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Tuesday 3 June 2014

Sapa: A place where time has (almost) stood still

There are few places on the globe nowadays that are completely untouched by the modern world. Even in the most remote villages on earth you'll find locals with mobile phones and kids wearing Manchester United replica tops.

One of the few places that remains (largely) authentic is Sapa a small and remote town in northern Vietnam that was established as a hill station by the French in 1922. 

Sapa today is a fascinating destination offering views of cascading rice terraces, high mountain ranges (with Mount Fansipan the highest of all), alarming ramshackle roads and hill-tribe people, many of whom still live in the traditional manner of their forefathers.

Take an overnight train between Hanoi and  Lao Cai (and then a minibus taxi on to Sapa) to explore the local villages and markets and maybe enjoy some trekking torwards the Chinese border and the settlements of Lao Chai and Ta Van

Lao Chai is a small settlement populated by the Black Hmong ethnic minority hill tribe, the majority of whom still wear traditional garb.
It can be hard to communicate with the locals, but a glance inside some of their huts showed just how tough life is for the minorities, most of whom are subsistence farmers or live from sales of hand-made clothing and jewelry to tourists.

The villages have schools and makeshift clinics – and the odd hut even has a satellite dish, even though the electricity is generated by the water from local streams.

The huts are gloomy with bare earth floors and large families often eat, work and sleep in just a couple of rooms. The air is thick with the smell of woodsmoke.

Our next stop was the village of Ta Van, home to the equally colourful, if more reserved, Giay people. 
If the weather had been better, and we’d had more time, we could have continued to the Red Dao village of Giang Ta Chai. Alas, we were beaten by the elements.

Back in the frontier town of Sapa there are plenty of restaurants – the pig on a spit is particularly appetising - and a splendidly colourful market at which the Hmong and Dao women will attempt to sell you their brightly dyed clothes, blankets and cushion covers and you can buy a range of fresh spices (right).

The town is home to dozens of ethnic minority groups, whom you can distinguish by the colours of their distinctive traditional garb.

This is the real thing, however, not for the squeamish. We saw a buffalo being butchered by several eager locals after being slaughtered at the side of the road and several dead (unidentifiable) animals hanging up in one local’s home, being preserved by the smoke. Our guide fell silent, so they may have been dogs.

The Hmong women sell jackets, bags and shirts, and the Dao women, wearing striking red headdresses, some wonderful deep-blue clothing dyed with indigo. They are surprisingly aggressive and insistent salespeople, not at all shy with visitors and keen to haggle over prices.
Some of the accommodation can be rough and ready, so make sure you book in somewhere where there is heating available. We met one couple who paid just $10 a night for their room in a local guesthouse, but spent it with teeth chattering as all the heaters had been allocated.

Be prepared, too, when you go out walking, as temperatures plunge below zero in the winter months – quite a shock when it has been 35 degrees in Hoi An just a few days earlier.

Things will go wrong, Sapa was only opened to tourists in 1993 and the infrastructure at times struggles to cope with the demands of worldly tourists. The compensations, however, are many and varied.

The Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa, built in alpine chalet style (above), is the only luxury hotel in the area, although there are plenty of homestays and boutique hotels of varying quality. Opened in 1998 and staffed by a mix of Europeans and charming locals, it offers all mod cons, including comfortable bathrooms and satellite TV. Phone +84 20 871 522 or see

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