380km northwest of Hanoi, heading towards Vietnam’s border with China, lies the misty, mountainous market town of Sapa. For backpackers in the capital, this just a 6-hour bus ride or comfortable overnight train journey away!
Home to five of Vietnam’s most famous ethnic tribes (Black Hmong, Red Dzao, Tay, Giáy, Thai and Phù Lá) Sapa attracts both local and international tourists for its stunning mountain views, cooler climate, exceptional trekking opportunities and homestays with the extravagantly dressed ethnic minority groups.
Sapa town is charming in its own right, with its quaint little streets, coffee shops and bustling markets, however, in our humble opinion, Sapa is best used as the starting point for adventures into the surrounding hills and valleys!
Where to Stay in Sapa
Accommodation in Sapa Town
Staying in the centre can be particularly useful for booking tours, and is extremely lively if you visit on a weekend. Check out the following recommendations…
- Go Sapa Hotel: This centrally located hostel (sister hostel of Go Ninh Binh), includes breakfast with stunning mountain views! The hostel also offers motorbike rental and a range of tours and treks. Dorm beds cost $5 USD
- Check In Sapa Hostel: This colourful hostel packs plenty of character. The staff are great, everything’s very clean and every room offers a good view of Fansipan. Dorm beds start at $5 USD, privates cost $20 USD.
- Viet Flower Hotel: Up a notch, price-wise, Viet Flower has immaculate rooms from $44 USD. There’s a roof terrace and a garden to meet all your outside needs.
- Sapa Horizon Hotel: If you really feel like splashing out, Sapa Horizon is for you. It will set you back something close to $100 USD per night, but the views are unparalleled, the food is fantastic and the rooms are luxurious.
Outside Sapa Town
For a more peaceful and authentic experience, most tourists prefer to stay in local villages away from Sapa town. Good options include Ta Van, Ban Den, Cat Cat Village and Hau Thao. Check out the following
Accommodation in Tav Van
- My Tra Homestay: This 10/10 Hostelworld rated homestay offers a more rural and basic accommodation option, though still with free wifi, hot showers and a family dinner.
- H’mong Stilt House: Charges $4 USD for private rooms! New, clean and amazing views in a peaceful setting. An excellent option!
- Mountain River Homestay: Receives rave reviews for the friendliness of the staff, cleanliness and, again, incredible views. Rooms start at $15 USD.
Accommodation in Ban Den
- The Little Hmong House: A cute little guesthouse in among the rice paddies at the end of a slightly stomach-churning road. The owners are extremely nice and make their guests feel very much at home. More than one guest has mentioned the spiders, arachnophobes, you’ve been warned! Dorm beds cost $5 USD, privates start at a very reasonable $9 USD.
- D&D Eco: A more up-market affair, D&D offers tastefully decorated rooms, top-notch cleanliness (as you would expect for the price) and wide views across the rice paddies. Rooms start at $30 USD.
Accommodation in Xa Hau Thao
- Hoa’s homestay: Hoa’s offers good value for money, with doubles starting at $10 USD. They serve good food for a very reasonable price and their beds are particularly comfy.
- H’Mong The Hills: Aside from being a pretty excellent play on words, H’Mong The Hills is equally fantastic value for money. Again, privates cost $10 USD. They also have dorm beds for $5 USD. The view from their terrace is breathtaking!
- Eco Palms House: At $18 USD for a dorm bed, Eco Palms is a bit of an anomaly, especially given that this is Vietnam we’re talking about! However, the place receives reviews so positive that we couldn’t help but include it. Apparently, the food is off-the-scale delicious.
Trekking in Sapa
Trekking through the clouds in the spectacular mountains of Sapa is why most people visit the region. Many backpackers like to book a homestay as part of a 2-day or 3-day trek in Sapa. A homestay will mean that you stay with a local family (of the ethnic minority tribe, often Hmong, Lisu or Red Dao) and you will be served dinner (and potentially lots of rice wine!) with the family. It’s a wonderful cultural experience and gives you an insight into a way of life that’s been the same for centuries.
Please be warned that there are countless tour options available in Sapa town, from one-day to one-week treks. However, many of them do not receive such positive reports. As the region grows rapidly in popularity, many travellers have complained of being traipsed along concrete paths with a load of other tourists, being repeatedly sold stuff, and generally not having a lot of fun.
Two of our contributors recently sought out to find the best option for trekking in Sapa and they absolutely loved their experience with local Hanoi company, Friends Travel Vietnam. We have since teamed up with Friends Travel and we are delighted to say you can now book their Real Sapa Experience through this site.
Of course, we can’t deny that there are other decent options available… In our Facebook community, a traveller recently told us that they booked a homestay through Lily’s Travel Agent in Hanoi and received honest information and a variety of options for different budgets. We’ve also heard great things about the Sapa Sisters and Ethos Travel, both with HQs in Hanoi.
