In an often-misty mountainscape, close to the Chinese border, is Sapa. Vietnam’s highest peak looms over the town, 10,000 foot Mount Fansipan, surrounded by blazingly green valleys, terraced rice paddies and fast-flowing streams pouring over innumerable waterfalls.
Sapa is reached via a winding 25 mile road from Lao Cai and the ride up offers a taste of what is to come, driving through lush valleys and passing several minority villages along the way.
In the early 20th century the French took advantage of the town’s cool climate, developing what was a military outpost in to a summer retreat. Today, Sapa retains its European feel, largely due to an impressive collection of French villas and bountiful gardens. But Sapa’s newfound popularity is largely due to the colourful ethnic population who live in the surrounding valleys. This is home to many of Vietnam’s 54 minority groups, each with their own distinctive dress, customs and dialects.
Many different hill tribes congregate at the bustling weekend market in Sapa to trade with one another. Treks to visit surrounding villages are possible, from easy day walks passing through terraced paddy fields to reach mainly Black H’Muong and Dzao minority villages, where traditional and ancient beliefs still hold sway. More extended adventures are also possible, some running over many days and include nights spent in local homestays. You can choose your adventure level and duration although, many spectacular spots can be easily accessed by car also.
But the north west is not just about Sapa. Dien Bien Phu is one of Vietnam’s best kept travel secrets – especially for the budding historian. It was here in 1954 that Ho Chi Minh’s forces defeated the French in a battle that ended almost a century of colonial rule and sent shockwaves through the developed world. And there’s much more than war history here too. The valley at Dien Bien Phu is spectacularly beautiful and the surrounding mountains are dotted with friendly Thai minority villages.