Things to Do in Sapa in Northern Vietnam and Why You Need to Visit Now
Sapa in Northern Vietnam is special, with a breathtaking location surrounded by mist-covered mountains and lofty rice terraces, and the feel of a French Alpine town – albeit one populated by colourful ethnic minorities. Sapa is unmissable. But you need to visit now, because Sapa is changing and changing fast.
Sapa, one of our favourite places in Vietnam, is a former French hill station located on the slopes of Mount Lo Suay Tong at an elevation of between 1,500-1,650 metres. The town offers breathtaking views of the Ngoi Dum valley in the east and the Muong Hoa valley southwest of Sapa.
Getting to Sapa is half the fun. Best reached by an overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai near the Chinese border, and a drive from there to Sapa through stupendous mountains and steep rice terraces, the journey is a memorable one.
We first visited Sapa in winter five years ago. We went for a few days and stayed ten. Sapa has that affect in people. We trekked the rice terraces with a guide, stopping to visit homes and chat to villagers on the way. We saw just one other foreign hiker all day.
We ate some of the best pho we’ve ever eaten, steaming and fragrant of dill. We spent our days photographing and laughing with the charming ethnic minorities women, and we went to colourful Bac Ha markets and sipped corn wine with the locals.
We spent a lot of time writing from a hotel room with a balcony and mountain views, watching the fog dramatically roll in over the forest-covered peaks into the delightful town and then roll out again through the deep valley of lofty terraces as quickly as it came.
I just spent a few days in Sapa with our little group on the 22-day Vietnam Culinary Tour that I hosted and fell in love with the Northern Vietnam hill town and its charming people all over again. However, I was a little sorry to see that Sapa is changing and changing fast.
The cable car to Fansipan mountain that opened in 2016 and a new highway that cut the journey by road by hours has brought many more tourists to the once-quiet town. New hotels are being constructed everywhere. The atmospheric market that was at Sapa’s heart has been moved away from the centre. The main square and streets are packed with people, although it gives the town a festive feel.
You still need to visit Sapa – we’ll be returning; I’m currently tweaking the itinerary for another Vietnam food tour we’ll be hosting – but I strongly recommend you get to Sapa soon.
Sapa – Why You Need to Visit This Northern Vietnam Hill Town Now
Here are some reasons why you need to visit Sapa soon…
Absorb the Breathtaking Setting of Sapa
The town of Sapa in northern Vietnam, not far from the Chinese border, has a picture-postcard setting, located in a valley with a small lake and surrounded by majestic mountains often enchantingly blanketed in mist. A room with a view is a must here so you can take in the changes to the vistas, especially how the clouds mesmerise with their continual flow into the valley and over the hills. When the clouds and fog decide to clear off, the views of the surrounding mountains are simply jaw-dropping.
Engage With the Colourful Ethnic Minority Peoples
Vietnam’s population of 92 million includes 54 ethnic groups, the majority of which are the Viet or Kinh people who comprise around 87%. The other 53 ethnic minority groups live mainly in the mountainous that cover two-thirds of Vietnam and there are eight different ethnic minorities (once known as ‘hill tribes’) that live in villages and hamlets immediately around Sapa.
Each ethnic minority group wears a different costume so you’ll soon be able to distinguish between the Black H’mong, Red Dao (pronounced ‘Zao’), the Giay (‘Zay’), Xa Pho, White H’mong, and Flower H’mong. The Black H’mong is the most common of the ethnic minorities that you’ll see, the women easily identified by their black skirts and leg warmers, accented by flashes of silver from their jewellery.
You’ll mainly engage with the charming ethnic minority women who trek daily into Sapa to sell their beautiful handwoven textiles and handicrafts to tourists. As you’ll quickly discover, their personalities are as colourful as their costumes! For textile lovers, I strongly recommend the handicrafts and cooking day offered by Sapa O’Chau, where you can learn batik making, embroidery and hemp weaving. More on this soon.
