With such adoration for Halong Bay, Sapa (or Sa Pa) is rarely uttered as the highlight of Vietnam.
But it should be the highlight for every traveller. With a tourist-friendly yet wild atmosphere, walking routes galore, great food, truly wonderful hospitality, and some of the most stunning scenery in the world, Sapa is a must if you’re visiting Vietnam.
So here’s our introduction to Sapa, along with some of our favourite snaps. Let us know if you’re inspired to go and how you get on!
So where is Sapa?
Sapa is about as far north in Vietnam as you go, lying only a few kilometres south of the border to China (accessible through the town of Lao Cai, where the train from Hanoi drops you for the first leg of the journey to Sapa).
Why is Sapa so enchanting?
Perched on the western side of a mountain plateau in the shadow of the monstrous Fan Si Pan mountain (Vietnam’s tallest peak), Sapa is surrounded by a host of ethnic minority villages where you can really feel the real Vietnam away from mopeds, beaches, street stalls and so on.
Originally a French hilltop outpost, the comfortable climate and dramatic landscape has been attracting visitors since the 1930s. Since the Chinese invasion in 1979, only a handful of older buildings exist. The main attraction today is the trekking and opportunity to get to know some of the nomadic people of Vietnam.
How do you get to Sapa?
Because Sapa is a somewhat tourist magnet (don’t let that put you off – the town and surrounding Sapa Valley is big enough to get lost in) it’s actually pretty simple to reach the town, so long as you’ve got half a day to travel.
Starting out from Hanoi, take an overnight train to Lao Cai, right on the Chinese border. From Lao Cai, you can transfer via minibus to the town of Sapa, some 40km or so by road from Lao Cai.
If you book through an agency (like we did – more on that later) the trip and transfer is often arranged for you, so it’s simply a case of sticking to the itinerary.
The train and bus route is the most common, and the easiest. Allow at least 8hrs for the train trip, around 1-2hrs for the bus transfer, and then an hour or so for settling into Sapa. It’s a half day journey realistically, but it can be done overnight to lessen wasting time out of your day.
What is Sapa like?
Bright, colourful, vibrant, and somewhat old-fashioned. With so many tribes in the local area, some with only a handful of people living on the sides of mountains, there are a range of dress codes and uniforms in the town every single day.
The most noticeable are the Red Dao tribe, who wear scarlet headpieces, and the Black Hmong tribe, known for colourful skirts and intricate handicrafts.
Beware: you’ll be befriended by many of the women from the tribes, often as a sales pitch. Some will walk for hours with you just to sell a bracelet for a few dollars. It can be somewhat irritating or worrisome, but is mostly harmless and endearing. And after all, everyone’s got to make a living.
Weather-wise, Sapa defines unpredictability. Because of the dominant mountain range, clouds can form and break in a matter of minutes, only to clear and reveal stunning, sweltering sunshine.
Temperatures drop dramatically after dark and the winter (Dec-Feb) can bring thick snow. As Rough Guides note, the best weather is from September to November, and March to May. We visited in September though and spent one day primarily looking at fog, falling over in slippery mud, and watching out for leeches, while the second day was almost unbearably hot and humid. Pack accordingly.
So how do you have a good time in Sapa?
Simple: book a trekking tour.
We can totally recommend Sapa Sisters. While accommodation is basic, the group of women here – some as young as 15 or 16 – know the area incredibly well, all coming from the Black Hmong tribe who live across various outposts in the valley itself.
With such colourful knowledge of the area, they’re ready to cater walking tours to all ages and abilities. We stuck to an easier route due to the horrendous weather, but others we met on the way spent days climbing seemingly vertical mountains. It’s all up to how long you want to spend in Sapa, and what you feel up to.
The best thing about Sapa Sisters is:
- They are fantastic English speakers; it’s hard to believe they just taught themselves all their English.
- They are truly friendly and knowledgeable, coming from the small villages where their families are based.
- It’s a very modern employer, giving higher wages, more holidays, and better working conditions to the guides (our guide, Little Chi, received at least 50% of the fee we paid for the tour, as opposed to the 15% local tour operators give).
- You stay with the family of the guide, giving the most authentic Vietnam experience you can ask for.
- The guides are inspirational. They’re so happy, content, eager to please and genuinely interested in getting to know you. Little Chi deserves a blog post just on herself and her stories.
What might shock me about Sapa?
While the town of Sapa isn’t rural per se, the Sapa Valley is among the wildest Vietnam spots, offering less comfort and sanitation than similar mountain areas, such as Dalat in the south of the country.
We actually got food poisoning in Sapa, but don’t let that put you off. It’s just so you know what the risks are.
Here are some things to expect:
- Accommodation is basic. While there’s a hotel boom in the town itself, the small valley villages are little more than guest houses or hostels, often with very little privacy or mod cons.
- Electricity isn’t everywhere. The villages in the valley only joined the grid in 2011, meaning not everything is entirely adapted to electricity. So if you’re hoping for an iPhone charging point in the middle of the night, you could be out of luck.
- However, WiFi is everywhere in Sapa. Like most of Vietnam, the priority for many families is to be online, so you should not struggle there.
- Showers might not have hot water, or be showers at all. Our shower was fine, albeit a tad lukewarm, but others we met described buckets of cold water and ladles as their morning refreshment.
- Say farewell to soap in many cases, and toilet paper too.
- Blackouts do happen, and seemingly regularly. However it doesn’t often disrupt much as most cooking is done over an open fire.
- Mosquitoes are a menace and you might need to consider malaria tablets, though these often make you sicker than the illness itself (or so it was claimed by a couple we met along the way). If you’re going to actually walk across the rice fields and really get stuck in, which is a real possibility, consider some health precautions. ALWAYS BRING A MOSQUITO NET TOO!
- Be careful of the rice wine – some of it is good, and some of it is not much better than methanol.
- And finally beware of some wild animals, though don’t worry too much. Stray dogs are the biggest problem, but even then 90% of them are friendly neighbourhood dogs or are scared of you.
So what were the most interesting bits in Sapa?
There’s simply too much to cover. Just go.
But to summarise, here’s a short list:
- The scenery: It’s just stunning. Rice fields are everywhere, mountains surround you, and you can really escape the tourist rat race.
- Integrating with the locals: We’ve never met a nicer, friendlier bunch of people than the people of Sapa. They were always willing to please and really curious about your culture and background.
- The food: As a lot of the food comes from the valley itself, and is cooked on an open fire, it tastes like no other in Vietnam.
- The stories: Some are good, many are bad, but all the stories are unique and full of interesting quirks and facts. Make sure you talk with the locals and really get a sense of how they live. You won’t be disappointed.
- The walking routes: They’re among the best in south east Asia.
Everything is awesome
It just is. So trust us and book a trip.
Not convinced? Here’s a gallery for you to gawp over. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter for more updates.