History of Sa Pa in Vietnam

Panorama of Sa Pa towards the Fansipan

Sa Pa is a major town located in the Lào Cai Province in Vietnam’s northwest region. As of 2021 CE, the town has a population of 64,240. The region covers an area of 700 km2. It is one of the leading market cities in the region, where numerous ethnic minority groups such as Dao (Yao), Hmong, Xa Pho, Giáy, and Tay live.

Sa Pa was a frontier precinct and capital of the former Sa Pa District in Lào Cai Province in northwest Vietnam. It was first populated by people about whom nothing is known. They followed an ancient variety of Hinduism. They left in the whole valley hundreds of petroglyphs, mainly composed of lines, which researchers think record from the 15th century CE and represent local cadastres. Then arrived the highland minorities of the Yao and Hmong.

These are the four principal minority groups still present in the Sa Pa district today. The Kinh never formerly colonized this highest of Việt Nam’s valleys, which rests in the shadow of Phan-Xi-Pǎng (also Fansipan, 3200 m), the highest peak in the nation. Sa Pa also houses more than 200 pieces of boulders with old engravings. The region of ancient carved stone in Sa pa has been on the famed UNESCO tentative list since 1997 CE.

It was only when the French finally debarked in highland Tonkin in the 1880s that Sa Pa, name of the famous Hmong hamlet, with “S” is pronounced almost as hard as “Sh” in English, “Ch” in French, “S” in Vietnamese, so Chapa as the French called it, started to emerge on the world map. Near to the present-day Sa Pa townlet is “Sa Pả commune,” which shows the origin in the location name’s Hmong language.

In the following decade, Sa Pa township’s future site started to see army parties and Christian missionaries from the Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) emerge. The French army moved from the Red River Delta into the northern mountainous regions due to Tonkin’s ‘pacification. In 1894-96 CE, the border between Tonkin and China was formally agreed upon, and the Sa Pa area, just to the extreme south of this frontier, was directly placed under French jurisdiction. From 1891 CE, the entire Lào Cai province, including Sa Pa, came under direct colonial military administration to curtail political resistance and banditry on the sensitive northern frontier.

The first continual French civilian citizen arrived in Sa Pa in 1909 CE. With its charming continental climate, health authorities considered the site had potential. By 1912 CE, a military hospital for ailing officers had been constructed along with a fully-fledged army garrison. Then, from the 1920s CE onwards, numerous wealthy professionals with sufficient financial capital also had several private villas built in the neighborhood.

At the top of the Second World War, a lengthy period of hostilities commenced in Tonkin that lasted until 1954 CE. In the means, nearly all of the 200 or so colonial buildings in or around SaPa were damaged, either by Việt Minh sympathizers in the late 1940s CE or in the early 1950s CE by French air raids. The large majority of the Viet population fled for their lives, and the ancient township entered a long sleep.

Finally, in the early 1962 CE, thanks to the promising New Economic Zones migration scheme set up by the new regime, new residents from the lowlands began to migrate to the neighborhood.

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