Sapa – the premium hill station in northwest Vietnam!
Located high at 1650 meters above sea level in Vietnam’s remote northwest mountains, Sapa is famous for both its unusual scenery and also its rich cultural diversity created by its different ethnic groups. Sapa is an incredibly picturesque town that lies in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border in North-western Vietnam, known as the Tonkinese Alps. Sapa and its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam. Sapa ranks along Ha Long Bay and Hoi An in terms of attracting tourists solely on the merit of its natural beauty and surrounding attractions. It’s particularly rich in opportunities for treks, homestays and (on clear days) the kinds of panoramic views that leave travellers searching for fresh adjectives and a larger camera memory card.
Around Sapa you may come across a multitude of ethnic minorities. Chief among them are the Hmong (pronounced MONG), often referred to as the Black Hmong partly because their dress is a very dark, almost black, indigo ornamented with colourful brocade and silver jewellery, but mostly because of their black, fez-like headgear. The second largest group are the Dao, who also dress in dark clothes. The women of those referred to as Red Dao wrap up their hair in a bright red scarf bedecked with silver-beaded tassels while those of the Black Dao wear distinctive headwear — a pile of coiled, braided hair, with an elaborate, rectangular ornament of silver metal sticking out of the top. They will happily remove their headdress for tourists to show that it’s just a hat and not their real hair. Beside you will meet other tribes named Tay, Giay (pronounced Zai), Xa Pho ( a denomination of the Phu La minority group) – a very small population in Sapa. These five groups and the Kinh people or ethnic Vietnamese make Sapa population of about 38,000 people.
Mountaintop Sapa began life as a hilltop retreat for French colonialists desperate to escape the searing heat of the Vietnamese plains. They chose the lofty cool of Fansipan’s surrounds, and it’s easy to see why — the humidity of Hanoi peels away as you ascend the mountain peaks skirted with finely-sculptured, emerald-green rice terraces.
How to get in Sapa
From Hanoi there are many ways to get Sapa. The most popular way is by night train. It takes about 9 hours and then 45 more minutes to drive from Lao Cai railway station to Sapa town. But recently travellers have more choice and save much more travel time. The million USD new high way launched in 2014 brings us to Sapa much easier. It takes roughly 5-6 hours. If you travel by private car, then it is more convenient and takes less time to travel. There are many sleeper buses departure daily from Hanoi and it takes a bit more travel time. Sapa can also be reached by motorbike through various routes. The road by motorbike is so gorgeous and awarding a very beautiful landscape along road.
Things to do & see in Sapa
In the Sa Pa town: Sapa is a charming mountain town, surrounded by picturesque mountains and rice terraces. Great views of the area can be had (weather permitting) from the nearby hills. One of these has been built up into a tourist attraction (Ham Rong mount) with various gardens (hundreds of orchids flowers), ethnic minority dance performance areas, viewpoints, and restaurants. It’s a short walk south from the central square and then up some stairs.
If you got time then it’s worth going to the Sa Pa Culture Museum where you can learn about the history of Sa Pa and the costumes & traditions of the Ethnic groups of Sa Pa. The museum is located behind the Tourist Office.
It’s also worth to check some of the colonial buildings left by the French colonialists such as the church, the square and Town Hall building. While walking in the mountains you will encounter many hill tribes such as the Red Dao tribe.
To the ethnic minority villages and nearby areas:
1) Trekking/hiking/walking to villages through terraced rice paddies
Most people come to Sapa to do an organised trek through the wild and wonderful mountains near the town. This is certainly a must, so get yourself a guide and start trekking!
There are several trails of different difficulty levels. None of them are suitable for people who have no experience in hiking – it goes up and down over rough and smooth terrain, through dense bamboo forests or small rice paddies, passing water buffaloes and tiny villages nestled on steep hills. Therefore you are strongly advised to bring some good walking shoes. Furthermore, you mustn’t forget enough water, sunscreen, plasters against sore feet etc. Similarly important is a camera – as mentioned before, Sapa’s surroundings are among the most beautiful landscapes on earth. I could have stopped every two minutes to take yet another picture of this beauty. The scenery changes often and never gets boring.
You might want to include a so-called homestay – i.e. an overnight stay at a local family instead of a hotel. Usually, these places are somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but nevertheless equipped with the most important (basic) stuff. I doubt that you would find a hot-water shower there, but instead you can have a bath in the river. You will certainly not get a 5-star breakfast, but rather some tasty local food. And most important, you can get into contact with people who actually live in the area.
Treks around Sapa can be booked in the town itself, but also in any one of Hanoi’s many travel agencies.
