The Complete Guide to Breathtaking Sapa
If you love trekking tours, if you’re into an active holiday and, especially, if you travel because you want to be close to nature – Sapa is the place to be. Nearly every article online about where to go in Vietnam features a stunning photo from this place. Sapa in the far north is one of the best places to visit in Vietnam. Now let me tell you why you need to go there as soon as you can. Just keep reading.
SAPA’S INEVITABLE FUTURE
Sapa is a great place for a newbie. You don’t have to be an experienced hiker or a fearless climber to admire the views from Fansipan, the highest peak in Indochina. You don’t have to be a student of Vietnamese history to appreciate the beautiful villages. They are home to H’mong people who live simple lives and still do things ‘the old way’ there. You don’t have to be a chef to enjoy the richness of Sapa’s most famous dishes. And believe me – there’s plenty of delicacies to choose from!
I feel like even the most unaware backpacker in the world arriving in Vietnam will have heard about this place. It’s both a blessing and a curse to Sapa’s booming tourism, especially in the recent years. And it’s exactly the reason why I would recommend going there soon.
We visited Sapa in mid-2016 and we were already petrified by the hundreds of construction sites behind every corner. Hotels and B-and-B’s are popping up everywhere you look. This little village that used to be a hill station established by the French in 1922 is expanding rapidly. Make sure to experience it while it’s still what it is.
Now that I told you the reason why you need to see Sapa as soon as possible, let’s focus on the details why it’s worth the visit and why it doesn’t matter if you like touristy places or not – this is the place to be.
THINGS TO DO IN SAPA
THE FANSIPAN PREDICAMENT – TREKKING IN SAPA
With its peak hidden in the clouds at 3143m, Fansipan is Vietnam’s highest mountain. As you can only imagine, the views are spectacular, the air is cool and refreshing, and it was definitely one of our top experiences in Vietnam during our journey across this beautiful country. The summit is located 19 km from Sapa and currently, there are two ways to go about it.
The first option is the recently open cable car taking you from Sapa straight to the summit of Fansipan. It’s quite costly for Vietnamese standards (650,000 VDN return ticket, one-way tickets are unavailable), but so worth it! The trip across the valley gives you a great opportunity to change the perspective of looking at the mountains and the rice fields. It was mind-blowing because it was only then that I really understood how amazing this place was. I couldn’t believe the stunning views.
ADVANTAGES OF TAKING THE CABLE CAR:
– Quick way to get to the top. If you have limited time in Sapa it’s a great time-saver.
– If you’re not a very active, outdoorsy person you can still enjoy the views. The trek might not be the best option for you.
– The views from the cable car are even better than from the summit. It’s a chance to see the rice terraces from a different perspective. And you can take some pretty amazing shots from there as well!
– it’s expensive
– you miss out on a great adventure of a trek with an overnight stay in a local village
Now the second option. You can arrange a trekking tour (two days or three days, depending on your preference) with a professional guide. They will make sure you don’t get hurt on the way there and back. They will also arrange an overnight stay at a homestay in one of the local villages. A guide will make sure you take the safest route up the mountain and will take the weather into consideration as well.
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Personally, we opted for the former as we were running out of time and really wanted to record some footage from the cable car. We did hear, however, a lot of amazing stories of people who chose the latter. Most of them found the trek to be an amazing cultural experience. Staying for the night with the hill tribe people and eating local food there, it must be great.
NOW A WORD OF WARNING TO YOU, BRAVE TRAVELLER:
We DO NOT recommend trekking up the Fansipan mountain on your own, even if you’re an experienced climber. Unfortunately, accidents do happen and a body of a young British backpacker was found after he’d been missing for a couple of days. It was a month prior to our visit in Sapa. Mentioning this situation is probably the most effective way for me to actually scare you. You need to know that going there ALONE might be very, very risky and even the smallest injury might get you killed. Also, the reception is really dodgy there and you might not be able to call for help if you need it.
So one more time – just to make sure you’re following the article. DO NOT go there on your own, because even a PROFESSIONAL CLIMBER wouldn’t do it alone.
THE H’MONG PEOPLE – TREKKING TOURS TO VILLAGES!
THE CAT CAT VILLAGE
Local villages are another famous attraction in Sapa. The most famous one of them is the Cat Cat village (admission 40,000 VDN). Unfortunately, it already got really spoiled by commercial tourism and is only a good place to do souvenir shopping.
It is only when you leave the beaten track of the village that you actually see the real life of the locals. Otherwise, it’s just children running around asking for money and candy their parents sell to unaware tourists.
CHECK OUT OUR VIDEO FROM THE CAT CAT VILLAGE
At the end of the touristy path, however, there is a beautiful waterfall hiding behind the corner. It’s definitely worth checking out.
You can find another waterfall about fifteen minutes further down the path as you walk up another hill again, but it’s not as spectacular as the first one.
There are a few more local villages around Sapa, such as Ta Phin, Sa Seng, Hang Da, Ta Van, Matra and Sin Chai. It’s probably enough to visit Cat Cat which is the closest one and then spend an extra day exploring another one or two. You can rent a motorbike for about 5 USD at most hotels to explore the area.
Keep in mind that the weather in this part of Vietnam changes quite drastically throughout the year. It will be a big factor in how you’ll feel about Sapa after your trip. You might get cold if you visit in December or January, but if you come in May it will be a great relief from the heat you’ll experience everywhere else in Vietnam.
