SAPA (400 kilometers northwest of Hanoi, 38 kilometers from Lao Cai City, where the train from Hanoi stops) is a hill tribe market town that seasoned hippie travelers used to say was like Kathmandu and Chiang Mai in their prime but now is overrun with backpackers and package tourists. But that is not to say it has been spoiled. It is still a very nice place and the scenery—including magnificent rice terraces that cling to mountains slopes and drops into narrow gorges— around it is stunning. Built around an old popular French hill station established in 1922 in the remote mountains of northwest Vietnam, Sapa was a popular retreat when Vietnam was a French colony, but most of the colonial-era villas were burned down by Chinese troops during a 1979 border war. Sapa saw virtually no foreign visitors between 1954, when the French left, and the early 1990s when it was rediscovered by young European travelers in search of an untouched jungle Shangri La.

Sapa is the main attraction of Lao Cai province, which received 1.2 million tourists in 2013, up from just 360,000 in 2003. Hugely popular with both foreign and Vietnamese visitors, Sapa does not have an airport and the area is only reachable from by an overnight train or a long drive. But its remoteness has not stopped tourists from coming. told AFP. [Source: AFP, August 9, 2014]

Situated on the Muang Hoa River on a 4,920-foot-high plateau surrounded by the Hoang Lien Son mountains, Sapa features a Saturday hill tribe market, which is now very touristy and exists in some form almost every day, and a handful of old French buildings. The town is famous for a love market in which members of the Dao tribe split from their spouses for a night and slept with lovers wooed with songs and dances. This custom is now practiced more discreetly as the Dao no doubt didn’t appreciate being gawked at by foreigners.

About 5,000 people reside full time in Sapa and currently there are around 60 guesthouses and hotels. The market draws members of the Hmong, Zao, Muang, Dao, Xaphos and Tay minorities, many of whom are dressed in colorful and beautifully-embroidered traditional clothes and headdresses. They sell vegetables, grains, fabric, blankets, pots and pans and, sometimes, brown balls of Golden Triangle opium. Some people complain that Sapa has become too much of a tourist and hippie hangout. Saturday evening market sessions are also a chance for locals to promenade and young men and women in colorful costumes to meet, date or seek sweethearts. In the early 2000s it attracted a fair number of prostitutes and foreign opium smokers, and the Dao love market was disrupted by picture-taking curiosity seekers. Now police and government presence has been stepped up and drugs are harder to come by.

Sapa and Lao Cai Province

Sapa is a mountainous district of Lao Cai Province. It covers 678.6 square kilometers and is home to 52, 500 people (2007). At a height of 1,600 meters above sea level, the average temperature of the area is 15-18 degrees C. It is cool in summer and cold in winter. Administrative divisions: Townlet: Sapa; Communes: Ban Khoang, Ta Giang Phinh, Trung Chai, Ta Phin, Sa Pa, San Sa Ho, Ban Phung, Lao Chai, Hau Thao, Thanh Kim, Ta Van, Su Pan, Suoi Thau, Ban Ho, Thanh Phu, Nam Sai, Nam Cang.

Lao Cai Province covers 6,383.9 square kilometers and is home to 626,200 people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Hmong, Tay, Dao and Thai. The capital is Lao Cai City. The main tourist town in Sapa. Districts: Muong Khuong, Bat Xat, Bac Ha, Bao Thang, Sapa, Bao Yen, Van Ban, Si Ma Cai.

Rice and corn are the main crops in Lao Cai and both are made into wine. San Lung wine is made from terraced rice and forest medicinal herbs. Corn-based bac ha wines warms the whole body. The staple food for many people is “men men” — steamed corn powder often served with cabbage, chicken or pea soup. Chinese-influenced dishes include “khau nhuc” (pork mixed with sour vegetables and meiicianl plants), and “chae siew” (big chunks of fried meat). A wide variety of tribal clothes and crafts are available as souvenirs.

Traveling in the Sapa Area

The first thing you notice when approaching Sapa in the morning are some detached wooden mansions and villas perched on a hilltop or hillside, behind thick pine forests and almost invisible on this foggy morning. Old and new villas with red roofs now appear and now disappear in the green rows of pomu trees, bringing the town the beauty of European towns. Fresh and cool air in Sapa is an idea climate condition for growing temperate vegetables such as cabbage, chayote, precious medicinal herbs, and fruit trees such as plum and , pear

Sapa is home to various families of flowers of captivating colours, which can be found nowhere else in the country. When Tet, the Lunar New Year Festival, comes, the whole township of Sapa is filled with the pink colour of peach blossom brought from the vast forests of peach just outside the town. Sapa is regarded as the kingdom of orchids. Here, orchid lovers are even amazed by the choice, when trekking in the forest filled with several hundred kinds of orchids of brilliant colours and fantastic shapes, such as Orchid Princess, Orchid of My Fair Lady's Shoe. Some orchids are named after lovely singing birds such as the canary, salangane's nest, and more.

