Located in this far North of Vietnam this untamed, emerald green wilderness was originally reserved as a hilltop retreat for French colonials.
Nowadays Sapa attracts thousands of tourists who want to experience the cooler temperatures and hike through the craggy and luscious environment. Dense, untamed jungle and challenging trails make this the perfect spot for nature lovers and those who want to burn off some steam with a long hike.
A few days in Sapa can be the perfect tonic after a busy stay in Hanoi or simply if you just need to recharge your batteries and get some fresh air. You will be so enthralled by the ever-changing scenery around you that you won’t even realize how much walking you have done. Then all you need is a hearty Vietnamese meal and a comfortable bed and you are guaranteed to sleep like a baby.
The panoramic views of jungle and lush green paddy fields are spectacular – but they aren’t guaranteed. Due to the humid climate it’s fairly common for dense and low hung cloud to lurk around so try not to be disappointed if you don’t get the views or the photo shots that you were hoping for.
Top Tip – if you are staying in Sapa between December and February then your biggest concern is staying warm at night. Make sure that your accommodation has plenty of blankets (ideally electric) and a fireplace is a bonus. If the accommodation does have a fire or heater then make sure it works!
Sapa isn’t the easier place to get to, despite being located just 380km from Hanoi. The terrain and road conditions mean that the journey by car takes at least 6 hours.
Train: The most relaxed way to get to Sapa is to take the overnight train from Hanoi. Be aware though that Sapa does not have a local train station so the train stops at the nearby town of Lao Cai. From Lao Cai there is still a 38km (50 minutes) bus journey to Sapa. The local shuttle buses should cost $1-$1.5 or you can take a “xe om” if you don’t have much luggage.
Overnight train tickets start from around $13, the train departs from Hanoi in the evening and arrives in Lao Cai approximately 8 hours later.
The train are generally clean and the beds offer enough space for even s Westerner to lie down. Different train providers offer different levels of service but they all provide food trolleys and bathroom.
As with all public transport ensure that your valuables are secure and are ideally kept on your person. Using a zip tie or padlock to lock your rucksack within the cabin is a great deterrent against opportunist thieves who are looking out fotan easy target.
Bus: Sapa bus station is in the center of the town near the lake and is frequented bg a variety of buses from Hanoi. The overnight sleeper bus leaves Hanoi in the evening and arrives in Sapa the following morning, costing around $13 per person.
Since the opening of the Hanoi to Lao Cai highway in 2014 there is now an express bus route, which take just 6 hours from Hanoi. Tickets cost around $16 and the buses are modee,comfortable and include a snack. The express buses generally do not have toilets on board so don’t drink too much water during the journey or you will have to ask the driver stop.
To Do :
The best way to experience the sheer beauty of Sapa is to take part in a walking tour. There can either be arranged in Hanoi prior to your arrival or once you get to Sapa from one of the tour operators. Tours generally cost more to book from Hanoi but many of the more popular hikes fill up with quickly so booking in advance ensures that you secure the tour of your choice. You may also find that some tours booked in Hanoi so include transport to and from Sapa.
It’s impossible to give an average price of a walking tour because there are so many different options. Tours vary from just a few hours to a few days and fluctuate in physical intensity. Shop around for the tour that you want and if there are a few of you then don’t be afraid to ask for a tailor made tour.
Ensure that you have suitable clothing and walking boots, some of the trails can be quite challenging and are considerably less fun if you are wet and have blisters. The weather can be chilly so dress in plenty of layers so that you can remove a few if you get too warm after hiking for a while. A lightweight, waterproof jacket is perfect to stop your clothes getting wet if the clouds are low and the air moist.
Top Tip: If you want an authentic Vietnamese experience then consider one of the many walking tours with homestay accommodation. Live like local in their humble abode and take part in their daily activities. It’s amazing how quickly you become one of the family!
The majority of walking trails are around the Ta Van and Ra Phin Villages so it’s easy to incorporate a village tour into your day trek. In fact most day treks stop briefly in the villages anyway for refreshments.
A tour of the villages gives you an incredible insight into how the rural Vietnamese survive, toiling in the rice fields and trying to make ends meet by producing souvenirs for tourists.
Cat Cat Village is another interesting village just a short walk out of Sapa Town. Cat Cat not only has some pretty waterfalls but it also has some unique customs including ‘pulling wife’. A man asks his friends to lure the lady he likes to his house. The lady stays there for three days and if she agrees to marry the man then a ceremony is arranged (don’t worry, if she doesn’t like the man she can always leave). Experiencing these unusual cultures is a highlight of the village tours.
Remember that the majority of locals in Sapa rely on tourism to boost their meager earnings, so spending a few dollars here and there on trinkets means a lot to them.