We arrived in Sapa mid-June when the rice fields were nearly fully grown. The rice terraces really left us speechless and astonished then. We have to admit, we fell in love with Sapa.
Make sure to research at what stage of growth the rice fields will be at the time of your visit. It’s a hassle, but it’s worth it. If you visit Sapa at the right time, it will be spectacular, I promise!
We spent countless hours admiring those unbelievable views that reminded me of The Hobbit. In Sapa, for the first time, we chose coffee shops and restaurants to dine in, in terms of whether or not they had a view of the mountains. I know it must seem funny, but it’s all we cared about – to have as much time to look at this scenery as possible. Especially since our trip was quickly coming to an end after such unforgettable six months of travel.
SLEEPING IN SAPA
The first thing you need to know about sleeping in Sapa is that a lot of hotels and B-and-B’s charge more than the regular rate on Fridays (x1,5) and Saturdays (x2). It is best for budget travelers to go to Sapa on Monday morning and stay until Thursday to make the most of their trip without overpaying. Weekends are often crazy busy in Sapa, so if you’re not a big fan of crowds, save yourself the trouble. Spend the weekend in Hanoi enjoying the night market and go to Sapa first thing Monday morning.
There are over a hundred accommodation spots in Sapa. With new ones constantly emerging from the ground, you shouldn’t have an issue finding something suitable to your budget and standard. Of course, since Sapa is a massive tourist spot in the north of Vietnam, the prices are also slightly higher than in regular towns. Don’t expect air-con even in mid-range hotels, but with the weather not reaching anything higher than about 23 degrees in the summer, it shouldn’t be a problem. If you want to visit during winter, make sure to find out if your hotel provides electric blankets. Otherwise, you might get cold!
BOOKING HOTEL IN SAPA ONLINE OR ON ARRIVAL?
We found a few interesting hotels in Sapa using
Agoda app, because in most of the touristy places it’s common the hotels are highly overpriced and booking online using the app will save you a little bit of money.
What we usually do is, we check reviews on Agoda, then go to the hotel to see the room ourselves and then we book it if it really is something that works for us.
Hotel owners will often try to convince you not to book through Agoda. It is due to a provision they have to pay to the company. Our advice would be to book online unless they let you pay the same price as on Agoda app. Otherwise, don’t be too shy to refuse to pay in cash. Book online – if you have a booking, they have to give you a room no matter what.
Unfortunately, we made the mistake of coming to Sapa during summer holidays in Vietnam. Even on a Monday morning it was hard to find something nice and in our budget. We had to settle for a hotel I’d rather not name here, where everything that possibly could have gone wrong, had gone wrong. So another word of advice – contact fellow travelers who already visited Sapa and ask them for a recommendation. Reviews online can be inaccurate and with Sapa, it might honestly be best to book something in advance at least for the first night.
EATING IN SAPA – LOCAL, VIETNAMESE & WESTERN
Sapa is a great spot to taste some of the signature dishes in Northern Vietnam. There’s plenty of local restaurants and street food behind every corner in the smaller streets of the town. The main streets, as always, are surrounded by western restaurants with cuisines from all over the world.
Our favorite place to eat in Sapa was definitely Good Morning Sapa Restaurant on Mường Hoa Street. You will find it as you walk down towards the Cat Cat Village. The staff is great, the place is small, the menu extensive and the food absolutely amazing. I loved their tomato soup for a starter, while Greg was amazed by their sweet and creamy pumpkin soup. Vietnamese fried rice and noodle dishes are also not a bad choice, but our favorite was definitely their western style burger with fries. They serve really nice phin coffee with condensed milk and have a lot of drinks to choose from. The place is great for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Two other places we’d like to recommend are Michell Sapa Restaurant with really affordable all-day three-course set menus and Sapa 24 where we ate really nice tofu in lemongrass and ginger.
Make sure to taste the food in the local restaurants as well. Warm yourself up in the evening with a big bowl of steaming herby Pho Bo.
During our trip to Sapa, we fell in love with fresh fried tofu in tomato sauce over rice and already made it ourselves back home. It’s just another example of a fantastic, simple and quick dish you can make on your own. This way you can have a taste of Vietnam in the comfort of your own dining room.
GETTING TO SAPA – FROM HANOI TO SAPA
Most people get to Sapa straight from Hanoi, taking a bus scheduled by a tourist agency or a hotel. There are overnight options and early morning buses as well.
Some of the buses drop you off in Lao Cai, half an hour away from Sapa, where you have to take a public bus up the mountain to reach Sapa. Make sure to ask before purchasing your bus ticket where would the end of your journey be. It does make a difference.
There is also a slow but regular train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. You can take an overnight train and then take a bus from Lao Cai to Sapa. It only takes about forty minutes.
If you’re fine with traveling by bus, we’d recommend the easiest route directly from your hotel in Hanoi straight to Sapa. The prices are around 250,000 VDN for an air-con sleeper bus.
ARE YOU ON YOUR WAY TO SAPA ALREADY?
Sapa is a booming touristy spot on the map of Northern Vietnam, but it’s a must see place for every backpacker. There is a reason for this amount of tourists and the number quickly growing, so make sure to visit Sapa before it changes too much! Admire the views, enjoy the souvenir shopping, climb the highest mountain in Indochina and experience the culture talking to the H’mong women on the streets. And if you meet Cho Cho, make sure to show her this photo. You never know, it might get you a discount or she will show you a nice local restaurant nearby. She was a big highlight of our trip.
OTHER VLOGS FROM OUR TRIP TO SAPA
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