Sa Pa can be reached from Hanoi on a 12 hour train to Lao Cai that goes most nights both ways, getting you to your destination in the morning and saving you a night in a hotel. In the 1990s this train was hardseat only. In the early 2000s, new more comfortable sleeper carriages were added. The train now cost about $40 each way. Most tourists ride in compartments that have four sleeper beds. Bring some food and drinks. Most visitors take a bus for the 40 kilometers from Lao Cai through the lush green Hoang Lien mountains ("Tonkinese Alps") to get to Sa Pa. Many tourists arrange their tickets for the train at their hotel or at a travel agency in Hanoi. The ticket arrangement usually includes minibus transport to Sapa.

Traveling and Transportation in Vietnam: The easiest way to get most anywhere in Vietnam is through a tour organized in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City or another major tourist town. Usually you can work out something with the staff of your hotel. If you want to shop around there are plenty of tour agencies on the streets of the tourist areas or on the Internet. For long distances you are best taking a flight. Air Asia serves many places but the flights often originate in Kuala Lumpur. Vietnam Airlines, budget carrier VietJet Air and Jetstar Pacific Airlines, a unit of Vietnam Airlines, all operate domestic routes. The trains are okay but the destinations they service are limited. It is possible to take local buses and minibuses but traveling that way is hassle and time-consuming: you have to deal with language issues, scheduling, locating where the buses leave and often crowded, hot conditions on the buses.

Sapa Climate

Influenced by temperate and subtropical climate, the weather in Sapa is cool year round . The average temperature is 15ºC. May to August is rainy season. The average rainfall is 1,800 millimeters a year. In summer, the weather is not as hot as coastal delta area. Degree of heat is at night and 20ºC - 25 degrees C in day time. In winter, frog makes Sapa usually cold, the temprature may drop to 0 degrees C, and snow sometime falls.

Visitors to Sapa in summer can feel the climate of four seasons in one day. In the morning and afternoon, it is cool like the weather of spring and autumn. At noon, it is as sunny and cloudless as the weather of summer. And it is cold in the evening. With no advance warning of a thunderstorm short and heavy rains may come at noon on any summer day. Subsequently, a rainbow appears.

The best time to witness the scenic beauty of Sapa is in April and May. Before that period, the weather might be cold and foggy; after that period is the rainy season. In April and May, Sapa is blooming with flowers and green pastures. The clouds that settle in the valley In the early morning quickly disappear into thin air. Apricot, plum and cherry flowers are splendidly beautiful. Markets are crowded and merry, and are especially attractive to visitors. Minority groups come here to exchange and trade goods and products.

Sapa Love Market

Sapa Love Market (in Sapa Town) takes place every Saturday night and attracts mainly tourists and members of the Hmong and Red Dao minorities. The market is a place for trading and exchanging local goods and products, as well as a meeting place for young people who seek partners by singing love songs and playing pan-pipes and mouth organs.

Traditionally, when the sun goes down, the Hmong and Red Dao boys and girls cluster together in groups of five to ten. Looking and smiling at each other, they sit side by side in the dim yellow light and sing and talk through the night. When they have met their soul mate, they exchange gifts and make plans to see each other again the following week. This cultural activity has a long history and is still significant in the modern life of the minority people. The Sapa Market is an attractive place for visitors who are keen on exploring traditional cultures.

The Miao (name for the Hmong in China) practice what is called free marriage. A free marriage relationship is established step by step through "roaming around" (also called "Yaomalang", "Zuomei", "visiting villages", "meeting girls", "Wanbiao", "stepping the moon" depending on the place) and singing love songs in an antiphonal style. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, ~]

“Roaming around” is usually held at big festivals like the Miao New Year, the New Product Eating Festival, the Slope-Climbing Festival, and slack seasons in farming. It takes place at fixed site, such as slope or clearing near a villages, riverbanks and reed pipe playing ground. When the time comes, young men from different villages come together near the young women's villages, and whistle or blow leaves or reed-pipes as a signal to invite girls to the roaming site. Traditionally, many Hmong played a leaf — usually a banana leaf — by curling it up and positioning it in the mouth so it vibrates when blown to make a loud, high pitched sound. When they hear the signal, girls who want to join dress themselves in their best clothes and go to the roaming site. The young fellows welcome girls with passionate songs, and antiphonal singing (alternate singing by two choirs or singers) begins between men and women. A song called the "Marrying Fellows of Our Village" goes:

AFP reported: For generations, young people from the patchwork of ethnic minority groups in northern Vietnam have gone to the local town of Sapa on a Saturday night to find their future spouse. "It was so exciting. I wanted to see if I would meet any nice girls," traditional Hmong musician Giang A Vang, 50, said of his first visit to the love market three decades ago. One girl in particular stood out from the crowd. "When I saw her for the first time I was playing my violin. I asked her if she liked it, if she liked me. I was a little nervous," he said. Fortunately, his affections were returned. For the next few weeks, he came back to the market to meet his sweetheart Vang Thi Xo and play music together as part of a Hmong courtship ritual — him on a traditional violin and she playing a leaf. The pair soon married and have been together ever since. "I was a very lucky man to meet her in the market, but I think she was lucky to meet me too!" Vang said. [Source: AFP, August 9, 2014]

