In the 19th century, the Lao Cai area served as fighting ground for various armed groups, among which the famous Black Pavilions and White Pavilions. These gangs of plunderers had taken refuge in the mountains of Vietnam after the Taiping rebellion in China. Their main purpose was to control the shipping trade on the Red River. Sea salt from Vietnam, opium from the Yunnan province, new rice, fabrics, manufactured goods were to be their primary objectives. Between 1850 and 1886, the town of Lao Cai was taken, destroyed and fortified several times by different groups.
In the 19th century, the Lao Cai area served as fighting ground for various armed groups, among which the famous Black Pavilions and White Pavilions. These gangs of plunderers had taken refuge in the mountains of Vietnam after the Taiping rebellion in China. Their main purpose was to control the shipping trade on the Red River. Sea salt from Vietnam, opium from the Yunnan province, new rice, fabrics, manufactured goods were to be their primary objectives. Between 1850 and 1886, the town of Lao Cai was taken, destroyed and fortified several times by different groups. On March 30th, 1886, Colonel de Maussion and his troops arrived in Lao Cai. Their objective was to pacify the area in order to create a stable border with China and to open a trade route to China via the Yunnan province. The French wanted to be the first to reach Yunnan before the British managed to open a trade route starting from Burma. At the time, the French thought that Burma would be a new eldorado, especially because of its luxury silks and ore reserves. As of the 1910s, Lao Cai made it possible to control the opium trade, from which the colony derived the best part of its resources. For this purpose, the Foreign Legion set up military posts in Bat Xat, Muong Khuong and Bac Hà and militias were created in the villages. Until 1945, then again from 1947 to 1950, the town was administered by a French resident. Traditionally, the shipping trade on the Red River has always been done by sampans capable of carrying up to 12 to 15 tons of goods, which sailed from Hanoi to Lao Cai in 35 days. In 1898, China granted the French government the right to build the Yunnan railway. The first works started in 1901 and the railway track reached Lao Cai in April 1906. The overall cost of the project was 78 million gold francs for 384 kilometres. The railway line cost the lives of 12.000 Chinese and Vietnamese workers and 80 Europeans. In 1913, the road from Lao Cai to Cha Pa was but a mule track, only practicable on foot or on horseback. Today’s paved road was not marked out until 1924. As of 1925, the connection was established between the road and railway networks. At 9:00 p.m., the traveller could board the train in Hanoi and got off nine hours later in Lao Cai, after which a two hours’ drive took him to Cha Pa. The trip back was just as easy: leaving Cha Pa at 5 :00 p.m. one was back in Lao Cai at 7 :00 p.m., in time for a meal at the Hôtel de la Gare before boarding the night train at 8:30 p.m. Sa Pa history The Sa Pa plateau was identified in 1901 during the first topographic plotting of the area. A military post was built in 1903. In 1906 the first westerner to settle in Cha Pa, named Mr. Miéville, worked with the department of agriculture. The number of French permanent civilian residents was never very high, only twenty odd people in 1942, plus a small colony of English-speaking protestants of unknown origin. Originally, Cha Pa was created for medical purposes: the bracing climate of Cha Pa was beneficial to westerners exhausted by a long stay in Vietnam, especially «people with chlorosis, post-infectious anaemia, previous history of malaria, and a whole array of neurotics: people with neurasthenia, phobia, overworked people or hypochondriac women». Certain diseases, such as «chronic bronchitis with associated emphysema or asthma and certain skin diseases» could also be cured. The military sanatorium, completed in 1913, was built on the hill on which the municipal cistern and its pumping station now stand. As of 1914, the main purpose of the civil authorities was to create in Tonkin a veritable summer capital in the mountains. In the summer of 1914, the offices of all the local services were moved from Hanoi to Cha Pa. The works had started in 1912, the tourist office was created in 1917 and in 1925, there were already 80 kilometres of footpaths offering a great variety of hiking trips. The forestry service planted evergreens, some of which are still standing today. In 1922 the building of the most sumptuous hotel in the station, the Résidence du Tonkin started on «governor’s hill». In 1909, thanks to Miéville, the « Cha Pa Hotel » was inaugurated to the east of the station on the road to Lao Cai, while the «Fan Si Pan» hotel was only built in 1924. The « Métropole », a luxury hotel with 50 rooms and ten suites sited at the foot of the Ham Rong on the bank of the lake, was