SaPa is a Vietnamese frontier township in Lao Cai province in the far Northwest of Vietnam, bordering China in the North.
It stands in the shadow of Vietnam’s largest mountain, Fansipan (locally known as Phan Xi Pang). Also the largest mountain in Indochina (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) at 3,143 metres.
Its population is approximately 60,000. Consisting mainly of indigenous highland tribes such as the H’mong and Dao (D’zao or Yao). It’s estimated about 15 percent of the population are Kinh Vietnamese(lowland or native Vietnamese).
SaPa was a French colonial town until WWII complete with its military barracks. Most colonial buildings have been bombed, either by Viet sympathisers in the 40’s or by the French in the 50’s in the first Indochina war (fighting for independence from French colonial rule). For those with some knowledge of military history, Dien Bien Phu is a tortuous 7-hour road trip but only 270Km.
SaPa had a sleepy existence after the independence of 1954. There was a brief spell in 1979, when the Chinese invaded for a month during the Sino-Vietnamese war, in retaliation for invading Cambodia.
It has become a magnet for tourism since the early 1990’s.
Unfortunately, this means that the number of tourists is pressuring the town to such an extent that it will be unrecognisable in ten years time as high rise hotels get built. It already has the World’s largest three wire cable car will take you up near the summit of Fansipan, a span of over 6km.
The Black H’mong
make up one of the majority tribes within SaPa. The women dress all in black and generally live in wooden huts tending the rice fields. As with all H’mong tribes, they come from Southern China, where they have moved from to find Arable land and over the years escape persecution.
They don’t speak the traditional Vietnamese language and are famous for their dyeing of clothes with Indigo, hence the black clothes.
The Red Dao
(Yao or D’zao) women wear a distinctive red head dress with tassels and ornaments hanging from it. Their clothes are very colourful with both men and women usually dressed with a square of embroidered cloth on their back. The symbolism is such that they believe they are the Children of God. They believe in a mix of Confucianism (the majority Buddhist sect in Vietnam) Taoism and Buddhism.
Again they speak a different language to the Vietnamese called Mien based around the ‘Kim Mun’ language. A dialect spoken by approximately 200,000 people in Southern China.
Bac Ha Market
We went to SaPa at the same time the annual horse racing festival was on during the Sunday market at Bac Ha, a three-hour drive. This is a once a year event where the leading horse race breeders race their horses by bareback riders. It’s an amazing spectacle.
The Flower H’mong
are similar to the Dao and Black H’mong, living in other villages such as Bac Ha. They are named because of their brightly coloured costumes. However, they speak similar languages to each other and are also derived from Southern China.
The history of the H’mong peoples is a potted one across South East Asia, as they were persecuted in Southern China, have been persecuted in Laos and Vietnam, as part of some of their tribe siding with the US during the ‘Secret War’ in the 70’s in Laos. There are many refugees of H’mong descent across the World with the largest in California, USA, as well as the Thai/Laos border.
Bac Ha annual horse race
Bac Ha has a Sunday market. Possibly the most colourful market on the planet! Once a year they have the annual horse racing, which makes for a great day out.
Bac Ha and the surrounding areas were originally an area where war horses are bred, so the area has a long heritage of breeding famous horses.
We didn’t really understand what was going on, and I think more often than not, having two young blonde girls made us more of a spectacle than the horse racing. We were probably one of five or six westerners we saw on the horse racing circuit with one thousand plus spectators.
The racing was fast and to see these riders at breakneck speed with only a bridle was brilliant to see.
Tourism in SaPa
The small town of SaPa is under pressure from over tourism. Its small population, which is very poor gets spoilt by the estimated 2.7m visitors per year.
What do I mean by spoilt?
The rich visitors (they aren’t all western any longer) want to see these attractive indigenous tribes in their primitive environment with beautifully decorated dresses.
Do they embellish their costumes more than is traditional for tourists?
Will they continue their animist beliefs with the village witch doctor?
Are they kept here by the Government on purpose as a social attraction?
Food for thought, as I don’t know the answer to these questions. Unbridled tourism cannot be good for the future of small social groups in return for earning tourism dollars.
We stayed at the SaPa Vista hotel as part of a package put together for us by Tony’s tours. A small tour operator we found on Lao Cai, underneath the ‘Cong Caphe’ place, just next to the roundabout from Hoan Kiem. Tony was good at giving us options and deciding on rooms etc. We caught the early morning 0700 coach to SaPa on Friday morning and arrived at 1330.
On our return, we caught the Pumpkin express train from Lao Cai to Hanoi on Sunday evening. We arrived after a ten-hour journey to Hanoi at approx 5.30am. We then had to deal with the taxi mafia at Hanoi station.
If you do visit, I would recommend staying 3 or 4 days to explore some of the other sites around SaPa, such as the cable car.