Despite its huge and obvious appeal, Sapa retains great charm. Its beauty derives from the impressive natural setting high on a valley side with Fan Si Pan, Vietnam’s tallest mountain, either clearly visible or brooding in the mist. The huge scale of the Fan Si Pan range gives Sapa an Alpine feel and this impression is reinforced by haute savoie vernacular architecture with steep-pitched roofs, window shutters and chimneys. But, with an alluring blend of European and Vietnamese vegetation, the gardeners of Sapa cultivate their foxgloves and apricot trees alongside thickets of bamboo and delicate orchids, just yards above the paddy fields.
The true appeal of Sapa lies in the many trekking opportunities through the surrounding ethnic minority villages and beautiful scenery. A leisurely stroll through these villages could well be the highlight of a trip to Vietnam. It is a chance to observe rural life led in reasonable prosperity. Wet rice forms the staple income; weaving for the tourist market puts a bit of meat on the table. Here nature is kind, there is rich soil and no shortage of water. Again it’s possible to see how the landscape has been engineered to suit man’s needs. The terracing is on an awesome scale (in places more than 100 steps), the result of centuries of labour to convert steep slopes into level fields which can be flooded to grow rice. Any path chosen will lead to some hamlet or other and, in the late afternoon sun, the rice glows with more shades of green than you would have thought possible and the lengthening shadows cast the entire landscape into vivid three-dimensional relief – even through a camera lens