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History

Sapa, is a frontier town and capital of Sa Pa District in the Lao Cai province in northwest Vietnam. It was first inhabited by people we know nothing about. They left in the entire valley hundreds of petroglyphs, mostly composed of lines, which experts think date from the 15th century and represent local cadastres. Then came the highland minorities of the Hmong and Yao. The town is one of the main market ones in the area, where several ethnic minority groups such as Hmong, Dao (Yao), Giay, Pho Lu, and Tay live. groups, as well as by smaller numbers of Tày and Giay. These are the four main minority groups still present in Sa Pa district today. The Kinh (lowland Vietnamese) never originally colonised this highest of Việt Nam’s valleys, which lies in the shadow of Phan-Xi-Pǎng (Fansipan, 3143 m), the highest peak in the country.[1]Sapa,_church

 

 

The Catholic church in Sa Pa, built in stone in 1930

It was only when the French debarked in highland Tonkin in the late 1880s that Sa Pa, or Chapa (from Chinese Xa Pa, the “sandy place”), as the French called it, began to appear on the national map. In the following decade, the future site of Sa Pa town started to see military parties as well as missionaries from the Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) visit.[2] The French military marched from the Red River Delta into the northern mountainous regions as part of Tonkin’s ‘pacification’. In 1894-96 the border between China and Tonkin was formally agreed upon and the Sa Pa area, just to the south of this frontier, was placed under French authority. From 1891 the entire Lào Cai region, including Sa Pa, came under direct colonial military administration so as to curtail banditry and political resistance on the sensitive northern frontier.[3]

The first permanent French civilian resident arrived in Sa Pa in 1909. With its attractive continental climate, health authorities believed the site had potential. By 1912 a military sanatorium for ailing officers had been erected along with a fully fledged military garrison. Then, from the 1920s onwards, several wealthy professionals with enough financial capital also had a number of private villas built in the vicinity.

At the end of the Second World War a long period of hostilities began in Tonkin that was to last until 1954. In the process, nearly all of the 200 or so colonial buildings in or around Sa Pa were destroyed, either by Việt Minh sympathisers in the late 1940s, or, in the early 1950s by French air raids. The vast majority of the Viet population fled for their lives, and the former town entered a prolonged sleep.

In the early 1960s, thanks to the New Economic Zones migration scheme set up by the new Socialist regime, new inhabitants from the lowlands started to migrate to the region.

The short 1979 occupation of the northern border region by Chinese troops had little impact on Sa Pa town, but did force the Kinh (lowland Vietnamese) population out for a month.

In 1993 the last obstacle to Sa Pa’s full rebirth as a prominent holiday destination was lifted as the decision was made to open the door fully to international tourism. Sa Pa was back on the tourist trail again, this time for a newly emerging local elite tourist crowd, as well as international tourists.[4]

Sapa is now in full economic boom, mainly from the thousands of tourists who come every year to walk the hundreds of miles of trekking trails between and around the villages of Dao villages of Ta Van and Ta Phin.

In 2006, the Chairman of The People’s Committee of Sapa Province was elected to The Communist Party Central Committee as the youngest ever member (born in 1973).

Geography

Sa Pa District is located in Lao Cai Province, north-west Vietnam, and 380 km north-west of Hanoi, close to the border with China. The Hoang Lien Son range of mountains dominates the district, which is at the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. This range includes Vietnam’s highest mountain, Fan Si Pan, at a height of 3143 m above sea level. The town of Sa Pa lies at an altitude of about 1650 m. The climate is moderate and rainy in summer (May—August), and foggy and cold with occasional snowfalls in winter.

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View on the mountains from downtown Sapa

Sa Pa is a quiet mountain town and home to a great diversity of ethnic minority peoples. The total population of 36,000 consists mostly of minority groups. Besides the Kinh (Viet) people (15%) there are mainly 5 ethnic groups in Sapa: Hmong 52%, Dao 25%, Tay 5%, Giay 2% and a small number of Xa Pho. Approximately 7,000 live in Sapa, the other 36,000 being scattered in small communes throughout the district.

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Terraced fields in Sa Pa

Most of the ethnic minority people work their land on sloping terraces since the vast majority of the land is mountainous. Their staple foods are rice and corn. Rice, by its very nature of being a labour intensive crop, makes the daily fight for survival paramount. The unique climate in Sapa has a major influence on the ethnic minorities who live in the area. With sub-tropical summers, temperate winters and 160 days of mist annually, the influence on agricultural yields and health related issues are significant.

The geographical location of the area makes it a truly unique place for many interesting plants and animals, allowing it to support many inhabitants. Many very rare or even endemic species have been recorded in the region.

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Sa Pa townhall

The scenery of the Sa Pa region in large part reflects the relationship between the 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. On a clear day, the imposing peak of Fan Si Pan comes into view. The last major peak in the Himalayan chain, Fan Si Pan offers a real challenge to even the keenest walker, the opportunity of staggering views, and a rare glimpse of some of the last remaining primary rain forest in Vietnam.

Geology, climate and human activity have combined to produce a range of very distinct habitats around Sa Pa. Especially important is Sa Pa’s geographic position, at the convergence of the worlds 14 “biomes” (distinct biographic areas), producing an assemblage of plant and animal species unique in the world.

Climate

The climate of Hoang Lien National Park is unique to 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 common with the rest of northern Vietnam, Hoang Lien National Park experiences a marked wet season from May to September, with the heaviest rainfall occurring in July and August. Mean annual rainfall is 2,763mm, with a high of 4,023mm and a low of 2,064mm. Humidity ranges from 75 to 91 percent with a yearly mean of 86 percent.

Climate varies considerably within the national park. The prevalent wind direction for most of the year is west to east, leading to cloud formation on the upper slopes of the Fansipan massif. These high-altitude areas are covered by cloud most days of the year and have very high humidity. Cloud also penetrates into the valleys but these areas are usually less humid than the mountain slopes. In the extreme east of the national park, around Ban Ho village, mean temperatures are considerably higher due to the lower altitude of these areas.

Extreme temperatures have ranged from −6.1 °C (21.0 °F) to 33 °C (91.4 °F).[5]

 

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