Sapa is probably the most popular tourist destination north of Hanoi. This town was already a holiday retreat for the French during colonial time and it is now part of most tourist itineraries for Vietnam. And you can easily understand why.
The town is located in a beautiful mountainous area with lots of colourful and charming colonial buildings and some spectacular views. The main attraction, however, is the surrounding area – home for different minority tribes and some great trekking opportunities, including climbing the highest mountain of Indochina – Fansipan. So Sapa might be the place for you if you are interested in outdoor activities.
Thanks to the popularity Sapa offers a tourist infrastructure no other destination north of Hanoi has. There are plenty of hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, tour agencies and shops – so you won’t miss anything while in Sapa.
Unfortunately Sapa has also some disadvantages. One is the time it takes to get to Sapa. Most tourists take the overnight train from Hanoi – so you need for the return journey already two nights. So a short visit to Sapa for one night might not be worth it.
Also, the weather should be considered and checked. During the rainy seasons landslide can happen – and if the road between Sapa and Lao Cai is blocked, you are stuck in Sapa. From December on it can be quite cold (even the chance of snow) – but rooms have no heating but maybe a fireplace or portable electric heaters. So it can be uncomfortable cold. And if you are really unlucky (like I was), you might experience some fog int he area – which will reduce the visibility to a minimum.
The biggest downside of Sapa though is the hassle you will experience from the persistent vendors on the street. I have seen a group of local women chasing a man trying to sell something. The poor soul managed to escape by running into a shop!!!! I must admit I have not seen anything like that anywhere else in SEA.
This is a reason why for some people Sapa has become too touristy. I might agree, however, it is still an interesting place to visit if you fancy a nice trek and the chance of experiencing a homestay in a minority village. And this can be something very special.
Arrival / Departure
Getting to Sapa might take some time but there are plenty of options – including getting a private driver from Hanoi.
The most popular option is taking the train from Hanoi. It is a very nice way to travel, and when choosing one of the two night trains – leaving Hanoi or Lao Cai in the evening and arriving early morning (there is also a day time train) you even save money for the hotel and arrive early enough to enjoy a full day in Sapa. In addition to the national carriages you can book a berth at one of the private owned carriages. These private carriages are more expensive though.
The trains actually arrive in Lao Cai, around 40km from Sapa. When exiting the train station you can either get a pre-booked car, a taxi, a shared minibus or the public bus. Please note that the minibus touts will tell you lies that there is no public buses etc, and will start offering seats for 200.000 Dong. Do not pay more than 50.000 Dong. The public bus between Lao Cai and Sapa is 28.000 Dong. A taxi should cost around 400.000 Dong. Minibuses and the public bus will arrive / depart near the church and main square in the centre of Sapa.
The second option is taking the bus from Hanoi to Sapa. The bus is usually cheaper than the train, it is faster and you arrive in Sapa, and not Lao Cai. However, road traffic in Vietnam is not very safe – especially at night. So I would recommend taking the train, but if you take the train think twice about taking the night bus. Most buses will depart Sapa from the lake a few minutes away from the church.
You can also get buses to Sapa / Lao Cai from Ha Giang Town and from the northern border with Laos (coming Muang Khuau). There are also some buses going straight from Sapa to Ninh Binh. However, there are reports that the bus company Quang Anh does not stop in Ninh Binh but heads to Tam Coc, where hotels and hotels will offer rooms as there are no taxi in that area. So best to avoid that bus company.
Here are some general information about train and bus travel in Vietnam.
One thing Sapa has not a shortage of are accommodations. There are plenty of hotels, guesthouses and hostels offering something for every budget. I would recommend getting a places near the market, as you find most food places in that area.
if you have not booked anything in advance, it is worthwhile to look around as there are some lovely rooms available. However, if you are approached (and you will be) be aware that they might quote a lower price until you get to the hotel. Also, when visiting there during the winter period it is worthwhile to check if heating is available.
I stayed at the Lotus Hotel, at the bottom of Cau May (the main road from the church) turning left at the sharp corner into Muong Hoa. Here is a review of the hotel.
Food & Drinks
There are plenty of food places and restaurants available in Sapa, offering Vietnamese and Western food (but who is travelling to Sapa to have Italian food).Some dishes I would suggest in the area is the hot-pot, wild boar and water buffalo dishes. And do not miss the little snacks offered by the various food stalls.
What to do
Sapa has enough to offer to keep you busy for days – exploring the town and the surrounding area.
While I would not recommend booking anything there, the tourist information opposite the main square could be a good place to gain some information about the town and the surrounding area.
Sapa itself is a beautiful town with a lot of colourful colonial buildings, some great viewing points over the surrounding area or just having the chance to see the locals of the various minority villages wearing their traditional cloth. So it would be good to have some time to walk around. Here are some details about exploring Sapa itself.
Though the main attractions are the treks and visit to the numerous minority villages. The various treks have different difficulty levels, starting from a little walk to the villages south of Sapa you can do by yourself to more challenging treks north of Sapa with a local guide. Treks are offered by all agencies and by the women from the minority villages you can see throughout Sapa. The latter might offer a more special experience as they provide real homestays. Here are details about trekking in Sapa.
One specific trekking highlight is surely getting up the highest mountain of Indochina – Fansipan. If you plan to do it, please don’t go alone. The weather can change quickly and it is not an easy walk. In 2016 a young Brit decided to head up Fansipan alone. His body was recovered after a week – he fell down the path. So do not underestimate that hike.
If you want to reach the summit and don’t fancy the hike, a new cable car now offers the opportunity to do so. The price per adult is 600.000 Dong (children between 1m and 1.30m go for 400.00, free for under 1m). It seems to be an impressive ride – so maybe worth a visit.
And for those enjoy visiting waterfalls – there are a few to visit near Sapa. You might need a Xe Om though to get there.
And one thing you might not want to miss in Sapa (especially when it is cold) is an herbal bath. There are plenty of places where you can have a relaxing bath in a wooden cask. It can be very pleasant after a hike and can really help to unwind. I would certainly recommend it.
So overall Sapa is worth a visit, but do not rush there. To be able to enjoy the trek and explore the town itself I would recommend staying at least 2 nights there – though a one night visit is do-able as well.
For my personal experience visit my blog entry for Sapa.