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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.