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
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.
We always recommended visits to the more remote markets that have so far escaped the attention of the package tour companies. It’s usually a long drive, but what you see is far closer to the traditional culture than those in the tourist areas. However, they don't sell products designed for tourists, unless you want pigs, agricultural implements and so on.
For souvenirs, buy from the markets in Sapa or Bac Ha. Both are already commercialised, but by making your purchases there, you'll be dealing direct with the producer, not giving the profits to a wealthy shop owner. Bear in mind that very few of the souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels in the tourist areas are owned by local people.