Sapa returns to glory days

11:44 | 12/03/2019
Inspired by memories of classical French architecture, and infused with the vibrant, striking colours of Vietnam’s northern hill tribes, a stunning new five-star accommodation has restored a once-forgotten ‘summer retreat’ back to its heyday.
sapa returns to glory days
The five-star accommodation born in Sapa

The birth of Sapa

At the turn of the 20th century, the French first started travelling from Hanoi to Cha Pa (the original name for Sapa) in the mountainous northwest of Vietnam. Despite the long distances, not to mention the precipitous slopes and harsh terrain they had to traverse, they would have been instantly enchanted by what they discovered on arrival.

Vying for dominance of Asian territories with the British Empire, Sapa was situated in an ideal location as far as the French military strategists were concerned — a garrison was constructed in 1903. But the intrepid colonials must also have been bowled over by the awe-inspiring views and rejoiced while breathing in the crisp and cool mountain climes.

The ultimate antidote

In fact, for those used to suffering in the soupy, stultifying heat of Hanoi, especially through summer, Sapa must have felt like heaven. They immediately set about building a railway line that connected Hanoi to Lao Cai province at the foothills of the Hoang Lien mountain range. As word of Sapa’s fairytale setting spread, curious émigrés soon began to follow military personnel on sleeper trains that trundled through the night toward the mountainous north. By 1909, there was already sufficient tourism to warrant the opening of the Cha Pa Hotel.

Over the course of the next three decades, the town’s reputation as the ultimate “summer retreat” grew and increasing numbers of visitors — many of whom were ailing in the tropics — came to drink in the curative air of the “Tonkinese Alps.” Dozens of villas were built by the upper echelons of French high society — the Governor General of Indochina had his own residence — while less frequent tourists to Sapa sojourned at salubrious accommodations, such as the Metropole Hotel and Hotel du Centre.

sapa returns to glory days
Sapa’s glory days as a high-end tourism destination must have been scarcely imaginable through the 1980s

The end of Indochina

But what the French slowly built up during the halcyon days of Indochina, they would later try to raze themselves. In 1952, two years before the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, when French forces were defeated, signaling the end of Indochina, they bombed their own hill station, destroying the governor’s summer residence, along with many of the other colonial buildings and private villas.

All of the Vietnamese living there at the time would have fled and they only started returning in small numbers in the 1960s. With the country still embroiled in a war for many years to come (followed by many years of crippling poverty), Sapa’s glory days as a high-end tourism destination must have been scarcely imaginable through the 1980s. Like all destinations throughout the country, the town was only rediscovered by international visitors in the 1990s, when western backpackers first started to explore the country on a "shoestring budget."

The return of tourists

In those days there were only a small number of guesthouses and budget hotels in town. Overtime tourism began to grow again, but slowly. A number of larger and more ambitious hotels were built on the edge of the town as word of Sapa’s Alpine beauty started to spread again — this time, thanks to the Internet, all around the world. But it wasn’t until December 2018 that the town’s first international 5-star accommodation, Hotel De la Coupole, MGallery by Sofitel, would open its doors, raising the bar for hospitality in Sapa in the 21st century to unprecedented heights.

The investor behind the project, Sun Group, Vietnam’s leading developer of high-end hotels/resorts and entertainment complexes, entrusted Bill Bensley — the self-styled King of Resorts and the man behind the award-winning InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula Resort — to conjure up a superlative design for Hotel de la Coupole and, once again, he did not disappoint.

sapa returns to glory days
The design of each room category integrates the striking patterns and textures of the region’s hill tribes

Like something out of a dream

Inspired by France’s architectural legacy in ‘old Indochina’ and the vibrant colours of Vietnam’s northernmost hill tribes, Hotel de la Coupole is both an evocative throwback to the old hill station’s glory days and a wonderful homage to the indigenous cultures of Hoang Lien mountain range and haute couture fashion.

Now, travellers arriving to Sapa today will be as stunned as those who discovered the mountain retreat over 100 years ago at the sight of this architectural marvel, which boasts Parisian grandeur and an art deco style façade. Set against the backdrop of the misty mountains, and with views of Fansipan, ‘the roof of Indochina’ in the distance, this visionary hotel truly feels like something out of a dream.

Mesmerising interiors

When guests step inside, they will soon be besotted with the charming vintage interiors. The design of each room category integrates the striking patterns and textures of the region’s hill tribes with the sophistication of haute couture and the ambiance of French Indochina.

Wherever you wander within this world-class accommodation, you can admire the vast collection of antiques and memorabilia that tastefully adorn each room and corridor, lending a nostalgic ambiance to the whole hotel. Antique chests, vintage books, authentic military uniforms — even the bellboy, dressed in a retro uniform, wheeling his brass luggage trolley through the lobby, will charm visitors as they check-in at the gorgeous reception area.

“Best new arrival for 2019”

It’s no wonder that Hotel de la Coupole has made quite a splash since opening its doors in December 2018. In fact, it has just been named “Luxury Hotel in Vietnam - Best New Arrival” at the Hurun Best of the Best Awards 2019, recently held in Shanghai.

To land such a prestigious award is high praise indeed. To select the winners, the Hurun Research Institute visited 465 of the most influential high net-worth individuals in China, who voted based on their personal experiences. Undoubtedly, those who have already visited were wowed by the hotel’s splendour and superlative services, not to mention the elegant setting. To match the sumptuous design, guests will also experience delectable haute cuisine at Chic restaurant, scrumptious desserts at Cacao, unforgettable rooftop cocktails at Absinthe. There’s also a stunning state-of-the-art indoor pool Le Grand Bassin, Athleticum fitness centre, and Nuages spa where guests can revive mind, body, and spirit.

The pièce de résistance for guests staying at Hotel de la Coupole is the Memorable Moment — hotel staff escort them to the Sapa furnicular station, where they can take a cable car ride to the very top of Fansipan at a height of over 3,100m while feasting their eyes on the breathtaking beauty of all the mountains, valleys, and forests around them.

This is truly heaven on earth that deserves to be known throughout the world. With the opening of Hotel de la Coupole, once again, discerning luxury travellers are sojourning in the Hoang Lien mountains, drinking in the cool, crisp, and curative air and admiring the awe-inspiring views. Word is already spreading. The glory days of Sapa have been restored. Long may they last.

By Hoang Van

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