However, if you’re going to book a trip once you are in Hanoi with a tour agent, make sure you shop around, read online reviews and ask other travellers about their experiences. It’s wise to ask your travel agent about the ‘alternative’ trekking routes, with fewer trekkers, meaning fewer hawkers! (Those Sapa ladies are persistent with their cushion cover pushing!).
Mount Fansipan – Climbing Vietnam’s Highest Peak!
If you’re looking for a real challenge, you may like to tackle Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in the whole of Indochina which can be seen from almost all over Lao Cai Province. Many companies offer one or two-day hikes up the mountain which is a hard physical challenge! Tours booked from Hanoi cost around $400 US such as this 6-day Fansipan adventure package with Friends Travel Vietnam.
For the lazy backpackers amongst you – there’s now also a cable car up Fansipan! However, watch out – it rains 80% of the time in Sapa so it is best to check the weather when you wake up before you hop in a taxi to the cable car, otherwise you may be left disappointed with a rather misty view from the top!
Resources and recommendations
- Sapa Trekking Guide: Read more here about trekking in Sapa here, including what to pack (waterproofs and good hiking shoes are essential), what time of year to go and other essential tips!
- Climbing Mount Fansipan: read one reader’s experience of climbing Vietnam’s highest peak.
- Vietnam Itinerary: See how you can fit a trip to Sapa into your Vietnam travel plans.
Markets in Sapa
There are some atmospheric local markets in and around Sapa Town which are definitely worth a visit while you are there. Don’t miss the following…
Sapa Night Market:
Taking place daily, Sapa night market is much like other Vietnamese night markets selling handmade bags and souvenirs, only much more colourful and in a more beautiful setting! There are no stalls, instead, the tribal woman lay down mats with their wares along the street in front of the church, next to the brightly lit main amphitheatre, and haggling is expected. If you’re in the town for a day or two, it’s worth popping by.
Bac Ha Market
2-3 hours to the east of Sapa town, this market can be reached by bus from Lao Cai. The main area of this market trades in souvenirs, meat, fruit and vegetables. However, the main draw of this market lies right at the very back, where you will come across the animal market. Here you will see the vibrantly dressed locals selling a variety of live animals – including if you climb a set of muddy steps; a live buffalo market with views over the river and town, where a single buffalo sells for $2000 USD!
Sapa Love Market:
Only occurring on weekends (which is when there is a great influx of tourists to the region), the tribal people of Sapa take part in the unusual ‘Love Market’ – where girls and boys from different tribes put on traditional shows to impress one another and hook themselves a partner. There is usually a live performance in the main square, with music, dancing and singing! Forget Tinder – the Sapa Love Market is the place to be.
Things to Eat and Drink in Sapa
For the more adventurous foodies, Sapa has some interesting local specialities, such as ‘thang co’ – (horse meat soup), and surprisingly for a mountain region, ‘salmon sour hotpot!’ Another common sight in Sapa is whole roast pigs roasting over charcoal in the doorway of restaurants, most commonly used to make ‘cap nach’ pork.
For those more inclined towards partying, hostels and tour guides will encourage you to try the locally distilled rice wine, otherwise known as ‘happy water’. Also recommended for breakfast, lunch or just a snack is the lovely Baguette and Chocolat Café (Sapa Town) whose profits go to help disadvantaged children in the area.
How to get to Sapa from Hanoi
Bus from Hanoi: Sapa is only around 6 hours by bus from Hanoi, and we would recommend trying to get a bed on the left of the bus, as the last hour of the journey offers breath-taking (and occasionally hair-raising) views over the mountains. Prices start at around $10 US. Please note: overnight buses in Vietnam are not recommended as there are frequent accidents caused by lack of regulations regarding tired drivers. Therefore, we recommend day travel by bus only. A better alternative is the train, which is comfortable and far safer.
Train from Hanoi: Many people prefer to take the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai (from where you have to catch a 30-minute bus to Sapa town). Total journey time is around 9 or 10 hours. Beds are quite comfy and there are a variety of tickets depending on what type of cabin-class you prefer. Prices start at $30 US and rise to around $80 US.
You can book train and bus tickets in travel agencies in Hanoi or book online at 12go.Asia.
Where to go next?
- Ha Giang: This spectacular northern region of Vietnam is popular with motorcyclists and famous for the ‘Ha Giang Loop’.
- Halong Bay: Surprisingly, many hostels offer buses heading straight to Haiphong and Halong Bay from Sapa, so if you haven’t visited the beautiful limestone karsts yet then this is a great next destination!
- Hanoi: Head back to the hustle and bustle of the capital to continue your Vietnamese adventure.
Guide by India-Jayne Trainor.