In the Hoang Lien Mountains, close to the Chinese border, is the picturesque market town of Sapa. This is a region of beautiful mountain scenery and remote villages inhabited by a variety of hill tribes.
Sapa is reached by a scenic train journey from Hanoi. Due to the French colonial influence, the town has a distinctly European look architecturally. The feel of an alpine resort is enhanced by the thick pine forests of the surrounding slopes, and by the fact that the restaurant menu in the hotel includes raclette and fondue.
Trekking is the main reason to come to Sapa. There are treks to suit all levels of fitness and enthusiasm, and all are accompanied by English-speaking guides. The trails take in a diverse range of landscapes, as well as some of the hill tribe villages, where life continues relatively untouched by the modern world. At lower altitudes, the trails lead through rice paddies and orchards, at higher altitudes through bamboo forest and pine trees. Sapa is also the starting point for treks to the top of Mt. Fansipan, at 3,143m the highest peak in Vietnam (and the entire Indochina Peninsula).
The area is also renowned for the hundreds of species of orchid that grow in the forests. Weekend markets in Sapa and the nearby villages of Bac Ha and Can Cau are another attraction, and are a good place to pick up colourful clothing, jewellery and other local handicrafts.
A visit to Sapa makes an interesting contrast to the delta or coastal regions of Vietnam, where most of the country's people live.