2) Cat Cat village and waterfall
This is the number one sight in (as opposed to around) Sapa: a small, not really spectacular waterfall approximately 1.5km away from the town centre. The hike down there, in its latter part with a hell lot of steps, provides you with some spectacular views of the mountains around the town, among them Phan Xi Pan, Vietnam’s highest mountain (3143m). You will also pass through a Hmong village in which you may watch the process of producing indigo – a pigment used for dyeing clothes.
After the waterfall, you can either go back the same way or walk on in a half circle towards the end of the small road. The lazy or exhausted ones can then take a Xe Om (motorbike taxi) back to Sapa.
3) Silver Waterfall
Coming over the Tram Ton pass, where the trek up to Fan Xi Pan starts, you can stop and see Thac Bac, the silver waterfall. There didn’t seem to be a lot of water coming down and it really was cold and windy, so we didn’t bother climbing the steep track that criss-crosses the ravine. Can be done as a half day tour from Sapa but find out for the amount of water first. Lies about 12 kms out from Sa Pa. You can see the difference in water levels by the photos on the signpost.
4) Sapa Catholic Church in the Sapa center
As Sapa was once a French retreat from the heat in Hanoi, a parish was started here in 1902. Building started on a church in 1925 but was abandoned after a pastor was killed in 1947. It was only in 1995 that local authorities gave permission for the church to be repaired. Catholics in the Sapa district number about 2000. Inside, it features some new stained glass windows in a modern style that depict the life of Christ.
5) Bac Ha Sunday Market Day Tour from Sapa
There are many day markets in this stunning mountainous area but Bac Ha market is the most colourful one and DON’T MISS THIS if you might be thinking of venturing to this part of Vietnam DO SEE this… try to coincide your time in Sa Pa so that you can check out this event.
Bac Ha is a about three hours drive from Sa Pa (about 80 kms) and about an hour and a half drive from Lao Cai near the Chinese border. The drive is slow going because of the terrain, and the curvy, high mountain roads that sometimes are impassable due to slides and washouts. The drive itself is something of an event in itself…so be prepared for a slow drive with amazing scenery and high mountain elevations.
Sunday is a special day here in Bac Ha…Many different ethnic groups such as Flower Hmong, Phu La, Black Dao, Tay and Nung minorities come to Bac Ha to buy and sell merchandise. The buzz of activity and the colorful clothing is really an amazing experience.
It’s a social event for these people as well as business…there’s a large area covered with tarps with tables and chairs where cooked food that is purchased can be eaten. There’s a few different areas where the action goes on…it’s a very busy venue, hard to get through the crowds at times and sometimes a little overwhelming. There is plenty of friendly banter and laughter happening and plenty of smiling faces.
Other than simply watching this event there are many stalls and vendors wandering about where you can buy clothing, woven and embroidered goods and other types of souvenirs.
6) Homestay Tour – special experience
Most of our clients said that they enjoy home-stay tours very much and it was the highlight of their whole Vietnam trip, especially for the family vacation.
They loved interacting with the family, looking at where and how they kept their animals. They loved seeing their dinner being cooked on the open fire kitchen by the guide and the homestay host and they enjoyed being in their bamboo home.
Homestay tour bring you cultural experience aside, taking an overnight — or longer — trek means you can get further away from Sapa and explore more of the district. Yes, you could do that in separate day trips, with the assistance of a minibus, but of course a homestay is more than just a bed for the night — it’s also an enlightening and enjoyable experience. Here’s what’s likely to happen.
Upon arrival at the homestay you will be shown to your room. If you’re in a group you’re likely to be sharing a room, but you should at least get your own bed or mattress — unless the group’s huge. Do check this out with the tour operator before booking if it’s a big deal for you.
Dinner will be prepared by the host and their family, so you can enjoy a beer or soft drink while waiting — drinks cost extra but shouldn’t be too pricey. The menu is likely to have been modified from what the family usually eats to appeal to foreign palates, but will still be Vietnamese: spring rolls, rice, stir-fried meat and veg. You will probably eat together with the host and have the opportunity to ask questions — with your guide translating — and spend time with the family. On our last visit, to a Red Dao home, some of the group tried the smoking pipe with the man of the house and various magic tricks and illusions were shared with the younger members of the family. The evening continued with more beer, rice wine and card games.
Next morning, expect to wake early, or wear earplugs. Breakfast will be served around 07:00 or 08:00 and there’s a high chance it’ll be pancakes. You’ll say goodbye and off you will trek. Don’t assume a shower will be available, although in some houses it will be.
Finally, another very good reason for doing a homestay is to support the locals. Income from homestays can dramatically improve the lives of the hosts and the village overall. We would definitely recommend including a homestay in a trek if you have the time.
Contact us at email@example.com for more information and visit us often to update more about Sapa.