Sapa in Vietnam is one of those northern Vietnamese gems that will get your pulses racing! Surrounded by stunning views, hiking options galore, and a pace of life that will melt even the hardest of city dwellers, add this place to your Vietnam wish-list!
Known for being a small and rather welcoming mountain town, Sapa is located in the Lao Cai Province of North Vietnam, close to the border with China and about 350 km from the capital city of Hanoi.
The town is also set in the Hoàng Liên Son mountains, which boast the country’s highest peak at Fan Si Pan (also known as Phang Xi Pang peak), and is surrounded by some very lush and picturesque rice terraces. And thanks to all that mountain goodness, you can expect to find five main ethnic groups in the streets of Sapa (the Hmong, Dao, Tay, Giay and Xa Pho groups), plus a whole range of travelers and tourists (a more recent phenomenon).
I first set foot in this gorgeous town in 2002, and although big changes have been made over the years, Sapa still remains a must-see off-the-beaten-track gem – to help you out, here’s my list of essential tips to maximize your visit to Sapa, Vietnam!
Sapa in Vietnam: a brief history
It’s a little ironic that the town of Sapa wasn’t even included on the national map before the French colonized the area in the 19th century.
It was then used as a strategic military asset and a staging post for missionaries, remaining virtually unknown until Vietnam gained popularity as a tourist destination.
The town itself remained something of a rural mountain backwater until it was recognized as a tourist area around the early 1990s.
You might even get a little disheartened with the current tourist rush as things are definitely not the quiet backwater you might have envisaged, but head out to the hills and the wild and you seriously won’t want to leave! Check out some of the trekking and day trip options in the sections below.
How to get to Sapa
The main leg of the journey from the city of Hanoi to Sapa (or more accurately, to Lao Cai) takes around 8 hours by train, and unless you’re afflicted with insomnia we recommend that you book yourself a sleeper cabin. For the best deals for trains and buses, check out the 12Go website; otherwise just book through your hotel/guest house in Hanoi. Train tickets can also be booked in advance at Hanoi railway station.
The final part of the journey to Sapa from Lao Cai takes around 45 minutes and there are plenty of affordable minibusses and taxis that will take you directly to anywhere in the town.
If you’re up for it, you could always drive the 350 km from Hanoi, though even in a taxi it is likely to be extremely tiring and stressful and not what you need the day before you set off for some trekking in Sapa. Motorbiking up to Sapa is an option, but again if you want to arrive refreshed and ready to trek, the sleeper cabin on the train still stacks up as your best option.
When is the best time to visit Sapa in Vietnam?
Sapa is known for having four seasons in one day (don’t miss the billboards at the city’s entrance!) but watch out for the cold winters in Sapa – from November to February – when you can expect cold (freezing!), wet and foggy conditions. Don’t expect much trekking in these conditions, and bring warm clothing.
If you’re looking for lush, green rice paddies, be aware they’re usually only planted in the spring, and the best time to see them will be in the summer and early autumn. Also take note that August is typically very rainy, especially in the morning – though with all that rain, the scenery can be spectacularly green!
Sapa in Vietnam: where to stay
Despite its remote location and the relative smallness of the town, Sapa boasts a large number of good quality hotels and comfortable guesthouses. Most of the hotels in the town offer a full range of services including 24-hour front desks and shuttle services to the airport.
If luxury is what you’re seeking, especially if you need some pampering after a hard day’s trekking in Sapa, try the highly-rated Aira Boutique Hotel (includes a spa, and around $100 a night)) or Sapa Horizon Hotel (around $80 a night).
If you’re looking for something a little more authentic, there are also some great homestays in Sapa, including Little View Homestay and Eco Hills Homestay, both highly-rated homestays that will really make your visit to Sapa in Vietnam one to stick in the memory bank!
As you can imagine, some of the views from the hotel balconies are absolutely stunning and don’t be surprised if you get tempted to stay an extra day or two longer…
Hiking and trekking in Sapa
Before the expansion of the tourism industry in Sapa, the town was a “must visit” destination for only very hardened hikers and intrepid backpackers; and still today, the main activities in and around Sapa are hiking and trekking.
