I begin with a self-question...did I like Sapa? Answer: I don’t know.
A NO that is also a YES, a YES that is also a NO. But how is it possible that a city, indeed, a part of North Vietnam that is supposed to be the flagship, I liked in spurts?
Sapa: a commercial Vietnam?
The rice paddy treks and landscapes are beautiful and worth the whole overnight train ride to Sapa but…yes there is a but…there is something in Sapa that hovers in the air that I don’t like. That something that makes you feel like you’re on a movie set where everyone is playing their part and you’re that extra who arrived almost by accident and has to play a small part and then go back to where you came from.
Translated in a nutshell: Sapa has been and is currently being invaded by tourism, this has changed the balance for which it had become so attractive. It still is, let’s understand, but the tourist or traveler that he or she is, has to pay much more attention than before in order not to run into bad experiences that are highly touristy.
Let’s get to the point, however, of my advice and what can be done in Sapa, a part of Vietnam that I believe still has appeal and is right to visit with due care. Alternatively, after reading this post, I invite you to look for information regarding the hà Giang province (also in northern Vietnam), which may be even more interesting if you are looking for something original.
Are you planning a trip to Vietnam, you might be interested in these articles of mine:
Why visit around Sapa?
Sapa is one of Vietnam’s rice terrace kingdoms. Endless expanses of rice paddies provide livelihoods for thousands of people who are part of Vietnam’s indigenous communities. Ethnic minorities each with their own physiognomy and cultural nuance
Rice terraces are essential. Each family harvests kilograms and kilograms of rice, which are then crammed in for consumption throughout the year. As you know in Vietnam, rice is a much-used food; it is the ideal accompaniment to every dish. Cooked uncooked, even rather bland, we could say that it has the same importance as bread on our tables.
Sapa is not only fantastic landscapes nestled among the mountains, Sapa is also the place where ethnic minorities mix, each with its own characteristics. You will be impressed when, walking along the paths, you meet the different ethnic groups.
Remember that the best time to visit Sapa is between march and May; between june and August the temperatures are high and heavy downpours are possible, resulting in muddy paths. Between september and November you will have a nice opportunity to see the terraces tending to yellow, ready to be cut from September itself. Very inadvisable is the period from december to February because of the fogs and cold weather.
How to get to Sapa
There are several ways to reach this area of northern Vietnam.
The most commonly used are:
- Train from Hanoi to Lao Cai with Mini Bus transfer to Sapa (about 8/9 hours total) – Read also: Train from Hanoi to Sapa (Lao Cai)
- Night or day buses that take you directly to Sapa from Hanoi (about 5 hours)
Although on other trips to Asia, such as to Thailand, I have moved around by night buses, in this case I preferred to use the train.
I will explain more about how it works in a separate article. Just know that it is a must-do experience and I like to recommend it. I used a 4-bed VIP berth and I must say it was very clean, no suspicious animals or insects on board.
The train to Sapa is quaint, definitely not the best way to spend the night and arrive in Lao Cai rested, but it can be done for once.
We chose the train because, reading on the Internet, they advised against night buses because of the recklessness of Vietnamese drivers. I discarded the daytime bus because it would cause me to lose precious travel hours.
What to do in Sapa city?
Sapa city is ugly! Let’s take that for granted.
Don’t plan to stay in Sapa hoping to see anything beautiful in the city. Sapa is good for resting one night as in my case, no more.
Actually, there is a second scenario, which is that you stay in Sapa to go on a day trip to visit Fansipan with the beautiful cable car to the summit. This was my dream in the drawer that went back in the drawer the same day due to bad weather. Impossible to go to the top of Fansipan.
That said, Sapa is a jumble of hotels under construction and stores that come cheap brand name trekking clothing and backpacks. I don’t think they are original but they are still well made and for what they cost you may as well take a chance. For 15 euros I bought a 30-liter technical backpack.
Where to eat and stay in Sapa?
Although the city is ugly I found a wonderful restaurant and hotel that I will not fail to recommend.
For sleeping I suggest the Sapa Elegance Hotel. Slightly defiladed from the center but very clean and with a very cheap laundry service. The rooms are huge and for the price paid it really deserves it.
If you want to look for other ways to sleep in Sapa CLICK HERE.
For the restaurant I suggest instead the The Hill Station Signature Restaurant, not far from the city center, you can walk to it. An elegant restaurant with typical dishes at a derisory price.