Trek Bucolic Countryside and Jaw-Dropping Mountains
A trek through Sapa’s jaw-dropping mountains and countryside, stopping at villages to engage with locals, is an absolute must. Depending on how long you stay, you could do a short half-day or full-day trek along trails through the lush Muong Ha Valley or a two- to three-day trek, staying overnight in village home-stays, on any number of trails. Almost as soon as you head out of town the countryside is bucolic. Rice terraces are carved into impossibly steep mountains, including Vietnam’s highest peak, Mount Fansipan (see below) and through parts of the 30,000-hectare Hoang Lien National Park.
You could grab a map and do a hike independently, however, you’ll get so much more out of the experience by going with a local guide from one of the ethnic minority groups and getting the chance to meet families in villages and gain a glimpse into local life. We use two local travel and trekking companies ran as social enterprises, Sapa Sisters and Sapa O’Chau. Owned and operated by ethnic minority women, guides are paid well, in contrast to foreign companies that can pay guides as low as one third of the standard rate a day. They also offer local insights and the opportunity to visit their family homes on hikes.
Shop Sapa Markets
The local Sapa markets are a feast for the eyes and the taste buds, even at their new location on the other side of the lake, about a 15-minute walk from the centre of town. While the purpose built new market doesn’t have the same atmosphere and character of the old market that was in the heart of town, which was easily one of our favourite markets in Vietnam, it’s still worth a visit.
Fresh produce, just plucked or picked that day, is in abundance at the stalls outside and along the perimeter of the market, while inside the market steam rises from enormous pots of stock from which cooks ladle bowls of soup. If you only taste one thing, make sure you try the local cakes that the ladies make at the stalls outside.
The upstairs section of the market is also the place to buy souvenirs, with an abundance of colourful textiles, costumes and crafts to choose from, some being made right at the stall while the ladies wait for customers. Skip the factory-made souvenirs at the stalls downstairs, primarily aimed at Vietnamese and Chinese tourists. I’ll cover handicrafts and shopping in more detail in another post.
Eat and Drink in Sapa
On our first trip to Sapa our trekking guide wanted to take us to a French café for croissants but we wanted to experience the kind of place where he would go for breakfast. “There’ll be used serviettes and chopsticks on the ground,” he warned. “It gets very messy.” Perfect, we said! With our first steaming bowl of pho, Vietnam’s famous noodle soup, in front of us a few minutes later, we knew that this was the way to eat in Sapa.
There are a plenty of tourist restaurants, but the local eateries, hole-in-the-walls, and food stalls offer far more delicious food. Expect to find full-flavoured but chewy ‘trekking chickens’ (free-range chickens that have their run of the hills), succulent pork belly (also farmed in the mountains), and freshwater fish (from surrounding lakes and streams, as well as fish farms). Dig in! Just go easy on the local corn wine…
Visit Ham Rong Hill
If you want to get in a little training before heading off on a trek, Dragon’s Jaw Hill, just above the main part of town, rewards visitors with some splendid views of Sapa and surrounding countryside. It’s a real tourist attraction, with an entrance fee, and there’s a lovely orchid garden. But it’s the views that really make the experience special – if you luck out and get a break in the weather, that is. They may be touristy but the shops on the stairs on the way up to Ham Ron are a great place to purchase local handicrafts and Vietnamese souvenirs, offering lower prices than shops in the heart of town.
Learn About the Fascinating French History
One thing that makes Sapa fascinating is its French colonial history. On a day when the mist encircles the steppe of the Sapa church, just off the main square, you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re in the French Alps. It’s this cool air and atmosphere that attracted the French colonisers here in the first place, thinking it would make a great summer retreat and a European style ‘wellness’ centre.
By 1924, the road from Lao Cai was completed, making a link from Hanoi possible overnight. By the 1930s the town had over 200 French buildings, running water, a sewage system, telephone and telegraph lines, and electricity. The complex history of the French presence here saw them eventually leave in 1949 – and bomb the town in 1952, resulting in many of the fine French villas being destroyed.
Trek to Majestic Mount Fansipan
Mount Fanispan is Vietnam’s highest mountain at 3,143 metres and over the years many visitors have come to Sapa specifically for the challenge of climbing it. It’s not mountain climbing per se, just very hard trekking in often wet and miserable conditions. The trek is most comfortably done over two to three days, although can also be completed in one gruelling long day by experienced hikers. And if you get lucky you’ll have the most magnificent vistas in Vietnam to enjoy. If not, at least you can say you did it. This is a trek that must be done with a guide as they know the local weather conditions and will enrich your trek and keep it safe.