Sapa Love Market Decline and Tourism

AFP reported: While the influx of tourists “has brought a measure of prosperity and development, it also has negatively affected local customs and traditions, Vang Thi Xo said. "The love market is very special for me as it was how I could meet a good husband like him," she said. "Now I don't like it, as people are playing music just for fun, for the tourists to get money, and we are losing part of our culture." "Now people just perform — they aren't doing it for real," she said sadly.[Source: AFP, August 9, 2014]

For Ly Thi Do, 52, of the Black Hmong tribe, the love market has become “a joke". "Before all the tourists, when I was young, when we still used to grow opium and pan gold in the rivers, the market was just for locals," she said. "Now it's a business... everyone comes to make money and sell trinkets." "So many Vietnamese tourists came and they gave money to (ethnic minority) couples who were playing music to each other at the love market," said Ly Thi My, 54, a Hmong woman who met her husband there.

“But it is not just tourism that has transformed the local tribes' traditions. Mobile phones and Internet have also played a part, My said. As more young people attend schools or work in Sapa for tourism they do not really need the love market or arranged marriages, which were also once traditional in the area, said musician Vang. "They might meet a boyfriend or girlfriend in the village, or in town... they choose for themselves," he said. "I want my children to find their own husband and wife — it is better that way." "Before, the boy would whistle outside the girl's house and she would come and play a leaf to show she was interested," she said, describing traditional Hmong courtship rituals. "Now they have mobile phones!" she said. “It is too easy now. It was a nice challenge to find love before. I would prefer to go back 20 years."

"The Hmong culture is very strong. If they want to change, they change," said Chris Carnovale, a tourism instructor at Canada's Capilano University who manages a project in the Sapa area helping ethnic minority groups learn how to offer homestays to tourists. Because Sapa has become so popular with Vietnamese tourists from the lowlands, “the love market has evolved" with it becoming more of a meeting point for tourists than locals, he said. "There are still true Hmong love markets — but I'm not telling you when and where," he said. "Tourism has been here for 100 years... It's somewhat disrespectful to say tourism has changed the ethnic minorities' culture."

But even at the original love market in Sapa, amidst the throngs of camera-touting Vietnamese and foreign tourists, some young locals still come looking for a relationship. Ha Ngasu, 26, a farmer, has been to the love market several times to look for a wife. "My parents met at the love market, so I've come here as well," he told AFP as he sat next to his date for the evening, Giang Thi Si, 16. The pair — who had seen each other in their village but never spoken — spent the evening at the love market chatting and enjoying the live music — now amplified and on a stage purpose-built by local authorities for tourism. "I like being with him here," said Si. “I'm not sure it is love but I do like him a bit."

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village (two kilometers from Sapa Town) is a Hmong village set up to display and make money from customs and practices of the Hmong. It is also a good starting point for treks through the rice terraces around Sapa. The Hmong girls that hang out in Sapa town can serve as your guide.

Visitors can see young women sitting by looms with colorful pieces of brocade decorated with designs of flowers and birds. When these pieces of brocade are finished, they are dyed and embroidered with beautiful designs. A noteworthy fact is that Hmong women use plants and leaves to dye these brocade fabrics. And then they roll a round and smooth section of wood covered with wax on fabrics to polish them, making their colors durable. In addition to the brocade weaving craft, many residents in Cat Cat are good at manipulating gold and silver jewelry. Their products are fairly sophisticated, especially jewelry for women.

Tourists to Cat Cat are most attracted by its unique customs, including the custom of “pulling wife”. A man can ask his friends to lure a girl he likes to his house and keeps her there for three days. During these days, if the girl agrees to become his wife, a wedding will be held. However, the girl can happily go home after three days if she does not like him.

Traditional houses of Hmong people in Cat Cat have three rooms with three doors and are covered with po mu wood roof. In the house there are three columns that stand in round or square stones. The walls are made from sawn timber. The main door is always closed and only opened when people in the house organize important events. Altars, inlaid floors containing food, places for sleeping, kitchen and receiving guests are indispensable parts of the houses.

Ancient Carved Stones of Sapa

Sapa Ancient Rock Field (Muong Hoa Valley, Hau Thao Commune, Sapa District) is an eight square kilometers with large multi-grade rocks engraved with ancient images. It lies in between the terraced rice paddies of ethnic minority groups. The first exploration research, in 1925, recorded that there were 200 stones of various dimensions concentrated in the area. Hon Bo, which is 15 meters long and six meters high, is the biggest of theses rocks. The engravings on the surfaces of the stone are either pictographic or decorative. Remarkably, among the engravings are drawings of humans, stilt-houses of the ethnic minorities and symbols believed to be a primitive form of writing. But their meaning has not yet been deciphered. In addition, impressive images include a da chong (the husband stone), da vo (the wife stone), as well as stones that look like tigers and a stela with an incantation written on it by the carver to help his people defeat the tigers. The da chong and da vo tell the story of faithful love between a couple who overcame all difficulties to be together; even though they turned to stone, they are still dedicated to each other.

