Sa Pa District is located in Lao Cai Province, north-west Vietnam, and 350 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 3142m above sea level. The town of Sa Pa lies at an altitude of about 1600 m. 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%) 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.
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 minority people can only yield one crop of rice annually, which leads to food shortfalls in many communes at specific times. This shortage of food contributes to malnutrition and other related health problems. The climatic conditions also contribute to many health issues including coughs, colds, and bronchial and respiratory problems that are commonplace throughout the community.
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 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.
Sa Pa was first inhabited by highland minorities of the Hmong and Yao groups, as well as by smaller numbers of Tày and Giay, these being 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 meters), the highest peak in the country.
It was only when the French debarked in highland Tonkin in the late 1880s that Sa Pa, or Chapa 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. 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.
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 sympathizers 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.