Sa Pa is a frontier township and capital of Sa Pa District in Lào Cai Province in north-west Vietnam, 380 km northwest of Hanoi close to the border with China. It was first inhabited by people about whom nothing is known. They left in the entire valley hundreds of petroglyphs, mostly composed of lines, which experts think date from the 15th century and represent local cadasters. Then came the highland minorities of the Hmong and Yao. The township is one of the main market ones in the area, where several ethnic minority groups such as Hmong, Dao (Yao), Giáy, Pho Lu, and Tày live. 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 Fansipan, 3143 m, the highest peak in the country.
It was only when the French debarked in highland Tonkin in the late 1880s that Sa Pa, name of the Hmong hamlet, with “S” is pronounced almost as hard as “Ch” in French, “Sh” in English, “S” in standard Vietnamese, so Chapa as the French called it, began to appear on the national map. Near to the now Sa Pa townlet is “Sa Pả commune”, which shows the origin in Hmong language of the location name.
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 township 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.
Sa Pa 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 Sa Pa Province was elected to The Communist Party Central Committee as the youngest ever member (born in 1973).
The town of Sa Pa lies at an elevation of about 1500 meters (4,921 feet) elevation. The climate is moderate and rainy in summer (May—August), and foggy and cold with occasional snowfalls in winter. 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 percent) there are mainly five ethnic groups in Sa Pa: Hmong 52 percent, Dao 25 percent, Tay five percent, Giay two percent, and a small number of Xa Pho. Approximately 7,000 live in Sa Pa, the other 36,000 being scattered in small communes throughout the district.
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 Sa Pa 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 is 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.
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 Hoàng Liên 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 world’s 14 “biomes” (distinct biographic areas), producing an assemblage of plant and animal species unique in the world.
In 2014, Sa Pa ranked number nine in the top 10 rice terrace destinations of the world by SpotCoolStuff.