The hotel boom in Sa Pa has changed the character of what was once a quiet French colonial hill town. The more than 100 hotels have kept prices competitive but also put a strain on the town's water and electricity supply.
Sa Pa – Fact Check

Revisiting the past in a transformed town

Photo by Asia

Sa Pa – Fact Check Revisiting the past in a transformed town

With Pang, a young Hmong guide, I explore Sa Pa in the hills of northern Vietnam. Now thronged with tourists, Sa Pa was once a quiet French colonial town.

Pim Verweij
Pim Verweij

As we walk across the central square, I see a small white church looming out of the mist. Patches of fog are pushed up from the valley below. The damp-darkened tower of this gothic Catholic church seems shrouded in mysteries of the past. Pang tells me it was built by the French in the 1930s. Ethnic groups have inhabited the area around Sa Pa for centuries but the town itself was established in 1909 by the French colonial administration.

Initially, it was a health resort for the French elite exhausted by a long stay in Vietnam. The bracing climate of the hill town was beneficial in treating all kinds of disorders. Much of it was destroyed during battles against the French in the 1940s but it was rebuilt and has gradually transformed into a tourist town after Vietnam opened its borders to foreigners in the 1990s.

It reminds me of a ski resort in the Alps, and many hotels have wooden balconies with wonderful mountain views. The clean fresh air and the incoming wisps of fog interspersed with bright sunlight make it unlike any other place in Vietnam, where heat and humidity are the norm.

While Sa Pa can no longer be considered a small hill station, with the church one of the few remnants of those former times, I do find some other memories of the past. Some crumbling French colonial villas still stand among the three- and four-story concrete hotels and guesthouses. As we continue our walk, we also pass a long stretch of local sellers offering all kinds of merchandise: dried herbs and mushrooms, homemade honey, flowers, and birds in small bamboo cages. These products are not meant for tourists, and I see only local people buying them.

This market area flows seamlessly into the main street, with its restaurants, street food, hotels, noisy bars, massage salons and mountain equipment shops, but there seems to be an invisible dividing line. Here, business goes on as if nothing has changed, while the rest of the town has transformed into the bustling tourist destination it is today.

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