Sapa is a town in the Lao Cai province in the North of Vietnam. It is known for trekking, the highest peak in Vietnam (Mount Fansipan), as well as the warm welcome provided by the local Hmong people. There are many reasons to visit Sapa, this green and peaceful land. Read on to find out why to visit Sapa, how to get there and the best things to do in Sapa.
- Why visit Sapa
- How to get to Sapa
- What to do when visiting Sapa
- 1 / Trekking in Sapa
- 2 / Eating and drinking when visiting Sapa
- 3 / Shopping for handicrafts
- 4 / Pampering in Sapa
- How to go trekking in Sapa
- Where to go trekking in Sapa
- Who are the Hmong people in Sapa
- Where to stay when visiting Sapa
- Climate in Sapa
- Child labour in Sapa
- Want to read more about Asia?
Is Sapa worth visiting?
Sapa is famous for trekking, therefore this is the main reason to visit as part of your trip around Vietnam. But even if you’re not a fan of trekking, this part of the country is well worth a visit. The people you meet (the Hmong people local to this area), the different cuisine and the scenery are vastly different to the rest of Vietnam.
With rolling hills, greenery and mountain air, you could easily assume you were in Switzerland. Were it not for the visible rice fields reminding you that you are in Asia and the strong Hmong culture which permeates through Sapa, distinguishing it from anywhere else in the world. It is quite simply, a unique and pleasurable place to visit.
How to get to Sapa
From Hanoi, there are two options on public transport. You can either take a bus or a train. You can also book a private transfer.
We’ve written a short guide on how to get from Hanoi to Sapa here.
Best things to do in Sapa
1 / Best things to do in Sapa: Trekking in Sapa
The main reason that most people travel to Sapa is to go trekking. Whether hiking Mount Fansipan (the highest mountain in Indochina), taking a slow trek around the rice fields or trekking with guides to the local villages. Sapa is a great place to explore on foot. See below guide for more information on how to trek Sapa.
2 / Best things to do in Sapa: Eating and drinking when visiting Sapa
The popular cuisine in Sapa is hot pot. Because the climate is so cold in Winter, you really will welcome the warmth of the hot broth, noodles and vegetable stew. With hot pot, you are given a large pan in the middle of the table to which you can add your vegetables and meat or fish of choice. Popular options in Sapa are horsemeat (not something we are keen on), salmon or beef. We opted for the salmon and it was a delight.
If you drink alcohol, be sure to try the local rice wine (referred to as Happy Water for obvious reasons.) This is a spirit, roughly 40% alcohol content made from fermenting rice in a pan and leaving it for a long period of time. It is perhaps not the most sophisticated flavour for the palate, but it’s super warming and quite enjoyable after a few sips. You can buy it flavoured with apple and plum too.
3 / Best things to do in Sapa: Shopping for handicrafts
One of Sapa’s biggest industries is handicrafts. Local H’mong women are famous for making various handbags, purses, bracelets and clothing. All of the items are handmade, even hand dyed. You will notice that many of the H’mong women have stained fingers, this is from the Indigo dye that they use to colour the fabrics in their handicrafts. Indigo dye is made from a local plant that grows around Sapa.
If you’re looking for a small souvenir to take home, then Sapa has some of the most interesting items. Even if you’re not looking for something, you’re likely to end up buying it – not only are the H’mong women very persuasive, but they are also determined sellers, willing to follow you for many metres, even kilometres, until you buy something.
4 /Best things to do in Sapa: Pampering in Sapa
As with everywhere in Vietnam, there are lots of spas available in Sapa. After a long day of trekking, why not head to town and enjoy a massage or foot massage. Just be aware that, as with all of Sapa, the spas are not very warm! So if you feel the cold you may not fancy a full body massage in Sapa. No need to book a spa, there are plenty in the town and always have availability, even late into the night.
Best things to do in Sapa: How to go trekking in Sapa
Trekking is one of the best things to do in Sapa. For trekking in Sapa, you have two options. The first, is to take a tour with a guide. The second, is to go trekking without a guide.
Trekking with a guide in Sapa
Arranging a trek in Sapa with a guide could not be easier. You can either book in advance or you can very easily arrange a trek as soon as you arrive in Sapa.
If you choose to arrange a trek in advance, we would recommend arranging it either through your hotel or finding a private tour guide online. There are a number of Facebook groups and contact details that can be found online if you want to do this. We booked with Ger, her Facebook page can be found here.
