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Travel Tips

  1. Bear in mind that some of the minorities do not wish to have photos taken of them. Ask permission beforehand.
  2. Bring along a poncho. You can also buy a cheap one in the many shops around.
  3. Rubber boots and trekking shoes can be rented from some shops or perhaps at the hotel you are staying in. However, do bear in mind that they have limited sizes.
  4. Do buy some hand-made items direct from the ethnic minorities, especially if you have enjoyed a good conversation or received help from them. Though they do charge slightly more than the shops, bear in mind that the majority of them are very poor and depend on tourist money to survive.
  5. From Hanoi it is a 9-hour train journey to SaPa.


  1. It is possible to change money, traveler checks and get cash advance on credit cards at the bigger hotels.  There are ATMs on the main street that will accept major cards.
  2. Make sure that the foreign currency notes you bring along are as new and crisp as possible. It is very hard to obtain the local currency with tattered notes. Some hotels will reject the money exchange request. There have been reports of shops taking customer's new crisp notes, switching them with taped up cut ones, and insisting that were the ones the customers gave them.
  3. The usual endless supply of nearly identical tourist trinkets is available at every turn, although Sa Pa is famous for its embroidery. There are two types: handmade and machine made. It is easy to tell the difference. Buying direct from the maker is preferable, although prices are highly flexible. When bargaining, try to find out how long it took to make the piece. If you want machine made products, you are better off buying them in the shops
  4. The various markets sell clothes, blankets, etc. with colorful designs traditional to the various ethnic minorities. Take note that the dye used to give a blue color stains the fingers (and not only the fingers) - which is why many of the women who make them have darkened fingertips. When you wash these clothes the color will run. (To avoid this, soak them in cold salty water, and make sure you pack them carefully in your bag to take home.)
  5. Be careful buying batteries as some people will sell them with no power.

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Sa Pa:  A Unique and Beautiful Region

Sapa is an incredibly picturesque town that lies in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam, known as "the Tonkinese Alps". Sa Pa, is the capital of Sa Pa District in the Lao Cai Province and is a quiet mountain town and home to a great diversity of ethnic minority peoples. The total population of 36,000 consists mostly of minority groups, such as the Hmong Dao (Yao), Giay, Pho Lu, and Tay. Sa Pa and its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam.

Sa Pa began to appear on the national map in the 1880s when the French arrived in the area. The wording of Sa Pa, or Chapa (from Chinese Xa Pa, orginated from the phrase "sandy place")as the French called it. In the 1890s the area of Sa Pa started to see military parties and missionaries arrive.

The first permanent French civilian resident arrived in Sa Pa in 1909. With its attractive continental climate, health authorities believed the site had potential. By 1912 a military sanitorium for ailing officers had been erected along with a full military garrison. Then, from the 1920s onwards, several wealthy professionals with enough financial capital built a number of private villas in the vicinity.

At the end of the Second World War a long period of hostilities began in the area. In the process, nearly all of the 200 or so colonial buildings in or around Sa Pa were destroyed, either by Việt Minh sympathizers, or by French air raids. The vast majority of the Viet population fled for their lives.

Ethnic Minorities
Many ethnic minorities live in and around Sapa. Excluding the Kinh people or ethnic Vietnamese, eight different ethnic minority groups are found in Sapa; H'mong (pronounced Mong), Dao (pronounced Yao), Tay, Giay (pronounced Zai), Muong, Thai, Hoa (ethnic Chinese) and Xa Pho (a denomination of the Phu La minority group). However, the last four groups comprise less than 500 people in total.

Many older women in particular make items such as ethnic-style clothes and blankets, to sell to tourists. Striking up a conversation with them can be very rewarding and their spoken English is impressive.

Children from these ethnic minorities often begin to support their families financially through selling trinkets to tourists. Do not encourage this by buying from children - buy from adults. They peddle small metal or silver trinkets, embroidered pillow cases and friendship bands in the main town, and often walk for several hours from their surrounding villages to reach the town. At the end of the day, some take a motorbike ride back to their village, some walk home and some sleep in the market.
Girls and boys get married young (around 15-18) and often have two children by the time they are 20 years old. Poverty has led to a great number of girls leaving their villages each day to go selling in Sapa town, and depending on their luck, may only have one meal per day.

In winter (the 4 months November to February), the weather in Sapa is invariably cold, wet and foggy (temperatures can drop to freezing and there was snow in 2011). Travelers have rolled into town on a glorious clear day and proceed to spend a week trapped in impenetrable fog. In winter the rice paddies are brown and empty; the paths very muddy and slippery and the glorious vistas of summer are completely hidden in the mist. It rains very often during the month of August, especially in the mornings.

Sa Pa District is located in Lao Cai Province, north-west Vietnam, and 380 km north-west of Hanoi, close to the border with China. The Hoang Lien Son range of mountains dominates the district, which is at the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. The town of Sa Pa lies at an altitude of about 1650 m. The location of the area makes it a truly unique place for many interesting plants and animals, allowing it to support many inhabitants. Many rare or endemic species have been recorded in the region.

Most of the ethnic minority people work their land on sloping terraces. The unique climate in Sa Pa has a major influence on the ethnic minorities who live in the area. Their staple foods are rice and corn. The minority people can only yield one crop of rice annually, which leads to food shortfalls in in many communes at specific times. This shortage of food contributes to malnutrition and other related health problems. The climatic conditions also contribute to many health issues including coughs, colds, bronchial and respiratory problems.

On a clear day, the imposing peak of Fan Si Pan comes into view. The last major peak in the Himalayan chain, Fan Si Pan offers a real challenge to even the keenest walker. It provides incredible views and a rare glimpse of some of the last remaining primary rain forest in Vietnam.

Before the 1990s, the town's economy was mainly based on small agriculture. In 1993 the decision was made to open the door to international tourism, which led to Sa Pa's place as a prominent holiday destination. Approximately 20% of tourists are foreigners.

Getting around
Anywhere in the main village of Sa Pa can be reached on foot, and the town is small enough that you're not likely to get lost. A basic map will be good enough for most travelers.

Tourists intending to trek to the various villages through the paddy fields should be prepared with good trekking shoes or rubber boots, a walking stick and extra clothing kept in a waterproof bag. Depending on the season, the rice fields, which are built-in terraces, can be very muddy and slippery. If one does not wear shoes which enable a good grip in mud, one is likely to keep slipping and falling or even sliding down the slopes! As the paths are also taken by water buffalos, excrement can be found everywhere. For the less adventurous, some of the villages, such as Lao Chai Village, are accessible via jeep, motorcycle or van.

Great views of the area can be had (weather permitting) from the nearby hills. One of these has been built up into a tourist attraction ("Ham Rong Resort") with various gardens (orchid, European), ethnic minority dance performance areas, viewpoints, and restaurants. It's a short walk south from the central square.

If you have time it's worth going to the "Sa Pa Culture Museum" where you can learn about the history of Sa Pa and the costumes as well as traditions of the ethnic groups of Sa Pa.

It's also worth to check some of the colonial buildings left by the French colonialists such as the church, the square and town hall building. While walking in the mountains you will encounter many hill tribes such as the Red Zao tribe.

Sources:  Portions excerpted from Wikipedia; Wiki Trave; various internet sources

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