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 Sapa, the fanciful town in fog
“Well, Sapa brings in peace in a fine, rugged scenery and cultural diversity… a very sweet time for us!” remarked a young couple after their honeymoon in Sa Pa.

Sa Pa District is located in Lao Cai Province, north-west Vietnam, and 350 km north-west of Hanoi, close to the border with China. Sapa is famous both for its fine, rugged scenery and for its rich cultural diversity. French used to consider Sapa as Summer Capital of Northern Vietnam in the early decades of the 20th century. Its naturally gifted beauty keeps attracting more and more people to spend their vacation there since then. Particularly, the place is the foremost choice for honeymoon couples!

Geographically, Sapa is exactly a mountainous area of Northwest Vietnam. The whole Sapa District is dominated by the Hoang Lien Son mountain range which is at the Eastern extremity of the Himalayas, being famous with the Vietnam’s highest mountain of Fa si pan at a height of 3,142 m above sea level. The town of Sa Pa lies at an altitude of about 1,600 m, bringing in a cool and foggy site of Sa Pa.

Taking a night train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, and then 45 minutes more from Lao Cai City by bus, Sapa appears in fanciful fog. Thanks to the height of 1,600 m above the sea level, the average temperature of the area is always 15-18°C, cool in summer, but a bit cold in winter.

Sapa takes its pride in its unique climate in Vietnam. It is highly seasonal, with a subtropical climate in the summer and a temperate climate during the winter. Mean annual temperature for Sa Pa town is 15.4°C, with a maximum of 29.4°C and a minimum of 1°C. The warmest months are July and August, and the coldest months are December and January. Snow falls in some years on the highest peaks. In the morning and afternoon, it is as cool as in spring and autumn. Yet, at noon, it is as sunny and cloudless as in summer. In the evening, it drastically changes into coldness just as in winter. This is actually a unique advantage, making Sapa different from anywhere else in the nation. However, travelers should be noticed that there might be sudden thunderstorm and heavy rains at noon in summer. Yet, subsequently, a rainbow appears turning Sapa into a beautifully magic land with seven colors! So, remember to bring your best camera so as not to miss this magnificent view!

April and May are the best time for tourists to watch the most scenic beauties of Sapa, or else it might be cold and foggy before that and rainy after that. During these two peak months, the town is blossoming with pink and white flowers, and green pastures in valleys. The clouds that settle in the valley in early morning would quickly disappear.

The scenery of the Sapa region in large part reflects the relationship between the ethnic minority people and nature. This is seen especially in the paddy fields carpeting the rolling lower slopes of the Hoang Lien Mountains. The impressive physical landscape, which underlies this, has resulted from the work of the elements over thousands of years, wearing away the underlying rock.

Most tourists agree that it would be regretful if the leisure and relaxation time in cool and fresh weather is not accompanied by visiting trips to Sapa’s prideful natural beauty spots, such as Ham Rong Mountain, Silver Waterfall, Rattan Bridge, Bamboo Forest and Ta Phin Cave. The town is also the starting point for many mountain climbers and scientists who would like to discover the Fansipan Mount, the highest mountain in Vietnam with 3,143 m height. Can you imagine that Hoang Lien Mountain Range is called “the Alps of the North Sea area” since Fansipan Mount also marks its greatest height among others in the Indochina Peninsula as well. The pyramid-shaped mountain is covered with clouds all the year round. On top of the mountain is filled with frequent below zero temperature, especially at high altitudes.

On approaching the town, the very first thing tourists may find is the detached wooden mansions and villas perched on top or side of the hills, behind thick pine forests, hided by fog in the morning. Old and new villas with red roofs now appear and then disappear in the green rows of pomu trees, bringing in the beauty of European towns.

Foreign tourists are actually fond of scarce and precious specialties of Sapa, such as forest’s product, handicrafts, delicacies (smoked meat, “thang co”, “cai meo”, san lung wine, corn wine, etc.), typical of ethnic minority people.

Most travellers do like to bring some of the local fresh vegetables back home for presents. Thanks to the fresh and cool air, Sapa is the ideal land for fresh temperate vegetables such as cabbage, chayote, precious medical herbs, fruit trees (plum, pear), and so on.

Sapa is famous for its special cultural diversity in a combination of ethnic minority groups’ culture. Visitors to Sapa will have opportunities to discover the unique customs of the local residents. Local markets are the town’s typically cultural element, which are always crowded and joyful, attracting hundreds of visitors. This is the common place for minority groups to gather and exchange goods. Market sessions are also a chance for local people to promenade. No foreign visitor could help joining such a market session, a typical cultural element of Sapa. What is more, tourists coming to Sapa at weekends have the great chance to learn about local ethnic people's courtship and martial life, through the Sapa love market and wife kidnapping ceremony of the H’Mong group. The ceremony will begin on April 29th. This is part of a five-day festival, titled Festival on the Cloud, to mark the beginning of the Sapa 2006 tourism year, in the northern mountain township of Sapa, in Lao Cai Province.

If ever asked to drop a quick comment, even the toughest person must admit the romance and peace of a magnificently cool and beautiful Sapa! I hope you should spend a short summer here, and you will soon share the idea!


Bac Ha Market

Being a minority ethnic people market, the town of Bac Ha is famous for its Sunday market which is a trading centre and meeting place for couples, friends, and relatives every Sunday.



Every Sunday, Bac Ha hosts the biggest fair near the mountainous highlands and the Chinese border. It is the largest and most colourful market in the area and attracts throngs of villagers from the surrounding hill tribes. Some walk several hours for the weekly opportunity to trade and barter food, animals, clothes and household goods. 80km from Sapa, Bac Ha Market is not only the place for buying and selling, but also a place for cultural and sentiment exchanging. On the market days, right from the early morning, all paths and mountain roads are full of people and horses pouring to the market. People usually sit in groups around a soup pan ("thang co") eating and chatting.

Many different ethnic groups such as Flower H'mong, Phu La, Black Dao, Tay and Nung minorities gather to buy and sell local products that cannot be found elsewhere. The market was very crowded, local products for sale or barter are carried on horseback. Besides the usual items like pigs, cows, chickens, and ducks, Bac Ha Market sold dogs. As dogs were available as cuts of meat, they were also available live, right next to the live pigs, chickens, and other livestock. There was a brisk trade at the market for everything from hand-embroidered skirts to all manner of 4-legged animals. The “fresh” meat section is not for the faint of heart and might steer more than a few visitors in the direction of strict vegetarianism.

Though tourists were not in short supply, they were not the focus. Most locals paid little attention to them, rather choosing to focus on their business and the short Sunday-sized window of opportunity. Rounding the corner and pungent fumes of alcohol accosted your senses of smell, from corn whiskey, a Bac Ha specialty. The potent moonshine is decanted by vendors from large white plastic jugs to used bottled water containers. If you doubt the ability of a vendor's hooch to peel paint or light your senses on fire, you can try a shot for free.

At the fair, adventurous gastronomes can try “thang co” blood porridge, a popular dish of the H’Mong and other local people. The Flower H’mong minority is the most common here, and their colourful dresses makes is a beautiful sight.

In conclusion, I would like to mention here the comment by Mr. Ikuyo, a tourist from Tokyo (Japan): “The trip to Bac Ha Market was amazing! On the way, the scenery was beautiful and the local people were so friendly. I will come back again!”. Let’s once visit Bac Ha Market and you will be able to experience a wide range of different colorful ethnic minorities and more interesting things of life in the mountains...

 
 

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