We first fell in love with the place years and years ago, when it was little more than a dusty crossroads in the mountains. You could start your treks right off the bus, and there was no feeling more glorious than wandering the peaks and valleys alone, discovering and exploring and meeting people along the way.
But as sometimes happens in relationships, Sapa changed. Let us be clear: not all change is bad. Both the new expressway from Hanoi and the new cable car to the top of Fansipan Mountain have made what used to be arduous journeys short and easy, allowing more people to experience the wonders of northern Vietnam, especially those who otherwise could not (the elderly, families with children, etc.)
With this accessibility comes huge increases in tourism, which brings in a lot of money for a region that used to be extremely poor. More tourists also means more infrastructure, and we’ve witnessed Sapa change from a dusty little village to a burgeoning town, with more hotels going up and roads being built almost daily. To support all this development, new hydroelectric dams are being built in the valley. Again, this is not necessarily bad. The residents of Sapa can benefit from having higher incomes, better roads, and a stable supply of electricity.
While still beautiful, Sapa is no longer the place we fell in love with. Back in our heyday what we loved most about Sapa was its authenticity and the sense of adventure. We used to challenge visitors to walk up Fansipan Mountain and back down in one day—a doable feat, but a tough one! After ten hours of solid hiking, the exhaustion was evident on people’s faces, but so were the smiles—fatigue was always trumped by the sense of accomplishment as they signed their names on our Fansipan wall of Fame.
Recently we saw a video showing a man surrounded by fast-motion crowds of people walking around, taking photos and waving flags. You think he’s in a parade, until the frame gradually moves out and you realise he’s on the top of Fansipan Mountain. Now that the new cable car has been constructed, it could be a busy Hanoi street. The last name was signed on our wall of fame the day before the cable car opened.
We don’t blame Sapa for changing. It isn’t Sapa, it’s us. We’re looking for something else; the quiet content, the sense of awe when faced with the beauty of nature. We want to meet locals who aren’t just trying to sell. Just like our guests, we’re looking for rewarding hikes and impromptu meals with friendly local families. We are looking for authenticity and adventure. And Sapa is no longer the place for us.
And as sorry as we are to say this, we’ve already met someone else. Mu Cang Chai is everything that Sapa used to be: a rural valley with spectacular mountains laced with rice-paddy terraces, where the ethnic minority population still gawp at the foreigners instead of pestering them to buy their goods, and where you can actually be alone to enjoy the stunning landscapes in peace and quiet.
On the way from Hanoi to Lao Cai, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Mu Cang Chai is actually closer to Hanoi than Sapa is. It is easily accessed by bus and it is breathtakingly gorgeous, with many of the same ethnic minorities that drew visitors to Sapa, and none of the trash dropped by all of the other tourists (because there are no other tourists).
If it doesn’t work out with Mu Cang Chai, there is also Mai Chau whom we already have strong feelings for, a lovely traditional village surrounded by rice paddies and mountains, only a four-hour drive from Hanoi. As much as we cherished Sapa, there are plenty more fish in the sea, and there are plenty of undiscovered gems in the mountains of Northern Vietnam.
Sapa, we hope that we can still be friends.