncertain.
For more information on eco-friendly tours to Sapa, check out the ETHOS website.