SPANISH SOUL, ASIAN LIFE SAPA
Sa Pa District is located in Lào Cai Province, north-west Vietnam, and 380 km north-west of Hanoi, close to the border with China. The Hoàng Liên 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 3143 m above sea level. The town of Sa Pa lies at an altitude of about 1500 meters (4921 feet) above sea level. 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 36,000 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. Rice, by its very nature of being a labour 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 geographical location of the area makes it a truly unique place for many interesting plants and animals, allowing it to support many inhabitants. Many very 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 Hoàng Liên Mountains. The impressive physical landscape which underlies this has resulted from the work of the elements over thousands of years, 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 world's 14 “biomes” (distinct biographic areas), producing an assemblage of plant and animal species unique in the world.
The Hoàng Liên Mountains are home to a rich variety of plants, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects, many only found in northwestern Vietnam. For this reason, the Hoàng Liên Nature Reserve was made a National Park in 2006, and covers much of the mountain range to the immediate south of Sa Pa.
Forest type and quality change with increasing altitude. At 2000 meters the natural, undisturbed forest begins to be seen. Above 2500 meters dwarf conifers and rhododendrons predominate in the harsh “elfin forest”, so called because a lack of topsoil and nutrients means that fully mature trees grow to measure only a few meters in height. Higher still, only the hardiest of plant species are found. At over 3000 meters, Fan Si Pan's summit can only support dwarf bamboo.
Hoàng Liên National Park is drained by the Muong Hoa and Ta Trung Ho rivers, which feed the Nam Po River and, finally, the Song Hong (Red) river. The forest has an essential role in water catchment protection, particularly the forest at high altitudes, which is frequently covered in cloud. Water condenses on the vegetation and falls as ‘occult’ precipitation. Occult precipitation makes a major contribution to stream-flow during the dry season when rainfall is low.