Wandering Story: Sapa

June 29, 2016

Daniela Ramos

Let’s face it, Ho Chi Minh is great, but the more you spend time there, the more nerve-wrecking it can get. With thousands of scooters encroaching the streets, ceaseless noises 24/7, and so much going on simultaneously, it can will get to you. Sooner or later, you’ll be on the lookout for a quieter place to escape to for a few days and we’ve got the perfect getaway idea for you.

Set on the slopes of a lush valley, Sapa (dubbed “the Tonkinese Alps”) offers unique trekking opportunities that will take you through villages, rice terraces and some of the most surreal landscapes in the world with mountains popping out everywhere. The area is culturally rich with a variety of hill tribe minorities, too!

A flight to Hanoi and a scenic train/bus ride will get you to this tiny town that acts as the bouncing off point to some of Vietnam’s most unique panoramas.

Getting there

There’s no simple way of getting to Sapa. Reaching it should take a full day, and getting back will do so too. This means Sapa cannot be done in a weekend (and you want to plan on staying there at least three days), so do plan accordingly to make it work with our program schedules 🙂

Step 1: Get to Hanoi

If you are coming from Ho Chi Minh, you can book inexpensive flights via VietJet or any other airline. Vietnam’s distances are extremely large (it’s a long country!) and taking a bus or train will cost you comfort, time (at least 30 hours one-way) and will likely save you no more than $10 USD. So take my advice – just fly.

Step 2: Get to Sapa either via train or bus

Bus

The price for a bus ranges from $10 – $45 (depending on the level of “luxury” you want) and it takes 7-8 hours to get there. Buses are the most convenient way to reach Sapa, unless you happen to suffer from motion sickness (it’s a mountainous region after all, which means curves – curves everywhere).

Train

Getting to Sapa via train is an amazing experience due to the incredible views that will make your jaw drop. There isn’t a train station in Sapa, so you must take a train to Lao Cai first (7-9 hours) and then take a shuttle but from Lao Cai to Sapa (1 hour).

The train departs several times throughout the day and each carriage is run by a different company, which makes the prices and level of comfort vary greatly. Many carriages are owned by Vietnam Railways, but many are also operated by private companies such as Fanxipan, Pumpking, Chapa, Victoria and whatnot.

Booking via Vietnam Railways is the most secure way to do it and they do provide with a variety of options an prices. Some carriages will have beds to sleep on, others will come with a nice see-through roof top, comfortable seats and air conditioning and then there are the cheapest, yet most uncomfortable ones with hard wooden seats and fans.

I chose the last option as I was on a budget. I hopped on the train during the early morning and the views I got to see really took my breath away. It wasn’t very comfortable, but I found it bearable. At some point the carriage got filled up with so many people that many were sitting on the floor and my friend and I offered some locals to use our seats. We were the only foreigners on the carriage, which allowed for a lot of curiosity from the rest of the passengers and the chance to befriend the locals, which were incredibly nice! We even got offered candy and corn cob for lunch from a lady and her children. As I stated previously, it isn’t the most comfortable option but it’s cheap, it will get you there and it will show you a very real side of Vietnam.

Once in Lao Cai, the shuttle to Sapa was awaiting and left when it was nearly full (about 5 minutes after we got on). The price for it was 50,000 dongs per person one-way paid in cash to the driver. Fifty minutes later, we arrived to Sapa.

What to Book in Advance

Do book: The flight to Hanoi (duh.) and the train/bus from Hanoi to Sapa.

Don’t book: tours online, they will be more expensive and probably unauthentic. Sapa is extremely touristy and the locals don’t mind as this has provided them with the chance to create a decent livelihood.

Sapa is filled by hill tribe people who will offer you tours to their village for decent prices. You don’t even need to search for someone offering a tour as you will be approached by them. This is a good option as you can even tailor make your tour to fit your needs. This way, the money you pay goes to the minorities instead of just a percentage of it (usually, if you book via a hotel or agency, the guides get 50% at the most).

Maybe book: A hotel/guesthouse/hostel if you wish to (read below for more info).

Accommodation

Sapa is tiny and walkable. Most buildings there are accommodation options, so it is easy to find a place to sleep without struggling too much. Moreover, once you hop off the bus/shuttle upon arrival, you’ll be greeted by people that will offer you a place to sleep (I found many of these options cheaper than anything I found online).

Another option are home stays, where you get to sleep at the home of a family (most likely in a village outside of Sapa). This is a wonderful way to really get immersed in the way of life of these minorities, try out authentic food and learn about them.

What To Do

Sapa Museum

The museum showcases an interesting insight of the history, ethnology and culture of the area around Sapa. Visiting is a must to gain a good understanding of the place you are about to explore.

Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village was formed during the 19th century when different ethnic groups united, namely the Black H’Mong people. A visit to the village can give you a glimpse of the lives of the ethnic people of the area.

Cat Cat is very touristy as it attracts people from all over the world due to its customs and its ease of reach (it stands two kilometers outside of town and can be reached by foot or by hiring a motorbike).

Something important to keep in mind is that you must pay for an entry ticket of 40,000 dong before arriving, otherwise you will be denied entry. They can be purchased in Sapa town.

Minority Villages

If touristy Cat Cat isn’t for you, there are a myriad of surrounding villages that can be visited. As stated above, you can easily inquire about the possibility of visiting a local’s village when you are in town (if you don’t get approached by someone, simply ask a street vendor – they all speak surprisingly good English!).

Keep in mind that many of these villages are protected, so you must pay an entry fee (usually not more than $3 USD).

Muong Hoa Valley

Muong Hoa Valley is one of Sapa’s most famous destinations due to its breathtaking views. It is the largest farmland in the valley, located 14 kilometers away from the main town. You can trek there by tracing the Muong Hoa River and before arriving to the destination, you will also get to pass incredible topography, minority villages and more. Trekking tours can be booked everywhere across Sapa if you don’t want to do the journey on your own.

Sapa Market

You can find it right next to the bus station. The inside of the building is a concoction of colorful handicrafts, fresh fruit and vegetable stands, and butcher shops.

Sapa is famous for its embroidery-making and two versions of them are sold: handmade and machine made (its no rocket science to differ them from one another). Moreover, you can find clothes, blankets, traditional designs handmade by the locals and handcrafted souvenirs to take back home.

Trekking

Many trekking tours last more than one day, which means they might include a home stay at a village on the way, so keep an open mind.

Always know who you are booking with, as many trekking agencies tend to not respect the rights of the guides, which are usually part of the ethnic tribes. Make sure you book via a licensed organization.

Day treks can be done on your own, as paths are easy to follow and it is not easy to get lost. You can get maps of the area at the tourist offices and Google Earth works well in this area.

Learn to sew the hill tribe way

You can book Hmong Sewing classes via Indigo Classes (046 Fansipan Street). A great way to spend your day and acquire new skills!

It would be impossible to list all the activities you can do in Sapa, as multiple companies and locals offer tempting tours. The best way to really enjoy Sapa is to arrive with no plans and let things happen as you go! Never book more than one night at a guesthouse because you will always be presented with different options and things to do. Just go… and see what happens 🙂

Daniela Ramos

Full time traveller. I left home at 18 to study photography in NYC & journalism in London. Have been in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe. Now, I am globetrotting the world visiting all the Green Lion programs to tell you my experiences first-handedly.

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