Area of Old Carved Stone in Sapa was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997 According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The area of old carved stone in SAPA lies mainly in the MUONG HOA valley where there are settlements of ethnic minority people in Sapa District, Lao cai Province, 350 km in the Noth-West of Hanoi. Carved stone here has been discovered since long time ago. ln 1925, a French scholar coming here discovered more than 30 pieces of stone that had been carved with various images, scattered along the HOA spring bank later, other scientists have come here to study the carved pieces of stone. [Source: Ministry of Culture and Information Government of Vietnam]

“Those prices of stone are found mainly on the North East bank of HOA spring, and they form a number of groups such as: the Su Pan commune group; the group Iying near the Pho village that includes the biggest carved piece of stance, called the "father piece" of 15 metres long and 6 metres high; the group Iying in the fields near the HAU THAO commune that has 20 carved pieces of stone, big and small; the group in LAO CHAI commune on the bank of the HAO spring and near the forest, that in cludes the "Mother piece" of carved stone.

”Until now, researchers have discovered more than 200 prices of stone carved with different images, among them the big ones (more than 2 or 3 metres) have often complicated designs. Most of the prices of stone having complicated designs are near the old worshipping area of Thai ethnic- group (Pho village Ta Van comrnune). The pieces of stone are carved with images of different pattems. For instance some are carved with the image of the MUONG HOA valley and the HOA spring surrounded by fields running alternately with zigzagging roads leading to housing areas.”

”About the authors of those works, there are opinions underlining that those pieces of stone have been carved by the old VIET people, or ethnic groups near to the old VIET people. At present remain here a number of legends about the "Father piece" and "Mother piece" of stone related to inhabitants of areas Iying at the mountains foot coming here to find new settlements. However the problem of determination of the real authors of those works is still to be solved. Any violation influencing the natural landscape, or each piece of stone, is forbidden and checked.”

Images and Patters Area of Old Carved Stone in Sapa

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “The most common patterns are images of mountains, hills and fields. There are also many images of men and women, in different positions, some diving from high places, other stretching their arms with light rays spreading from there heads, many men wearing hats similar to sparkling stars, many women with pointed hats,..etc... There are also images of human beings with the sexual organs enlarged or clearly and deeply carved, and images of men and women in copulation.[Source: Ministry of Culture and Information Government of Vietnam]

“In some pieces of stone, we can find images of houses, following the pattem of house on silts with the form of boat, with curved roof, reminding the image of houses on the DONG SON bronze drums. Other images include the images of the sun, of wheels, of rectangles, squares, spirals, parallel lines..ect...

”In particular, number of researchers have raised the hypothesis of traces of 3 kinds of writing system, following the pattern of pictorial writing with straight and curved lines. There are writing systems almost similar to the pictographs of HAN people, reminding the writing systems found on amulets and talismans of TAY ethnic- group and DAO ethnic- group, but they are not TAY characters. The discovery of the 3 above kinds of writing system on carved pieces of stone makes more complicated the determination of the authour of those works. May be those authors belong to many different ethnic minorities and have achieved their works in different times.

”In studying those works, we find that the images carved on stone have not any factor of the HAN culture and style. Therefore we think that those works had been achieved before that those works had been achieved before the time the HAN culture infiltrated this area. About 20 kilometers far from the HOA spring valley is the CAM DUONG area, one of the places on the way of march to the South by HAN people at the beginning of the Christian era Researchers estimate that those pieces of stone have been carved at least since the first years of the Christian are, nearly 2000 years ago.”

Trekking Around Sapa

Around Sapa, there are spectacular rice terraces, mountains, waterfalls, and numerous hill tribe villages. Natural sites include Ham Rong Mountain, Silver Waterfall, Rattan Bridge, Bamboo Forest and Ta Phin Cave. For ideas on hikes and treks get a copy of the local guidebook by Leigh Stubblefield, available at local shops. Local tour groups sponsor trips. Be prepared for rain and cold weather.

Sapa is the starting point for climbers who want to reach the top of Fansipan Mountain, the highest mountain in Vietnam at 3,143 meters (10,300 feet). Hoang Lien Mountain Range is also called the Alps of the North Sea area since Fansipan Mountain is not only the highest peak in Vietnam, but also in the Indochina Peninsula. The pyramid-shaped mountain is covered with clouds all year round and temperatures often drop below zero, especially at high elevations. Even though the summit is only six miles away from Sapa as the crow flies, it can take a couple of days to reach on foot. In 2001, a 17-year-old British girl fell to her death after falling down a 500-meter-high cliff after she slipped on a tree root in the pouring rain while climbing Fan Si Pan. She was on a “Challenge of a Life” trip for high-school-age kids.

There are also treks to Hmong villages that pass through deforested hills, rice terraces, and villages with water buffalos and pigs. The flower Hmong wear round floral headdresses and hand-embroidered panel aprons. The Red Zao wear pastel blouses and long black skirts. The “black” Hmong have dark indigo leg wrappings and short belted dresses. Hmong children can sometimes be relentless in their pursuit of selling embroidered pillows to visitors. Elephant rides can be arranged for $10.

