Travel Tuesday; Sapa

Situated in the North of Vietnam, about 350km from Hanoi, close to the border of China, Sapa lies at the altitude of 1600m. The Hoang Lien Son mountains dominate the region, which is at the eastern most point of the himalayas. This area contains Vietnam’s highest mountain, the Fansipan Mountain which is located at 3,142m above sea level.

Sapa was discovered by the French in the 1920’s, when they arrived in Tonkin and made Sapa as a hill station. The city became an important location for the French military as well as missionaries. However it was only in 1993 that Sapa became accessible to many, as this was the year its doors were opened to tourists.
Now Sapa is famous for its breathtaking landscape. The town is orientated to make the most of the spectacular views, which can be seen on a clear day. The city watches over a plunging valley of many rice terraces, surrounded by mountains. Besides that, Sapa is famous for its population which consist mostly of minority groups.

Sapa is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever visited – for both in as outside of Vietnam – with its beautiful nature, fresh air, wonderful rice fields and amazing hiking trails. Definitely a place worth visiting while in Vietnam.

How to get there 

There are no airports in or around Sapa, so the easiest way of visiting Sapa is by train.  As most of the people we took a night train, to safe time and make sure we could spend as much time as possible in Sapa. If possible get your hotel to book the train ticket, as there are not a lot of people that speak English at the train station and it will be difficult to explain which level of train service you would like to have.

01. TrainTo get to Sapa  you will have to take a nine-hour train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai. There are several options on travelling on the train – with normal seating (not recommended for the 9hr drive) possibilities and soft sleeper cabins. We booked the soft sleeper cabins for 4 persons, but quickly found that this was pretty small for 4 Westerners. After talking to the train conductor, and paying him about VND200,000 (about US$10), we were moved to a private cabin. This obviously depends on availability in the train.

It’s possible to buy refreshments on the train – such as snacks, water, and cold beer – however I would eat before boarding the train and if you’re passing by a small mini market bring along your own snacks, as this will safe you some money.

Once you’ve arrived in Lao Cai, it will take you another 45min to an hour by minibus or taxi. It is recommended to arrange for a pick up by your hotel – which most of the hotels offer – as the minibus companies are always looking for people that have not booked a minibus yet. They will charge you double the price of what your hotels charges you to be brought to the hotel, as they know they are the only way (besides taxi, which is even more expensive) to get to the city.

You can also take a bus to Sapa, even though this option is cheaper, it’s less comfortable and less safe. Alternatively, you could take a motorbike from Hanoi. Just note that this will take you 2 full days, and that you will need to have  a motor cycle driving license to drive around Vietnam insured. We have not tried this option, so would not be able to give you more information on this.

What to do 

Many people visiting Sapa do so the enjoy the beautiful nature and breathtaking views of the paddy fields. You’re able to do your own hiking trips, there are trekking maps available in town with the walking trails and trekking routes around town. Most of the hotels offer a guided half-day or full day trekking tour, and it is recommended to take the guided tour, as the knowledge of a local guide will come in handy.

We booked all our tours through our hotel, as their guides are minority girls with a great understanding of the English language, local knowledge and experience. Besides that they direct 10% of the profits from their treks back into the Ma Cha School projects as well as other local community projects. While being in Sapa we have done the following tours:

Trekking to Cat Cat Village:

Trekking - Cat Cat Village

When we arrived in Sapa we were pretty tired from the 9hr drive from Hanoi. In the morning we took it easy, and booked a half day tour in the afternoon to Cat Cat Village. This is a 3 hour, easy walk to the beautiful Cat Cat Village. The tour starts at the hotel, and after walking through the village, it’s a 3km downhill walk. During the trek, our guide explained us of the several minorities that lived in the area, we stopped at a waterfall where we saw some kids fishing, and we had the most amazing views of the surrounding areas.

Drive around Sapa with a Xe Om:

After the Cat Cat Village trek we still had some time left before night started. Instead of booking another tour, or walking around the village we decided to find some Xe Om’s (motorbike taxi’s) to drive us around the area. In this way we would be able to see many different sights, relax and avoid some of the over crowded tour areas where most of the tourist would walk around. After almost 2hrs on the motorbike we paid about 250,000VND (US$12) for two xe ohm’s. Definitely worth the money.