It is also possible to book via a website, like Viator (see details below). Whilst this might give you a bit of reassurance, it is an expensive option. In our view, you would regret doing this once you arrive in Sapa and realise how much the normal prices are, versus booking through websites in advance.
If you want to arrange your trek once you arrive in Sapa, this is really easy. In fact, if you get the bus to Sapa, you’ll be greeted by many eager tour guides as soon as you arrive. You can also arrange a trek with your hotel when you check in. We were able to do this quickly and leave at 09:00 the next morning.
For a one day trek, expect to pay around $20, or around $35 to $40 for a two day trek. The one day trek will include lunch and the two day, two lunches, breakfast, dinner and overnight accommodation.
Trekking without a guide in Sapa
You could choose to trek without a guide in Sapa. This is definitely an option that would be relatively easy with a little forward planning. Trekking in Sapa is extremely popular, so finding footpaths is relatively easy if you see a group of trekkers, it will be quite obvious which routes to take. But don’t expect footpath signs or way markers.
If you choose to trek solo, we would recommend arranging to stay in a remote homestay to make sure you get the most authentic experience and don’t miss out on meeting local H’mong people.
And of course, as always, take precautions to ensure your own safety if you are hiking alone.
Where to go trekking in Sapa
Trekking to Cat Cat Village
Walking to Cat Cat village from Sapa is easy. You can find the walk easily on Google maps, and it is approximately 3kms from the edge of Sapa. Walking to Cat Cat village is a downhill cruise, but there are hills on route back. We chose to take a motorbike taxi back to Sapa from Cat Cat Village. After some haggling we paid 100,000 VND (approx $3).
Is Cat Cat Village worth visiting? We think it is, but Cat Cat Village is relatively small, so you will need only 2 to 3 hours there. This would be ample time to browse the handicrafts, see the waterfall, enjoy a drink with a view and watch the local dance show.
You must buy a ticket to enter Cat Cat Village, this costs 70,000 VND (approx. $2.50.)
Climbing Mount Fansipan
You can climb Mount Fansipan in one day, two days, or longer if you wish. If you climb in one day, expect a tough walk. Climbing for two nights means that you will stay overnight in a camp. Be aware, that this is extremely basic. You will be provided with sleeping bags, but little else (i.e. expect to sleep on the floor!)
Conditions when climbing Fansipan can be variable. During Winter, Fansipan can experience snow, as well as sub-zero temperatures. So if you’re planning to do this trek, prepare for the cold and either pack accordingly, or buy some trekking gear in Sapa before you climb. Paths up and down Sapa can be quite slippery too, although it is feasible to walk in trainers, a sturdy pair of hiking boots may be a better option.
If you book a two day hike, which is most typical, expect to pay between $70 and $100, which should include food and accommodation, as well as a trekking guide for two days.
You can also book an organised climb of Fansipan on Viator. This tour booking agent will organise everything for you before you arrive!
As an alternative to climbing Fansipan, you can take the train and cable car. This is more expensive at 800,000 Dong (approx. $25) but it is well maintained and provides a way to see Fansipan, and the surrounding views, without working too hard.
Trekking around Sapa Villages and Rice Fields
Most treks starting in Sapa will be one or two days of walking. For the one day treks, you are likely to walk from Sapa through rice fields and into neighbouring villages such as Lao Cai, Ha Thao and Ta’Van.
Two day treks will be similar, but will include an overnight stay in a homestay run by a Hmong guide and likely a taxi back to Sapa to your start point.
The main attraction of taking these treks are seeing the local villages, enjoying the scenery where you may encounter all sorts of wildlife, such as water buffalo, ducks and pigs. By far, the highlight of this event for us was the overnight homestay, which included an incredible dinner and fun evening of laughter with fellow trekkers and the Hmong guides and a generous breakfast. We also got invited to a local wedding on our second day, where we enjoyed a huge amount of food and “happy water.”
We booked with Ger and stayed at her stunning homestay – found here on Googlemaps. There are numerous other homestays in this area, all offer stunning views over the valleys. But be warned, the nights get cold so bring lots of layers!
Who are the Hmong people in Sapa
The Hmong are a community of people descended form Chinese ancestry. Historically, the Hmong in Vietnam moved across the border from China to settle in Vietnam.