Ham Rong Mountain (center of Sapa Townlet) is an attractive tourist area. Legend has it that in the distance past, all animals lived together in a chaotic environment. One day, the Jade Emperor gave an order that every species of animal had to find for them an area to live. Having heard the order, they scrambled for a place to reside. The three brothers of dragon who were living in a large lake hurriedly ran to the east but could not find any place; they then ran to the west. The two older brothers ran fast and came to the destination first. The youngest brother ran slowly and strayed into the crowds of lions, tigers and big cats. Fearing that these animals would attack it, the dragon opened its mouth to defense itself. At that time, the order of Jade Emperor was no longer available, so the three dragons petrified. The two older dragons, which were waiting for their brother, face Lao Cai City, and the youngest one raising its head and opening mouth faces the Hoang Lien Mountain Range. So the mountain is named Ham Rong (Jaw of Dragon).Visitors to Ham Rong have chances to climb up the San May (Cloud Yard) to enjoy the panorama of Sapa Townlet, visit the orchid gardens with beautiful and colorful flowers. In addition, Ham Rong Mountain has numerous caves and stones in extraordinary shapes.

Fansipan Mountain, the Highest Mountain in Vietnam

Fansipan Mountain (nine kilometers south-west of Sapa Townlet in the Hoang Lien Mountain Range) has been branded "the Roof of Indochina." At the height of 3,143 meters it is the highest mountain in Vietnam and the highest peak of the Indochina Peninsula. Myanmar has some taller mountains. The topography of Fansipan is varied. Muong Hoa Valley, at the lowest altitude (950-1,000 meters), is created by a narrow strip of land at the base on the east side of the mountain.

Geologists say the Hoang Lien Mountain Range, with Fansipan as its highest peak, did not emerge in the mountainous northwest of Vietnam until the neozoic period 100 million years ago. Fansipan, a rough pronunciation of the local name "Hua Xi Pan" means "the tottery giant rock". The French came to Vietnam and in 1905 planted a landmark telling Fansipan's height of 3,143 meters and branded it "the Roof of Indochina". Very few people climbed to the top of Fansipan at the time. Then came the long years of war and Fansipan was left deserted except for hunting. The trail blazed by the French was quickly overgrown by the underbrush.

Fansipan is home to 2,024 floral varieties and 327 faunal species. In 1991, Nguyen Thien Hung, an army man returned to the district town and decided to conquer the mountain. Only on the 13th attempt did Hung, with a Hmong boy as his guide, conquer the high peak.

The summit of Fansipan is accessible all year round, but the best time to make the ascent is from mid-October to mid-November, and again in March. Foreigners are best to book Fansipan tours between October and December, as this period is more often than not free from the heavy rains. But the Vietnamese prefer their tours to the peak of the mountain from February to April, as it is not so cold then. However, the best time for the trek to the mountain is from the end of February to the start of March, when the flowers all flourish and the climbers may behold the carpets of brilliant blossoms, violets and orchids, rhododendrons and aglaias. Can take six or seven days to reach the 3,143 meters summit,

Climbing Fansipan Mountain

Pham Le wrote in the Saigon Times Daily, “Trekkers have to prepare enough food for at least three days. It is simply impossible to get to the top within a day. Very important for the journey is also hiring a guide. The only way to get up is on foot and with the guidance of locals who know the paths and the weather well. Although daring adventurers could conquer Fansipan by themselves without guide, this is very dangerous. You may get lost or take a lot of time, running out of food. [Source: Pham Le, Saigon Times Daily, June 27, 2006]

“Once everything is ready, hikers can hit on the road, and there is much to see. Thousands of plants, including rare trees, grow on the mountain. A lot jackfruit trees sprout at the foot. Higher up, around 700 meters above sea level, is a natural forest with many creepers growing thickly and pomu, a regional tree as big as two or three bear hugs and very tall. A good time for the adventure is around late February because all kinds of flowers in the mountainous region begin to blossom then. Most hikers cannot help stopping to catch their breath and gaze in amazement at the natural beauty on the way. Among the plants are many types of rhododendron, growing densely and brightly in the region. Some ethnic minority groups even call Fansipan rhododendron mountain.

“Fansipan does not welcome those who are frail and have a weak will! Needless to enumerate all the hardships along the road; suffice to say conquerors have to walk in line, one after one, holding on fast to wet trees along the path. At some point you must trek through thick forests and pass through waterfalls with much water rushing from very high up. Other times, hikers must walk near an abyss, so deep that their hair will stand on end, or use a robe to climb up the rock.

“Because of the high altitude the weather is very cold. So even if hikers are tired and exhausted, their guides don’t let them rest for long because of the cold. Meals are an exception. A hot bowl of rice soup tastes even better during a strenuous hike and in the cold weather. A small foot massage can also bring relief. Because of the difficulties, quite a few people give up half way up the mountain! But persisting is worth it. The higher you get, the more clouds mix into the forest, giving hikers the feeling that they can catch the clouds with their hands. Also, the higher conquerors reach, the more beautiful the landscapes are.

