Thus far on my three month month journey across Southeast Asia I have explored Bangkok, traveled across Cambodia, and toured the coastline of Vietnam.
My last stop was in Sapa, Vietnam where I spent five days and found the small mountain town enjoyable and incredibly beautiful. From the cooler temperatures, the stunning local cultures, to accommodations and local cuisine---my visit to Sapa has been among my favorite places so far along my trip.
Here is a recap of my visit to Sapa and covers where I stayed, ate, and what I did during the day. If you're going to be adventuring around the country as a whole I found this Vietnam guide to be the most helpful when planning my trip as it's one of the most comprehensive out there.
Sapa is a lush town in the northern highlands of Vietnam. It is a rather long journey (if not, difficult destination) to get to because of distance and unreliable road conditions, but I’m glad I made the 10 hour journey on a bumpy sleeper train ride.
The hilly landscape covered with terraces of rice paddies is home to several hill tribe ethnic minorities including the H’mong and Dzao groups. You'll find miles of hiking trails, good food and beautiful handmade crafts within walking distance of central Sapa. In addition to those things, the temperature in July is much cooler than it is in Hanoi or Saigon, making for a refreshing break from the heat.
Getting to Sapa
Prior to heading to Sapa I had spent eight nights in Hanoi, taking a trip to Ha Long Bay and exploring the city itself. I loved wandering the streets of Hanoi and exploring the daily life of the people. I always try to read a book about the region I'm traveling and find it incredibly intriguing to relate back to the book when I'm experiencing the culture first hand. Here is a great reading list for anyone heading to Vietnam.
For most travelers the easiest way to get to Sapa would be from Hanoi, so I was in a good departure point for heading there. Basically there are two options of public transportation from Hanoi to Sapa which include traveling by bus or train---both of which have day and night services. By train you will travel from Hanoi to Lao Cai, then to transfer to Sapa by bus or minibus. Travel within Vietnam is generally very budget friendly, and we found that taking the overnight train was the best option as far as saving time and money.
My plan was to check out of my hotel in Hanoi and explore West Lake Hanoi on the last day, so I booked an overnight sleeper train to Sapa. Several trains leave each night to Sapa and there are numerous companies to book a sleeper car with. The way it works is each private company attaches their sleeper-car along with an engine, so every other car may be owned by a separate company.
Several private companies that sell tourist-class sleepers including Fanxipan, Sapaly Express, King, Livitrans, Orient Express, Tulico, Ratraco, etc. I can’t say for sure, but have been told that the products between companies are very similar, as is the cost. I ended up buying a one-way ticket on Livitrans and it cost $43 for a bed in a 4-berth soft-sleeper car (their definition of 'soft' is beyond me, but for what it's worth I was told to avoid a 'hard' sleeper at all costs). For anyone traveling overland across Asia Seat61.com is an amazing resource for scheduling transportation and finding connections.
After arriving in Lao Cai around 5:45 AM we met up with our hotel shuttle and quickly drove off to Sapa. The drive from Lao Cai to Sapa is about 38 km (24 miles) and the scenic windy journey takes about 50 minutes by bus or shared minibus. If you have pre-booked a hotel, many offer free shuttle service and it may be best to ask them to arrange transfer directly to the hotel (other shuttles will drop you off in central Sapa).
Sapa has a range of accommodations from $10 per night budget hotels to $100+ resorts, however you will not find any loyalty brand hotels in town. During my time in Sapa I decided to stay at the Sapa Lodge Hotel based on Tripadvisor reviews and price per night. Originally I had booked at their sister hotel the Elysian Hotel, but was moved to the Sapa Lodge upon arriving.
The Sapa Lodge Hotel is located on the edge of town and sits overlooking the magnificent Sapa valley below. The view from the balcony is extraordinary and a perfect way to kick back at sunset with a beer after a long day hiking or exploring the area. The hotel itself is a small privately run six floor hotel with only five rooms per floor.
Overall there are plenty of great options for accommodations in Sapa and beyond, here is a wonderful resource for other ideas of places to stay across Vietnam.
Within my four days in Sapa, I tried out several different restaurants, but there were three I kept going back to: Little Vietnam, Sapa Moment and Sapa Essence. All three are family run and offer impeccable service as far as quality of food, menu items and hospitality.
The menu items ranged from local duck, chicken curry in coconut, papaya salads, pho and hot pot. Hot pot is when you cook the soup yourself on an electric stove brought to your table with a pot of broth. You’re given different vegetable ingredients, noodles and chicken to toss and Gia, the owner of Sapa Essence showed us how to cook it to make sure everything was cooked correctly. On one occasion I had dinner in Sapa Moments, and the owner brought everyone a shot glass of local rice wine. Overall, our dining experience in Sapa was better than we expected and our palates were pleased.
