Sa Pa’s greatest attractions are the brightly-dressed ethnic minorities that live in the region and the spectacular scenery that characterizes the region. Most visitors to the town plan to do some trekking in order to see something of both these attractions, but this activity is only fun in good weather.
Sa Pa’s climate is somewhat unpredictable, and it’s not unusual to find the town swathed in mist for days on end, but the best times for trekking are usually March-May and September-December, when hopefully you’ll be able to avoid rain and very low temperatures.
Sa Pa Market
People of the ethnic minorities come to town any day of the week to the market, which is a colourful affair both for the dress of the buyers and sellers but also the produce on display.
It’s definitely worth a look, but you’re better off going on a weekday, since at weekends tourists often outnumber locals. This also means that prices can be higher as boatloads of camera-totting Japanese and American tourist have a incendiary effect on stall holders fiscal aspirations.
The popularity of the weekend market is because visitors hope to see something of the ‘love market’, in which teenagers from minority groups look for a mate. Needless to say, this is an activity that is best done with some privacy, so many visitors are disappointed that they see no quaint courtship rituals.
Trekking in Sa Pa
If you plan to join a trek, it’s a good idea to get in shape by taking the short but steep walk up to the radio tower above town. On a clear day this is rewarded by clear views, and by the time you’re back down, you should know whether a longer trek is possible.
While it’s possible to go trekking without a guide, the experience is likely to be much more rewarding if you join an organised trek and stay in the basic houses of the minority groups along the way and learn something of local cuisine by joining them for meals.
Popular villages to visit for trekking groups are Cat Cat, located just three kilometre down into the valley from Sa Pa. This is a Black Hmong village, while north of town at Ta Phin is a Red Dao village, where locals hawk handicrafts and home-made beer.
The most challenging trek is to the summit of Mt Fansipan (3,143m), from where there are fine views on a clear day, but sadly two days out of three are not clear. For something a bit easier, catch a ride to the Tram Ton Pass about 15kms from Sa Pa and enjoy the view from 1,900 metres. Nearby is a roadside waterfall called Thac Bac (Silver Falls).
Other Markets by Sa Pa
Far more impressive than Sa Pa market are a couple that take place across the valley at Bac Ha and Can Cau, the former on a Sunday and the latter on a Saturday. The reason they are more impressive is simply because the local ethnic minority dress in the most eye-catching manner. The women wear embroidered tunics, aprons and leggings as well as colourful turbans that would steal the prize for fashion among the minority groups. To visit these markets, sign up for a bus tour in Sa Pa.