The Hmong in the locality of Sapa are settled into different “tribes” or “sects” in different villages. This includes the Black Hmong, the Green Hmong and the Rainbow Hmong, the descriptions are designated based on the colour of the traditional dress worn. There are other tribes and sects too, we have just referenced a few here. Each sect of Hmong has a different dialect, although all speak Vietnamese too and are able to communicate with each other.
The Hmong women are often acting as tour guides or selling handicrafts, whereas the men are traditionally more focused on tending to farms. The main farming for Hmong people is rice fields. We understand that the government in Vietnam do not tax Hmong for the rice that they produce, therefore they are able to live a very self sustaining life, with the rice grown by each family able to feed them all year around. The lack of tax paid also encourages Hmong children as they grow up to remain in the Sapa region, rather than move to the larger cities.
Where to stay when visiting Sapa
If you’re planning to trek and stay in a homestay for one night, it’s worth also taking at least one night in Sapa town. If however, you’re not planning to trek, we would recommend staying in a homestay in one of the local villages and taking a taxi to visit Sapa for an afternoon instead.
If staying in Sapa or near to Sapa, here are some options for different budgets.
For a Budget option Dang Khoa homestay is difficult to beat. This small homestay costs approx $15 per night for two people, in a private room, including a generous breakfast. It’s close to the centre of town too.
For mid-range, try Comlam Eco Lodge, which costs approximately $25 per night and is slightly out of town with mountain views.
An upmarket choice, would be Sapa Relax Hotel and Spa which costs around $60 per night, but has excellent reviews and spa facilities.
Climate in Sapa
It can be tempting to assume that Sapa is going to be hot, because it’s in Vietnam. But think again. Sapa is as far north as you can get in Vietnam. So far north, in fact that its extremely close to the Chinese border. So if you travel in the winter months (roughly November to February), brace yourself for cold weather. In fact, 5 months a year Sapa is very cold. 7 months of the year, you will find glorious sunshine. The climate in Sapa really is split into two seasons.
If you visit in Winter, be sure to pack a warm coat and a woollen hat (yes, really!) Gloves, warm socks and a jumper will also come in handy. Many of the hotel rooms have heaters and even electric blankets (delicious), but you will still feel the cold through the night. The other thing to be aware of is that many of the restaurants and bars in Sapa are basically outdoors, the terraces on the higher floors are completely open. Meaning that it can be very difficult to stay warm whilst you eat or drink. Sapa has a distinct ski season vibe, think ear muffs and furry coats!
Finally, be aware in the winter that you will not see much blue sky. It’s a rare occasion when the sun comes out to say hello. Much more frequently, you might find rain and mist. Nevertheless, it is still a beautiful place to be, whatever the weather.
Child labour in Sapa
As a note of caution, when you are visiting Sapa, you are likely to see children trying to sell souvenirs and handicrafts. It can be really tempting to buy from them, especially as some of them are seemingly alone in the village. Giving them money can feel like the kind thing to do.
We are of course not experts on this and we don’t have the full cultural context, however, do note that the government in Sapa is actively trying to encourage tourists not to buy from children. They are apparently making announcements around the village and sending text alerts to tourists, although we missed this.
According to articles that we have read, and a university study that we have identified, children in Sapa are frequently skipping school in order to work on the streets selling things to tourists.
Would you prefer a tour of Vietnam?
We love independent travel, but sometimes a tour can be the best way to travel the country. It’s also a great way to make friends for life.
The first, is a 22 day trip which includes the highlights of Vietnam and Laos.
The second, is a great trip, but a little shorter for anyone who doesn’t have as long to spend travelling but still wants to see everything! The ten day trip travels from the North to the South of Vietnam.
Want to read more about Asia?
- Click here to explore Vietnam
- Click here to read more about Bali
- Click here to find out about Singapore
John and Emma’s hiking gear. These are items we love to use when we go hiking, find them here on Amazon.
Osprey 40L, Multi, O/S
HOKA ONE ONE Mens Speedgoat 4 Textile Synthetic Trainers
HOKA ONE ONE Women’s Clifton 8
CWVLC Unisex Cushioned Compression Athletic Ankle Socks Multipack
Dr. Scholl’s Blister Cushions, Seal & Heal Bandage, 8 Cushions
Montem Ultra Strong Trekking, Walking, and Hiking Poles – One Pair (2 Poles)
Most of our planning is done using other blogs, but you can’t beat a guide book at the bottom of your case. Find them here on Amazon.to get the travelling started!
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