Ride the Cable Car to Mount Fansipan
But now anyone can conquer Mount Fansipan by taking a ride on a 15-minute cable car to its lofty peak. Opened in early 2016, the Fansipan Legend cable car has been recognised by the Guinness World Record: at 6,292 metres-long it is the longest non-stop three-rope cable car in the world, with the greatest elevation difference by a non-stop three-roped cable car at 1,410 metres. Designed by Doppelmayr, makers of cable cars in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, it’s part of the Sun World Fansipan Legend resort complex, 9kms southwest of Sapa. There are coffee shops, restaurants, souvenir shops, and temples at the start at the Sapa Station and at the end at Fansipan Station. Open from 7.30am to 5.30pm, tickets currently costs 600,000VND (US$26 at the time of research) for the gob-smacking ride above the beautiful Hoang Lien Son mountains and the sweaty 600-step climb to the summit.
Do a Day Trip from Sapa
There are a lot of day trips that can be done from Sapa. Indeed, enough to comfortably fill a couple of weeks. Local villages such as Cat Cat, Ta Phin, Sin Chai, Ta Van, Sa Seng, and Hag Da are all worth visits, especially if you time a visit with the days the villages hold their local market. The ‘must do’ village visit is Bac Ha for its vibrant Sunday market when ethnic minorities from surrounding villages come to trade their colourful crafts, fresh produce and livestock, do a bit of shopping themselves, and catch up with their friends. It’s a real social occasion. It’s a good idea to time your stay in Sapa so you can do a Sunday day trip here. Sapa Sisters and Sapa O’Chau both offer day trips to Bac Ha and other markets; links above.
How to Get from Hanoi to Sapa
Getting to Sapa is half the fun if you take the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai. I love trundling out of Hanoi in the dark (the train leaves at 10pm) and waking after sunrise to the first glimpse of the spectacular scenery that awaits us. And it can be quite an adventure, depending on which train you take.
There are many ‘trains’ from Hanoi to Lao Cai to choose from, which are actually different carriages operated by different companies to form the one train. We’ve now tested a few, including the supposedly ‘top-end’ train, the Victoria, which we were terribly disappointed in and is over-priced for what you get, namely dirty bathrooms and dreadful food.
We recommend the superb new Chapa Express Train instead, which we recently tested. The carriages are super clean and the cabins very comfy. The toilets can still get a bit dirty but they make an effort to clean them regularly. An English-speaking staff member welcomes passengers on board with complimentary water, hot tea/coffee and biscuits, or a bottle of wine (not complimentary). Yes, please.
The Chapa Express also has a lounge at Lao Cai train station where you can take a shower before your onward journey, handy if you’re heading to Bac Ha for the day or can’t check in to your Sapa hotel room until the afternoon. The journey time is around 8 hours, with trains departing at 10pm nightly and getting in a little before 6am. Tickets are US$42 per person in a 4-bed sleeper or US$80 for a 2-bed sleeper. We buy tickets online here through Blue Dragon Tours, which often throws in transfers and includes staff assistance at Hanoi Train Station, which is essential.
The line ends at Lao Cai from where you take a vehicle through the stupendous mountains – almost every available inch of which are covered in rice terraces. We recommend organising a private transfer in a car so you can stop to take photos of the scenery along the way.
You can return to Hanoi by train or by road on the new highway, which takes around 5 hours. A private transfer in a luxury four wheel drive vehicle costs approximately US$180-190 from Sapa or around $200 per vehicle if you continue straight from Ba Ha and can be booked through Sapa Sisters and Sapa O’Chau, or your hotel.
Another fantastic new option is a seat (US$25) on the 9-seater Eco Sapa Bus, a luxury van with big comfy seats of the sort you find in business class on a plane, wifi, power points, and complimentary water. Buses depart Hanoi daily at 7am and 3pm for the 5-hour direct drive to Sapa, including a 20-minute break, and return from Sapa to Hanoi at 3.05pm and 8am. There’s not a lot of room for luggage, so travel light.
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