As you approach Phongsali (ພົງສາລີ) via a sinuous mountain road, the town rears up suddenly on a ridgetop plateau. Often wrapped in mist, its atmospheric wooden Yunnanese shophouses and other buildings, spanning biscuit-brown to powder-blue, shelter below the peak of Phu Fa ('Sky Mountain'; 1625m) rising majestically in the background. The location gives the town panoramic views and a refreshing climate that can swing from pleasantly warm to downright cold in a matter of hours – expect icicles in the cold season and bring a jacket and waterproofs just in case, even in April.
The town's population is a mix of Phu Noi and Haw/Yunnanese, both long-term residents and more recent immigrants. That said, no one comes to Phongsali to experience the town, which can feel unfriendly and very untypically Lao; it's the trekking in the surrounding hill country and its vivid population of ethnic peoples that justifies the considerable effort to get here.