“At the height of some 2,800 meters, the sky will be blue and clear. Winds blow from all directions. Even higher, trekkers will see a milestone marking the year of 1905, when some French reached the peak of this mountain. Then hikers see a very big stone to show them that they are standing at the height of 3,143 meters. That is the top of Fansipan! Adventure lovers can contact travel agencies in the town of Sapa for more information. Climbing the mountain costs around VND2.5 to VND3 million per person, including help from a guide and porters, and food for the journey.”

Places in the Sapa Area

Bac Ha Market (about 80 kilometers from downtown Sapa) is a trading center and meeting place for couples, friends, and relatives. Every Sunday, Bac Ha hosts the biggest fair near the mountainous highlands and the Chinese border. It is a typical weekly activity for the Hmong and other minority groups living in the locality. Local products for sale or barter are carried on horseback. At the fair, adventurous gastronomes can try thang co blood porridge, a popular dish of the Hmong and other local people. Bac Ha Market is in Bac Ha District, Lao Cai Province; There are many trees around Bac Ha, and in the spring the countryside is white with blossoms.

Hoang A Tuong Castle (in Na Hoi Tho Hamlet, Bac Ha District, Lao Cai Province; 300 meters from Bac Ha Market) is a unique building, which harmonizes the Oriental and Western architectural styles. The castle was built at the beginning of the 20th century (between 1914 and 1921). Its owner was Hoang Yen Chao of Tay origin. He was the father of Hoang A Tuong, a tribal mandarin under the domination of the French colonialists.

The castle covers an area of 4,000 meters in which the main building occupies 420 meters. In front of its arched doors are earthen banks. Occupying a pivotal position overlooking the Bac Ha valley, the castle serves both as the residence of Hoang Yen Chao, then Hoang A Tuong and as a fortress. Its network of walls, bunkers, and battlements were reinforced by a mortar mixed with sugar molasses. In a distance, the white castle jutting out from the valley looks imposing and majestic. At present, this castle is being restored.


HA GIANG PROVINCE (320 kilometers north of Hanoi) covers 7,945.8 square kilometers and is home to 735,800 people (2010). The largest ethnic groups in the province are the Viet (Kinh), Tay, Dao, Hmong and San Diu. The capital is Ha Giang City. Districts: Dong Van, Meo Vac, Yen Minh, Quan Ba, Bac Me, Hoang Su Phi, Vi Xuyen, Xin Man, Bac Quang, Quang Binh. Located at the highest latitude in Vietnam, Ha Giang is surrounded by Cao Bang on the east, Tuyen Quang on the south, Lao Cai, and Yen Bai on the west. It shares a border with China in the north (274 kilometers boundary).

Ha Giang's complicated topography is divided into 3 areas. The area on the south has rocky mountain, separated rivers. The west area has sloping mountain side, high pass, valleys, and narrow springs. The low land area includes hills, valley of Lo River, and Ha Giang City. The climate is divided in two distinct seasons, rainy and dry, although it tends to vary depending on altitude. The annual average temperature varies between 24 and 28 degrees C. In winter, the temperature is sometimes down to -5 degrees C.

Sights in Ha Giang Province: Mountains in Ha Giang are quite high, in which the highest Tay Con Linh point is 2,419 meters in height. There are rich forests woods, with over 1000 kinds of valuable drug trees and animals such as tigers, peacocks, phoenix and pangolins. Tourist attractions include the Dong Van Highland, Love Market of Khau Vai. They can buy embroidery such as handkerchief, haversack, and dress with colorful, fine pattern and enjoy the market days of ethnic groups. Getting There: Ha Giang City is 320 kilometers from Hanoi. Ha Giang is on National Highway No.2, 34, 279 linking to Yen Bai, Cao Bang, Lao Cai provinces in turn.

Travel in Ha Giang Province

Bui Quynh Hoa wrote in Viet Nam News, “The sounds of pan-flutes and of Mong children resound across the northern province of Ha Giang, nestled amidst mountains and river valleys. At the highest latitude in Viet Nam, Ha Giang is home to 23 ethnic minorities, including the Mong, Tay, Nung, Bo Y, Lo Lo and Pa Then. The area is characterized by limestone highlands, karst outcroppings and hospitable people. Tourism has not yet tainted its charms and it is an area rich in legend. [Source: Bui Quynh Hoa, Viet Nam News, August 2008]

When visiting, the site of the Lo River is a good place to start. It flows gently through the mountains and past Mong stilt houses, which are hidden up the slope of the land, obscured by trees. Though beautiful, getting to Meo Vac District is extremely harrowing. Only 150 kilometers from Ha Giang Town, the trip can exceed eight hours. High passes, steep drops, deep ravines and razor sharp turns force vehicles to a crawl through the cloud-covered roads. From the mountain ridge, Meo Vac looks like a chessboard, new steel-roofed houses dotting the green of the land below.

