The misty mountains of Sapa are Northern Vietnam’s premier hiking destination and the best place in the country to meet people of the Hmong, Dao, Tay and Thai ethnic minorities decked out in their traditional regalia.
Sapa has been a favourite mountain retreat since the colonial French built a hill station here in the early 20th century to escape the sweltering heat of the lowlands. The fact it’s still one of the most popular destinations in Vietnam is testament to its sheer scenic power. This is the quintessential Asian landscape of mist-cloaked peaks, where lush green rice terraces climb the mountainsides and the greenery is only occasionally interrupted by the grey, pitched roofs of farming villages.
As bewitching as it is, the scenery is only half the attraction of Sapa (and it’s just as well, since those fabulous views are so often obscured by clouds). Visitors come here as much for the region’s cultural attractions as its natural ones: namely to visit the villages and markets of the local Hmong, Dao, Tay, Thai, Nung and Giay minorities. The locals here still typically wear traditional costume — the bright colours and intricate designs of which signify the roots and status of the wearer. To see people from so many different minorities gathered together for the region’s morning markets remains a remarkable sight, but in recent years the main market in Sapa town centre has become overtouristed. We prefer to dodge the crowds and get out into the mountains as quickly as possible, where you can hike or cycle from village to village through some of the most magnificent mountain scenery in Vietnam, spend your nights in local stilt houses, and witness traditional lifestyles unchanged for generations.