If you asked me to choose my favorite destination in Northern Vietnam, I would say Sapa without thinking twice. It is a small highland town in Lao Cai Province, Vietnam. I recently took a trip to Sapa this January; right after my Tet holiday (the Lunar New Year celebration); and it was my most memorable trip to date.
My first impression of Sapa was that is seemed like a hidden town deep inside of a valley. Surrounded by mountains and clouds soaring above the village, the colonial buildings with their old European style were situated between cherry blossom forests and the Samu ridge. I pointed at all the stunning mansions, which dotted the landscape and asked my guide how could it be that Sapa has so many spectacular buildings, I was really surprised. In my mind, Sapa was supposed to be a far away land with a lot of minority people staying in small wooden houses. He explained to me, ”The French under their colonial rule brought Sapa many luxuries; with good hydro-power, a modern electric system and 200 pretty mansions right in the middle of valley as you can see.” I was amazed at all the beauty right in front of me; the history of this village in Northern Vietnam was stunning.
We had a relaxing dinner as part of our pre-booked Vietnam tour packages at a nice simple restaurant in town. As we ate, our guide told us a story about how the village got its name; Sapa. He told us that the name Sapa came from Chinese Mandarin; Sapa means “sandy land”. I have no clue why they named Sapa this, because to me, Sapa was definitely not a sandy land at all. If I could have chosen the name, I think I would’ve called it “misty land”. All of the scenery here was covered in a thin fog. Everything was naturally blurred and become more mysterious on each trek for an adventurer like me. The cold mist brought a magical atmosphere.
The suggested time to visit Sapa is between June – October. Unfortunately, I just missed the perfect time. So I prepared myself that I might see the snow during our trip in Northern Vietnam.
After the evening’s activities, I headed back to my room at a magnificent hotel right in Sapa, my room had a public area with a wide balcony; from here I could see all of Sapa. In the evening, Sapa looked like a picture that I had seen in a travel magazine. The lights from both modern houses and traditional houses, which were scattered along mountains, shone as sparkling stars. Standing on my balcony and staring at the beauty around me, I could hear off in the distance the local men playing music on a Jew’s harp. Sapa is a typical mountain town and the locals really enjoy the area as much as the tourists. There is lots of laughter and I’m always greeted by a friendly smile.
Waking up early the next morning, my crew had a short time to visit the weekly market, which was normally organized on Sunday. I didn’t have chance to visit every single corner in the marketplace, but I would see that the trading here was very different then with lowland Vietnamese. They preferred not to bargain and instead sell internally to family and friends under the form of exchanging products rather than selling them. Even in my short time enjoying the market, I was able to get a local costume for myself and some scarves for my family and friends. It was definitely a highlight of the trip and enjoying the bustling market place was a memorable experience.
After leaving the marketplace, we started out on our trekking tour. I was very lucky because I had the perfect tour guide. He told us everything we needed to know such as the duration of the trip, the difficulty level and how to prepare before the trip. I was amazed by his knowledge about the land, the locals and the culture. People could easily misunderstand and think that he was a local. The trekking trip lasted the whole day and we hiked around 15 – 20km. The hiking seemed easy though as the scenery completely distracted me from all the walking. Every step, every corner I turned, there were beautiful terrace fields, valleys, springs or waterfalls. I met a girl during our hike who must have been around 5 years old as she was chasing after her older brother. She wore no shoes and light clothes in what I considered very cold weather. One lady in my crew gave her some money, but the little girl refused to take it. The girl smiled and said she was taught to never take money from others and never use money that was not yours. It was such an emotional moment for all of us, when we saw the girl run away without shoes but smiling happily. She was such a polite young girl.
As we continued our trekking through Sapa, we passed by what looked like a very old church, It was made from stone and the design followed the beautiful Gothic roman style. The church was situated on a very prominent area with its back to the Ham Rong mountains (translated, Dragon mouth) and in the front of the Church was a wide open flat pathway which was very convenient for transportation. Standing on the ground of the church, I could see Sapa in its entirety. From this point it looked like a construction game that young boys play. Houses were situated next to the river and forest, everything was so well organized it seemed like a giant had arranged it from above.
On my last day in Sapa trekking tours, I finally saw snow, it wasn’t the first time I had seen snow; however, snow here was different. It looked more transparent and easily changed to ice since the humidity in Vietnam was much higher than any place I had been before. It was an amazing sight to see a peach completely covered in ice on the tree. After just one night, everything was covered by snow, it looked like all the houses and trees just changed into their winter coat. Sapa is the only place in Vietnam that you can ever see snow.
As I was sitting on the bus heading back to Hanoi, I had the feeling that I didn’t spend enough time in Sapa. There are a lot of places I didn’t visit; I want to learn more about the people here and their culture. There is no place like Sapa, where tradition and the modern day is perfectly blended together. If you have a chance to travel to Vietnam and especially to Northern part, don’t forget to take a trip to Sapa and I recommend you to check best Vietnam tours, I am sure it will quickly become one of your favorite destinations, as it is mine.