Off the beaten path in the Northern highlands of Vietnam

From the striking seascapes of Ha Long Bay to the pleasant, tree-shaded streets of Hanoi, Northern Vietnam offers up a sumptuous platter of travel delicacies for visitors to explore.

Many travellers use Hanoi, the capital, as a base from which to explore the idyllic mountain region of Sa Pa, which was established as a hill station by the French in Vietnam’s colonial era. Sa Pa is the undisputed centre of tourism in North Western Vietnam and the region is home to a large collection of Northern Vietnam’s indigenous communities, offering visitors a intriguing taste of local culture in addition to some breathtaking mountain scenery. Sa Pa is also a burgeoning trekking centre for keen hikers who can revel in spectacular views of the Muong Hoa Valley.

Climbing High

If, like me, you enjoy the sight of shimmering emerald peaks, then you will find yourself more than content in Sa Pa. The town itself lies in the shadow of Si Pan, Vietnam’s loftiest mountain peak, and in addition to the area’s plentiful supply of natural blessings, it is also peppered with the hamlets built by indigenous communities. Consequently, many trekking excursions now offer home-stay options for travellers that want to sample the relaxed pace of rural Vietnam a little further from the beaten track. Temperatures can drop quite low at certain times of the year, however, so trekkers should travel prepared with all the right hiking gear.

Stairway to Heaven

Sa Pa began life as a hilltop retreat for French colonialists desperate for an escape from the crushing heat of Hanoi. Glimmering rice paddies and the breezy mountain peaks around Sa Pa made the region an obvious choice. One of the best ways to enjoy the rural scenery is to join an organized tour, but those with the skills and sense of adventure can rent a jeep or even motorbike to explore the area. Excursions generally take in human and natural attractions, including some of the local waterfalls, like Heaven’s Gate, so however you choose to travel, be sure to pack a camera.

Meet the Locals

The multitude of ethnic minorities around Sa Pa offer visitors a fascinating insight into a unique pattern of life that has changed very little in the last thousand years – despite major upheavals in the rest of the country. The Hmong people are one of the largest communities in the area, and their traditional indigo robes and colourful brocade are a sight to behold. The Dao are another of the largest ethnic groups in the region, and often noticeable due to their distinctive headwear, which resembles a pile of coiled hair with silver ornaments protruding from the top. Many people from the local communities have set up their own handicraft stalls in the town to tempt visitors with handmade trinkets and textiles.

Two Seasons in One

It has to be said that northern Vietnam offers up incredible variety of climates in a relatively small area. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than along the road between Sa Pa and Lai Chai that traverses the Tram Ton Pass, just 15km from town. Positioned at an impressive height of 1900m, Tram Ton is Vietnam’s highest mountain pass. Bizarrely, visitors on the Sa Pa side may experience cold and foggy weather at the exact same time visitors on the Lai Chau side experience balmy sunshine. This is because the pass acts as the dividing line between two weather fronts. Alongside the road, located some 12km from Sa Pa, lies Thac Bac – a 100m high waterfall. This scenic stop is well worth a look.

Ethnic Learning

If you want to understand more about Sa Pa’s history, then your first stop should be the Sa Pa Museum, which offers a thorough showcase of the region’s ethnology, right through to the colonial days of the French. The information presented will definitely help you recognize the differences between each of Sa Pa’s indigenous communities. Following this, take a stroll to discover some of the colonial buildings left behind by former French inhabitants of Sa Pa, including the church, the town hall and town square.


Get the Most from the Experience

Sa Pa is a rich and diverse blend of natural and cultural experiences, which combine to offer visitors a rare and memorable experience of mountain life. Here are some tips to help you make the most of the trip.

  • If you are an early riser, head down to Sa Pa’s market at 6am. Saturdays are the busiest days if you can make it then, as many inhabitants from Sa Pa’s local indigenous communities head to town to sell their wares. The market is a great place to pick up a street food breakfast or lunch if you aren’t afraid to eat with the locals.
  • While staying in Sa Pa you should make time to visit the town’s local waterfall – Cat Cat Falls. The falls are a fairly easy downhill trek of about 4km past the Sa Pa Eden Hotel down Fansipan Street. Pass by glittering rice fields and isolated hamlets to reach the falls, which offer a pleasant place to spend a few hours after your trek.
  • One important cultural aspect to bear in mind, is that many of the indigenous communities surrounding Sa Pa do not wish to have their photographs taken. You should always ask permission before clicking. Simply smile, lower your head and raise your camera to show the person that you would like to take a picture of them.
  • Sitting pretty at a height of 3,143m, Fansipan is the tallest mountain in all of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Organized treks to the peak can sometimes take up to three days. If you book onto a tour, accommodation is usually provided in tents or bamboo huts located just over 2,200m up the mountain.
  • To savour the traditional flavours of Sa Pa, indulge in a hot pot meal at Duc Tu restaurant. This hot pot is one of local specialities, and is comprised of a steaming savoury broth, meat, noodles and greens – delicious.

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Rebecca Foster
Rebecca has travelled extensively in America, Europe and Asia and worked as an English teacher in Thailand and South Korea. She has also contributed to several publications in the UK and Asia and enjoys hiking, yoga and taekwondo whilst on her travels.