A small market town that has been a gathering spot for many local hilltribes for nearly 200 years. Hmong and Dao people, among others, still come here to conduct trade, socialize, and attend an ephemeral "Love Market" where young men and women choose one another for marriage (these days, it's unlikely you'll see anything more than a staged re-creation of it). But seeing this as early as 1860, French missionaries said "Mon Dieu!" and set up camp to save souls; their stone church still stands sentinel and is well attended at the center of town. Sapa, with its mercifully cool climate, became a holiday escape for French colonists, complete with rail connection, upscale hotels, and a tourist bureau as early as 1917. The outpost was retaken by the Vietnamese in 1950, attacked and destroyed later by the French, and left in ruin, only briefly occupied by Chinese troops in 1979. The town reopened for tourism in the 1990s.
Now connected by luxury train with Hanoi, Sapa boasts good accommodations and is a great jumping-off point for trekking and ecotours. Even a 1- or 2-day trip, bracketed by overnight train journeys from Hanoi, will give you a unique glimpse of local hilltribe culture. Trek out to nearby villages with a guide (it's actually illegal to trek without a licensed guide and you may find yourself a very unwelcome guest in a village that does not accept tourists), or meet with the many hilltribe people who come to town to sell their wares.
The Tonkinese Alps are a feast for the eyes; hills striated by terraced rice farms in vast, green valleys are like a stairway up to Mount Fansipan, which is Southeast Asia's tallest mountain at 3,143m (10,312 ft.). Climbing Fansipan is a multiday trip, requiring a guide and gear -- best arranged through one of the tour operators listed, and only for the hearty. Note: Bring a few layers; it can get quite chilly here, especially in the winter months.
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