There are many locals in the town who make their living as guides and their services can be employed very cheaply. We have heard some good things about the various “Mamas” in and around the area, who will host you in their homestay and then take you on an awesome hike.
The names that have come recommended include Mama Vu Vi and Mama Shushu – you can find them online, so do your research and if it looks like what you’re after, go for it.
Many of you coming to Sapa however, will choose to explore the area without a guide by utilizing one of the trekking maps that are available from the town’s tourist information center.
Or you could do like I did on my first visit back in 2002 – I rented a motorbike with my wife and we headed out on the road. We ended up down deserted backroads, bridges that we had to give way to some water buffalo on, and waterfalls that stole our hearts…
If you don’t feel that you are quite ready for that much of a solo adventure just yet, there is a diverse variety of half and full-day guided treks on offer from most of the hotels in town.
Some popular trekking in Sapa options and other day trips include:
|Local tribe tours: Pay around $30 per person for a half-day tour to a local tribe home (including a delicious lunch) – book directly with the tribe guides on the street rather than through your hotel, since the tribe guides will only get 50% if you book it somewhere else.
|Fan Si Pan: This stunning mountain can be reached via a toughish 3km trek (usually done over 2 days and note that you CANNOT get there alone, you will need a guide), or via taxi and cable car. Just so you know, the Sun World Fansipan Legend complex at Fan Si Pan was voted as the World’s Leading Cultural Tourist Attraction 2019 at the World Travel Awards (WTA) 2019 event!
|Trekking tours: Take an amazing 2-3-4 day tour of the area, complete with local guides and plenty of rice terraces and great local food! Check out our Sapa Tours section for more details.
|Cat Cat Village: If you’ve got a spare morning or afternoon, and are seeking out a taste of local life accompanied by great views, head out through Sapa market on the road out of town to Cat Cat (a few kms walk).
Eating out in Sapa
There is no doubt that Sapa has thrived on the back of the huge increase in tourism and this has led to the creation of a fairly modern infrastructure that includes quality shops and a range of excellent restaurants.
Many of the hotels have their own restaurants that are also open to the weary traveler. From traditional Vietnamese fare (try the Moment Romantic, Good Morning Vietnam, or Viet Emotion restaurants) to Italian cuisine and crepes (Le Gecko is the place to go for pastries in Sapa), there is something for every palette.
For pure convenience, head to Cau May Street, which is one of the main streets where most of the restaurants and cafes in Sapa are located.
Nightlife in Sapa
Perhaps this section should be retitled “what nightlife in Sapa?” because there are only a small number of bars in the town and they are more along the lines of a meeting place for fellow trekkers than nightlife hot-spots (try the well-known The Hmong Sisters, and Ninety Pub for a mix of locals and tourists, or The Color Bar for some great cocktails). If you’re up for some Vietnamese karaoke, you can also find a few spots to do your thang.
Shopping in Sapa
If you come to Sapa looking for glitzy shopping malls full of designer goodies you need to turn around and head back to the airport/Hanoi because you are definitely in the wrong part of the world!
On the other hand, if you love markets, haggling like only the Vietnamese can do, and enjoy genuine handicrafts and fresh goods, you will be in shopping heaven! The main and very colorful Sapa market next to the town’s bus station is open every day from six in the morning through to the early afternoon, while the most popular and traditional market day is Saturday.
There are at least a couple of other local markets that were traditionally nothing more than a meeting of the different hill tribes to exchange or trade their wares (try the nearby Muong Hum market on Sundays or the legendary Bac Ha market, some 70km away). Since tourism has taken off, however, these have also become increasingly commercialized and tourism-focused.
If Sapa in Vietnam isn’t on your little ol’ wish-list after the above, I don’t know what else to say!
Whatever your reason for visiting Vietnam, it would be a shame not to at least pay a visit to Sapa, even if just to take in some of the world’s freshest and cleanest mountain air. It’s an awesome northern Vietnam gem, and yep, it’s highly recommended!