One of the things that sets Meo Vac apart is its famed Khau Vai Love Market or Phong Luu Love Market, which local elders say originated in 1919. In the market area there are two temples: Ong (Mr) and Ba (Mrs). The legend is that once a boy and girl were born in different places in Dong Van Plateau. The boy’s surname was Linh and the girl’s, Loc. They loved each other very much despite the deep rivers and rocky mountains, which often kept them apart. Their families forbid their marriage and so they fled together to Khau Vai, where they began cultivating the land. They did not have a child, but they lived happily until death. In honor of their efforts in converting the wild into rich cropland, the local people built two temples.

On every lunar March 26th and 27th, Khau Vai attracts couples of varying ages, including those seeking partners. Those that come in greatest numbers are the couples, very much in love, whose marriages are prohibited. On the day of the market, both the wives and husbands also attend together, but once there, they look for other partners. If one of them has to stay home on market day, jealousy is supposedly not an issue because marketplace dating is considered to be a purely emotional exchange. But even for those not interested in love at all, the festival still holds some allure. With food and drink, performances, folk games, and displays of ethnic dress, jewellery, musical instruments and art, there’s a little something for everyone.

Ma Pi Leng Pass, located between Meo Vac and Dong Van, is another regional highlight. The pass stretches around 15 kilometers along the side of a stunning mountain range. It parallels a section of the Nho Que River, which curves in a thin silver stream below. People come to the area for the cliffs and the mountain view, particularly at this time of year when the sun clears away the cloud cover and the landscape stretches forth unobscured. Ma Pi Leng peak, also called Heaven’s Gate, is the best place to watch a sunset. Looking down over the terraced fields and farmers, toy-like from such a height, once can understand why. Tens of thousands of workers from 16 ethnic minority groups built the road between Dong Van and Meo Vac, the so-called “Road to Happiness”, from 1959 to 1965, despite the back-breaking nature of the work, the difficulty of slicing through ravines.

Dong Van District is equally stunning, a stark plateau covered with jagged rocks. Crucial to the daily lives of local people, the rocks are used to form houses, fences, mills and benches. Silky green corn, yellow cai (kale) flowers and violet radish flowers dot the rugged landscape. Here a living must literally be scraped out as people live off the very rocks upon which they sit. Though the work is hard, the people are not and on Dong Van market day lines of Dao, Mong and other ethnic groups converge. The old and young greet one another after their long journeys shouldering bamboo baskets of rice and vegetables or carting livestock. Many of the ethnic people, especially young girls, dress in colourful costumes for their journey and adults carry their children to eat regional dishes. Mong youngsters drink wine, khen (pan-flutes) sound and cheeks redden. As the sun sets, couples rise and help each other sway towards home.

Dong Van District is well known for its ancient streets, its old Mong houses made of clay bricks and tile roofs. But the district is also home to the royal palace of Vuong Chinh Duc, who was once considered to be the king of the Mong ethnic people in Ha Giang Province and ruled a vast area from the province’s Dong Van Plateau to Meo Vac Town in the early 20th century. Dubbed Vua Meo (King of the Mong people), he was also the founder of the famous Vuong Dynasty, the largest in the province at the time. Named Vuong Palace, his home was built of stone, fir wood and terra cotta tiles in ancient Chinese style typical of the Qing era. Though it seems out of place, the palace itself is interesting almost because of this incongruity.

Today, no one lives at the 1,120 square meter palace. It is maintained and managed by the Government and open to those interested in learning more about the period. The Vuong Palace tour moves through 64 rooms divided into front, center and back areas. According to a local tour guide, the palace is unique in that it was built on a tortoise shell-shaped site, chosen by a Chinese fortune-teller under the order of Vuong Chinh Duc, who believed it would bring luck, wealth and happiness for him and family.

From there, one can also visit Lung Cu flagpole, Viet Nam’s northernmost point, 1,800 meters above sea level. Situated on the border between Viet Nam and China is the Dong Van-Lung Cu Plateau. In this area, there is a mountain named Rong (Dragon) whose peak, Lung Cu Peak, is marked by the flag station, a sacred symbol of Viet Nam. The huge, 54 square meter flag on Lung Cu Peak represents on 54 groups of people of Viet Nam, and the area offers a truly spectacular view.

Ha Giang provincial authorities say local life in the highlands has improved since the adoption of State projects 134 and 135, which target hunger eradication, poverty reduction and the establishment of basic infrastructure in the region. “Although local living standards have improved considerably, we want to continue to maintain the speed of development,” said Nguyen Truong To, chairman of the Ha Giang Provincial People’s Committee. The provincial tourism industry has already gained encouraging results.

“The number of tourists visiting Ha Giang Province keeps increasing – from 46,582 in 2003 to 165,838 in 2007,” said Nguyen Hong Hai, deputy director of Ha Giang Province’s Culture, Sports and Tourism Department. “This has raised the provincial income from tourism from VND44.7 billion (US$2.6 million) in 2001 to VND135 billion ($7.9 million) in 2007. “At present, we have nine national heritage sites and two others at the provincial level, so paying attention to boosting tourism is a key task,” Hai said. Along with provincial efforts to improve locals’ lives and develop tourism, Ha Giang provincial authorities are trying to promote Dong Van Plateau for its beauty.

