Sa Pa is a frontier town and capital of Sa Pa District in the Lào Cai province in northwest Vietnam, 350 km north-west of Hanoi, close to the border with China. It is one of the main market towns in the area, where many ethnic minority groups such as H'mong, Dao (aka Zao) and Tay live.
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 29,000 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. Taro is also grown. Rice, by its very nature of being a labor 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 terraced fields 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 difficulties, including coughs, colds, and bronchial and respiratory problems that are commonplace throughout the community. Tourism has become a very important income supplement for many of the communes in the Sa Pa Valley.
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 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 millenia, 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.