inaugurated in 1932. The «Hôtel du Centre», a more modest establishment, was built in1937. The first villas were built in 1918 by the Hong Hai Coal Board and by the Haïphong cement factory (at the place where the Victoria Hotel now stands). A hundred or so other villas were built between 1920 and 1940 on neighbouring land given for free, some specimens of which can still be seen. In the lower area are located the private villas, administrative buildings and hotels. In the higher area, one finds the big military sanatorium and the governor ‘s summer palace. The church was built in 1934, followed by a protestant temple sitting on the hill overlooking the road to Cat Cat. By the end of the 1930s, Cha Pa had reached its peak and over a thousand colonials went there to rest and have fun. Until the mid-40s, Cha Pa was to remain the fashionable mountain resort of the Hanoi colonial society. In order to meet the increasing demand for food, the local authorities created agricultural stations. The aim of these stations was to feed the summer visitors and « put an end to the typical problem of hotels where bread is wanting because a party of six had the unfortunate idea of turning up without sending a telegram two days earlier ». Vietnamese people launched into agricultural production, providing the town with « all sorts of foods »... The Taphin estate produced pork, chicken, vegetables, fresh fruit, jam, milk, potatoes, cheese and… wine. Trade was flourishing in the hands of Chinese people and Vietnamese from the delta area. The growth of Cha Pa was an incentive to modernisation and between 1924 and 1927 the public authorities had it equipped with running water, a sewage system and an electricity network supplied by a power station built on the Cat Cat waterfall, whose renovated buildings are still in operation, as well as a telegraph and telephone network. In 1942, untypically for such a small place, a complete town plan of Sa Pa was drawn, which included over 400 plots of building land. In February 1947, the Viet Minh attacked Cha Pa and destroyed the military installations and part of the hotels (among which the Métropole) as well as villas. In March, the Foreign Legion occupied Cha Pa again until October 1949 when the French troops left the region for good. In March 1952, the French headquarters ordered the air force to bomb the town. The Governor’s Palace, the sanatorium complex, public buildings and most of the villas were destroyed. The Vietnamese population fled the ruined town and did not return until the early sixties. Not until the early 1990s did Sa Pa start developing again. History ofthe TA PHIN monastery At the end of 1941, twelve nuns belonging to a congregation of devout Reformed Cistercians, « whose only purpose was prayer and penitence», were thrown out of the monastery of Our Lady of the Angels in Hakodaté (Japan). Eight of them as well as the prior wished to stay in Asia. On January 8th, 1942, the French ambassador in Japan wrote to the bishop of Hung-Hoa, Mgr. Vandaele, and solicited that they be welcomed on «missionary ground». On February 13th, 1942, for the token rent of one piastre per year, the Superior Resident granted a long-term lease over « the estate of the old fruit-growing station of Ta Phing (44 hectares of buildings and lands), uncultivated or fallow land ». On June 11th, 1942, the sisters arrived at Lao Kay railway station and were installed in a wooden building «in poor condition», «each had only the clothes she was wearing, and 200 yens». On June 19th, the French Resident in Lao Kay gave them « 8 milk cows, 9 calves, 2 oxen, 2 heifers, 1 bull, and farming implements » The aim was to start « large-scale raising of pigs and chickens» and to « usefully complement the dairy products, milk, butter and cheese produced by the Chapa station in insufficient quantity for the number of summer visitors both civil and military ». The sisters also « set about to grow black wheat, oats, barley, buckwheat… » and develop « fruit trees, potatoes, vegetables and vineyards ». As of September 1942, the sisters were producing peach, apple and other fruit jams and had difficulties satisfying « the numerous orders for butter and cheese of the Port Salut type coming from Hanoi ». As of August 1942, legionnaires were supervising the Annamite workers digging a platform on which the new monastery was to be built. The foundation stone was lain on October 8th, 1942 in the presence of the Superior Resident, and a parchment was deposited in a cavity made in the south-east corner-stone of «Our Lady of Peace Monastery». In fact, only the first phase of the work was to be completed, and the rest of the convent, which was supposed to welcome « a hundred sisters, lay sisters and novices » was never built. Nor were the planned guest quarters and chaplaincy. Only the farmhouse buildings were ever built. During the 1947 unrest, the sisters hurriedly fled to Hanoi and the monastery was burned down.