380km northwest of Hanoi, heading towards Vietnam's border with China, lies the misty, mountainous market town of Sapa.
(For backpackers in Hanoi - 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?
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:
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.
For a more peaceful and authentic experience, most tourists prefer to stay in local villages away from Sapa town. Good options include Ta Van, Cat Cat village and Hau Thao. Check out:
My Tra Homestay: This 10/10 Hostelworld rated homestay is located in Ta Van village. They offer a more rural and basic accommodation option, though still with free wifi, hot showers and a family dinner.
Things to eat in Sapa:
For the more adventurous foodies, Sapa has some interesting local specialities, such '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 Baguette and Chocolat Café (Sapa Town) whose profits go to help disadvantaged children in the area.
Things to do in Sapa:
Trekking through the clouds in the spectacular mountains of Sapa is why most people visit the region, and there are countless tour options in Sapa town, from one day to one week. Waterproofs and good hiking shoes are essential.
- Climb Mount Fansipan:
The highest mountain in Indochina can be seen from almost all over Lao Cai Province. Many companies offer one or two-day hikes up the mountain, for the lazy backpackers amongst you - there’s now also a cable car. (Top Tip: It rains 80% of the time in Sapa so it is best to check the weather when you wake up and hop in a taxi to the cable car, otherwise you may be left disappointed with the view from the top!).
- 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.
- Bac Ha Market:
Three hours to the east of Sapa town, 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 ‘Love Market’- the girls and boys from different tribes put on traditional shows to meet one another and find a partner. There is usually a live performance in the main square as well, with music, dancing and singing.
- Ban Gioc Waterfall:
Located in Ha Giang Province, this is considered to be the most spectacular waterfall in Vietnam. There are a few companies offering tours from Sapa to Ban Gioc Falls, (although many start their trips in Hanoi), however, it is also possible to rent a motorbike and make your own way there if you have the time, but you'll need to stay overnight to truly make the most out of this trip. The waterfall is as far northeast as you can go, on the Vietnamese border with China. You can combine your trip with seeing the impressive nearby caves and organising a homestay with a local ethnic minority.
How to get to Sapa
Bus: Sapa is only around 6 hours by bus from Hanoi, and I 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.
Train: 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 tickets aren’t too expensive if you don’t mind missing the scenery.
|Hanoi - Sapa $8 – $19 40m – 1h 20m|
|Hanoi - Sapa $10 – $167 7h 55m|
|Hanoi - Sapa $21 5h 30m|
Where to go next?
Ha Giang: The location of Ban Gioc Waterfall is a good next stop if you have the time, as visiting the falls is a multi-day excursion.
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.