Ma Cha and Taphin Villages Trek:

Trekking - Mat Cha and Taphin Village

The next day we were supposed to head out on a walking trail to Lao Chai and Tavan. This is a 6 hours hike to the home of the Black H’mong and Day people. As the weather was bad – heavy rain in the morning – we checked with our fellow hikers to see whether they would be interested to arrange for a bus closer to the location, so that we did not have to get so wet. Luckily they agreed, and so we arranged a bus to drop us closer to the location where we did a hike of about 4 hours.

The trek is of medium intensity, with breathtaking views over the terrace rice valleys. Along the way we were joined and welcomed by many ethnic minority people who tried to sell their goods. To note that if you don’t want to buy anything do not tell you might do it later, as they will keep on following you and hold you to your word. Once arriving in the village, we walked around visiting the minority people in their homes and meet and talk to them to learn more about their every day life. On the way back, we stopped to have lunch overlooking beautiful terrace rice valley, before continuing our walk along many amazing country roads.

Other activities

There are many other activities in Sapa. Here are a few ideas:

Fan Si Pan Mountain:

The most prominent attraction in Sapa is visiting the highest mountain in Vietnam. The Fan Si Pan mountain is only 19km from town. It may seem like a short distance but the trek is not easy, with rough terrain and unpredictable weather. Visitors who are fit and have mountain experience will enjoy this trip, as the peak is accessible all your around. You don’t need to have technical climbing skills, but endurance is a must.

Hoang Lien National Park:

Fan Si Pan Mountain is located in the Hoang Lien National Park. The park covers a picturesque mountain landscape and several forests, and serves as a habitat for a number of animals. Some species can only be found in Northwest Vietnam and are highly endangered.

Bac Ha Market:

Located about 76km from the train station, Bac Ha is a remote district of Lao Cai province. The Bac Ha market  takes place every Sunday, and is famous for the originality and autgencitity that the traders preserve. You can reach Bac Ha market by van or tour which is about 3 hours away.

Sapa Market:

In the early morning, streets in Sapa are filled with hundreds of Hmong and Red Dao people in colourful ethnic attire heading to Sapa market. The traditional Sunday market, which is bustling until late afternoon, is not only for trading, but also for socialising and unwinding for the local community.

Where to stay 

One of our friends who visited Sapa recommended us to go to Sapa Rooms. This boutique hotel & art cafe is located in the heart of Sapa Town in a beautiful iconic French inspired colonial building. This wonderful hotel offers only 6 rooms, so you need to make sure to book a room in advance.

We loved Sapa rooms, as they were located in the centre of town, and it was very easy to walk around town from here. Furthermore the hotel offers great tours that could be booked on the spot and they offer a service to pick you up from the train station. Oh and their breakfast and coffee is great too! And coffee in the morning is very important to me; so even if you don’t stay in this lovely hotel but crave good coffee (which is hard to get in Sapa), visit the cafe.

Besides all of this, what gives an extra charm to this hotel is that the team comprises of Ethnic minority people and people from under privilege backgrounds who are given an opportunity to work in this hotel and improve their own and their families future.

We paid around US$45 per night for a standard room.

Sapa Rooms | 18 Phanxipang Street, Market Area, Sapa, Vietnam | Tel {head office}:  +84 66736279 |  Email: info@saparooms.com | Website: http://tet-lifestyle-collection.com/sapa-rooms/

Another place we looked into staying was the Hmong Mountain Retreat. However as we were only in Sapa for a couple of days, we decided we wanted to be in a more central location. Luckily we did make a quick stop at the beautiful retreat, and after seeing it we wished we had stayed here.

Hmong Mountain Retreat is located 7km from Sapa and is made entirely from sustainable products from the land. A mixture of clay walls, palm leaf tatting and palm tree wood flooring. Here you will find 5 hill top bungalows, overlooking hundreds of rice fields – it must be truly amazing to wake up with this view.

Room rate from US$80 to US$268 per night as per their website.

Hmong Mountain Retreat | Ban Ho, Sapa, Vietnam | Tel: +84 966611383 | Email: info@hmongmountainretreat.com | Website: http://tet-lifestyle-collection.com/hmong-mountain-retreat/

When to go 

The dry season begins from around January and lasts until June. However the best time to visit in this period is from March to May, because January and February are the coldest and foggiest months of the year. Another great period to visit Sapa is in September and November, after the raining season finished, and before the cold and foggy season starts.

Also try to avoid the rainy season, which runs from May to beginning of September, with a rainfall peaking in July and August.

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