Things to Do in Sapa
With almost limitless opportunity for adventure you will be hard pressed to find yourself bored in Sapa. My short stint in the hill town included trekking through local hill tribe villages, cruising high mountain rounds on a scooter, and perusing the quaint streets interwoven through Sapa town.
If you are looking to get out and stretch your legs after the long journey up to Sapa there are many hiking options in the surrounding hills. For multi-day trips and customized trips you can inquire within many of the tour agencies within town, but if you just want to take a day hike from town you can hire a local H’mong woman to guide you to the various nearby villages.
Almost all of the H’mong women we encountered spoke very good English and it will not be hard to find a guide (if not, she will find you). The moment you arrive into Sapa, several H’mong women wearing traditional handmade dresses will be awaiting your arrival and you can choose to negotiate a trek with any of them. Until you commit to either a trek or promise that you will buy something from them later, will be followed throughout town asking to buy their handicrafts or a trekking tour. However, if you are not interested a polite 'no thank you' is often enough to get the point across.
The H’mong women are extremely nice and have a good sense of humor, though it may seem annoying to be swarmed by these women asking you to purchase from them or trek from the moment you arrive into Sapa, but they are dependent on tourism to subsidize their rice paddy expenses.
On our first day we agreed to a one-day hike through several of the surrounding villages with two H’mong women. There is almost always the option for a homestay at their home, but because our hotel stay was already booked for the nights we were in town, we only planned on a one day trek.
At 9:00 AM the two H’mong women, Bo and Vu, were waiting for us at the front door of our hotel and we set off down to the road leading to the lush valley. To enter the hiking area of the Sapa Muong Hoa Valley you will have to pay a 20,000 VND entrance fee (it may or may not be included in the price worked out with your tour/guide).
After passing the ticket office you will have sweeping views of the valley covered in rice paddies and dotted with local’s homes. The hike is rather easy as long as the roads and trails are not muddy. If heavy rain is expected, you can rent rain boots for a couple of dollars.
The hike offers visitors the opportunity to see how locals live without being intrusive and a unique aspect is that each village is dominated by a different ethnic group, which have their own languages, customs and traditions. Within Sapa there are eight ethnic groups, but the two that you will see more of in that area are the Red Dzao and the Black H’mong.
On your hike you will walk through miles of rice paddy fields that are planted in terraces. The irrigation technique they use to have a constant flow of water through them is simply amazing. From any viewpoint you will see endless rice paddy fields stretching out into the distance, which is a real fantastic scenery.
The one-day hike can last 4-6 hours, depending on how many villages you want to visit. We hiked through four major villages on our hike and ended our hike at our guide Bo’s village, Ta Van which took about 5 hours. As you walk by the different villages, you may find opportunities to purchase hand made H’mong or Dzao items being sold from their homes. After we were done with our hike, our guides’ husbands drove us back to Sapa town on their motorbikes and dropped us off at our hotel.
Renting a Moto (or Scooter)
A highlight of my time in Sapa was renting a motorbike for an entire day and taking off to explore parts of the valley we otherwise would not be able to reach.
Basically the goal was to get off the tourist path as much as possible. Riding a motorbike in Sapa is so much more comfortable and less intimidating than say riding in Saigon or Bangkok and a million times more scenic. There is no traffic, no drivers zipping by and no honking. We rented a motorbike for $4 and filled up the tank with around $6 of petrol and we were off. If renting a scooter for the first time in Vietnam, read up on some helpful hints here.
Our first stop with the motorbike was the Silver Waterfalls which is about 30 minutes away from town. The waterfall is a 100 meters high and is a site to see, but spending about 10 minutes there is enough.
Once we were done walking up the stairs halfway up the waterfall we got back on the motorbike and continued up the road to Tram Ton pass. This offered amazing views and a very fun windy road down the backside towards Lai Chau. From here we doubled back and rook off up a small road that turned into a bumpy gravel road, then into a muddy dirt road, which eventually led us to a village call Ban Khoang.
The village was busy with lots of construction work, so we decided to keep following the road into a valley that was lush with rice terraces, farm animals walking along the road, children playing and families working on the land. Because this area was harder to reach due to the road conditions, I do not imagine many tourists make their way up there which would explain the curious looks we got as we rode by. Riding out to the different villages gave a us another opportunity to see how other tribes in the highlands go about their day, but also to see some more stunning landscape and scenery.
Where I am off to next
After Sapa I am heading across to Laos to journey by river boat for several days, and then to on explore the wat capital of Laos, Luang Prabang. From there I will spent another two days of river travel to reach the Thai border and head onwards to Chiang Mai for a week. Let me know if there is anything I am sure not to miss!