Dong Van Karst Plateau Geo-park

Covering the entirety of the four mountainous districts of Ha Giang Province, including: Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Meo Vac and Dong Van. It is the first geological park of Viet Nam recognized as a member of the Global Geo-parks Network and was declared a UNESCO Global Geological Park. To get there from Ha Giang City, visitors travel on National Highway 4C for 43 kilometers to Quan Ba. Continuing on this highway through Can Ty Pass, pine forests, steep drops, deep ravines, and razor sharp turns, visitors will reach to the karst plateau.

Located on an altitude of 1,000 meters-1,600 meters, the 2,350 square kilometers-Dong Van Karst Plateau is one of Viet Nam's special limestone areas, housing prominent imprints that depict the development of the earth's crust. Up to 80 percent of the karst formations of Dong Van Plateau are limestone formed by environment conditions and different development stages of nature.

A survey conducted by scientists from the Viet Nam Institute of Geosciences and Natural Resources revealed the finding of 13 fossil - geological formations in Dong Van, including Chang Pung, Lutxia, Sika, Lang Xang, Si Phai, Toc Tat, Lung Nam, Bac Son, Dong Dang, Song Hien, Hong Ngai, Mia Le and Lan Pang. Of which, Chang Pung is the oldest one with date of 545 millions years. In addition, 19 paleontology groups were also discovered in Dong Van, including Brachiopoda (Tay cuon), Trilobita (Bo ba thuy), Gastropoda (Chan bung), Foraminifera (Trung lo), Cephalopoda (Chan dau), Crinoidea (Hue bien), Tentaculies (Vo non), Conodonta (Rang non), Tabulata (San ho vach day), Tetracoralla (San ho bon tia), Stromatoporoidea (Lo tang), Spirulina (Tao), Bryozoans (Dong vat dang reu), Hydrilla verticillata (Thuc vat thuy sinh), Sclerotesta (Vo cung), Polybranchiaspis liaojiaoshanensis (Ca co), Pelecypoda (Chan riu), Ancient Crustacean (Giap xac co) and Chitinozoa. The paleontology groups have helped scientists draw a complete picture of development history in terms of geology of Dong Van Karst Plateau in particular and northeast Viet Nam and south China in general.

Thanks to weather changes and Dong Van's geo-diversity, the karst evolution has created "rock gardens" and "rock forests" of diverse forms in the area, such as Khau Vai rock garden (Meo Vac) where you can contemplate the peaks of rocks in the shape of different kinds of flowers, Lung Pu rock garden (Meo Vac) with animal-shaped rocks such as tiger and dragon, Van Chai rock garden (Dong Van) with round flagstones arranged like thousands of black sea lions leaning one another getting some rest on the beach. However, found commonly here are ranges of mountains running one after another to form pyramids heading up to skies. A system of caves and grottos found in the Dong Van Plateau provides a proof of the evolution of karst with Rong Cave in Sang Tung (Dong Van), Kho My Cave in Tung Vai (Quan Ba), En Grotto in Van Chai (Dong Van).

The scientists have evaluated Dong Van Plateau as having a unique and diverse mountainous geo-ecosystem. Primitive forests here have been rather undamaged, habiting many rare floral species, including Burretiodendron hsienmu (Nghien), Taxus Wallichiana Zucc (Thong do), Amentotaxus hatuyenensis (De tung soc nau), Cephalotaxus hainanensis (Dinh tung), Podocarpus pilgeri Foxw (Thong tre la ngan), Cupressus funebris (Hoang dan ru).., especially over 40 species of orchids. Dong Van Plateau also has a rich diversity of habitat for fauna as scientists have spotted over 50 species of wild animals, birds and reptiles in the site such as Capri conrnis sumatresis (Son duong), Rhinopithecus avunculus (Vooc mui hech), Sus cristatus (Lon rung), Garrulax canorus (Hoa mi)...

Besides geological, geomorphology and scenic values, Dong Van Karst Plateau reflects traditional cultural richness of 17 ethnic minority groups, such as Mong, Dao, Lo Lo, Tay, Nung. These ethnic minorities have lived with the rocks. Here, the rock gardens dotted with green corn fields and golden rice fields. In addition Pho Bang, Dong Van, Lung Cu, Sa Phin markets coupled with time-honored ethnic festivals, rituals, customs and culture of local inhabitants weight the plateau's unique charm.

Visiting Dong Van Plateau in the spring, you are hit by wonderful landscapes composed by yellow cai (kale) flowers and pink peach flowers in full blossom, mossy tiled roofs of stilt houses, dark green rocks and blue skies. Far in deep valleys covered by pure white plum flowers in full blossom hear remote sounds of khen (pan-flutes) of Mong people. The season covers rugged rocks and mountain peaks with its bright colors.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated October 2022

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