SaPa was developed by the French as a resting place for the colonial administrators and enforcers. It is cooler than Hanoi and not as humid. In some seasons the climate is similar to parts of Europe. By 1922 the French had a well established hill station in SaPa and enjoyed a rather fine life here. When the Japanese invaded in 1941 that stopped rather abruptly. The end of the war brought the return of French rule. The Vietnamese of course had other ideas. Following a French defeat in the area the French Air Force bombed the town and destroyed most of the infrastructure and many of the buildings.
The Americans never bombed the area because it sits so close to the China border. Unfortunately the closeness to the border made it east for the Chinese to invade in 1979 leading to further destruction. You could say it not a lucky place to live.
Since the 1990’s the town has recovered and now has a small but thriving tourism industry. More importantly the area is home to many Ethnic Tribes. Eight main different minority groups are found in Sapa; H’mong, Dao, Tay, Giay, Muong, Thai, Hoa and Xa Pho. The population of some of the tribes is very small.
Each tribe has its own language and you can walk out of a village, around the side of a rice paddy and find yourself in a different community that has a different language and different customs. Arranged marriages are still the norm although many young people today have a bigger element of choice than their parents did 16 or 17 years ago. Until recently it was almost unknown for someone in one tribe to marry someone from another tribe. This is beginning to change. The reason for the change is school. Most of the children go to primary school then secondary school. Vietnamese is taught in the schools as a second language. This means that for the first time tribes that live in close proximity to each other( sometimes less than 2 miles, can communicate in a common language. This has widened friendship groups and led to a significant increase in social mobility. Many of the children move away from the area as they get older and many of those that stay do not maintain the traditions of their tribe.
SaPa is beautiful. It is everything you would expect and more. The colour and vibrancy of the place is mesmerising. The countryside is rich and saturated and it has the look of what I would consider a mediaeval agrarian community.
We trekked with the Sapa Sisters. They are a women’s cooperative who create employment and educational opportunities for H’mong young women. They are also great fun.We found ourselves on narrow tracks through rice paddies with not another soul in site. Pen, our guide was able to tell us about the local customs and the things that had happened in the various villages.
We were with her for 3 days sleeping in “homestays”. I am not sure how to describe a homestay, the nearest I can come to is that its similar to a Nepal Tea House but without the sophistication. Everybody was so friendly and welcoming. The cynic might say that people were being paid for their hospitality but although that is true it is not an accurate picture. It was more communal than that and there was a generosity of spirit that was freely given by the people we stayed with. There was also a generosity of spirits (rice wine to be precise) at various times. The three young French men that stayed at the homestay with us entered into this part of the culture with considerable enjoyment.