Excursions to the villages of Sapa
Many travelers, in fact almost all, go to Sapa in order to trek within nature and combine culture and natural aspects. Here I explain my experience and give you all the relevant advice.
What trekking to choose in the mountains of Sapa?
You will be spoiled for choice! Treks in Sapa are varied, ranging from day treks to multi-day treks. The longer ones include 5 days and 4 nights.
The moredays, the more kilometers on the more or less muddy trails among the ethnic villages of Sapa.
Which trek to choose is a subjective decision, depending on:
- How and how well trained you are for the efforts.
- How much time you want to spend among the rice fields.
- How much time of the entire itinerary you have to devote to it.
The itinerary in Vietnam I had planned did not allow me to spend too many days in the mountains. My choice fell on the 2-day, 1-night trek, which I think is the right solution to experience Sapa and its surroundings to the fullest.
I chose a mixed route between nature and ethnic villages so that I could make a nice mix between culture and natural aspects.
As for prices, they vary according to the number of days. In my case, the excursion cost a total of $139 per person:
- $63 for the 2-day, 1-night trek.
- $70 for the round-trip train ticket from Hanoi ($35 each way).
- $6 for the round-trip minivan ticket from Lao Cai to Sapa.
What is the 2-day, 1-night homestay trek like?
The first day you leave at about 9 a.m. from the agencies. You will probably have arrived directly from Lao Cai by bus after the overnight train trip, so you will already be at the agency (provided you want to do this with an agency).
You spend a full day among the sights of Sapa and at night you will stay in a traditional homestay where, theoretically, there should be cultural interchange between you and the host families. The next day you continue the trek with a stop for lunch and it all ends around 3 to 4 pm. Meals are included in the price paid for the trek.
The two days will not be easy with sunshine, imagine if it rains. You will be quite tired.
For this reason, imagining it already when building the itinerary, I preferred to add a night in Sapa city. Perfect solution as it also allowed me to use the laundry service of the hotel where I was staying. After a mud trek it was just necessary.
In any case, when you outline your itinerary, regardless of the length of the trek, know that you have two choices:
- Sleep an extra night in Sapa city and take the minibus to Lao Cai the next day at 5 p.m
- After the trek go directly to the agency to wait for the minibus to Lao Cai to be able to catch the evening train to Hanoi.
Excursion on your own or with agency?
I also asked myself this question before leaving for Vietnam. I talked to several people who had been to Sapa before me and some told me that they were able to do the various treks on their own.
From my point of view it would be better to walk them in the company of a guide. Assuming that she is inclined to interchange and speaks good English, you will have a better understanding of the customs and culture of the various ethnic groups.
Nothing prohibits you from doing this on your own, but the advice is to use local guides.
Tip: If you choose to do your Sapa experience with an agency, try to use an agency that seeks to reinvest some of the earnings by supporting local communities and thus promote ethical tourism.
Tip No. 2: Choose from one of these tours run by GetYourGuide, it will also help you with the booking part.
What to watch out for when choosing trekking with agencies?
Sapa is chock-full of places where you can choose treks. I therefore recommend that you:
- Plan and book the experience before you arrive in Vietnam
- Buy train tickets through the agency thus avoiding using other booking portals for overnight trains.
Regardless of whether you book it beforehand or whether the choice is on the spot, my advice is to request:
- A guide who speaks fluent or at least understandable English: your overall perception depends on it. Not that my English is native, but if the guide speaks poor English, it will be difficult to understand what he or she is saying and thus enjoy the experience to the fullest. So if possible request a guide with good English.
- A traditional and real Homestay: this sounds like a countercultural request but it is. You may wonder…how is it possible that a homestay in the mountains of Sapa is not authentic? Well, even I was quite convinced it couldn’t be, and instead I ascertained that it really is, or at least it was in my case.
It would be nice to always be able to say that everything is beautiful, everything is great, but when traveling, that is not always the case. Be wary of those who “sell” you everything as a superb “wow.” Sometimes you run into situations you don’t want to be in.
I don’t want to make it too long for you, but Sapa, and especially Cat Cat Village, has developed a certain modus operandi typical of mass tourism, and you may risk finding yourself in a homestay where the owners see tourism as a strong source of livelihood to be exploited to the fullest. I found myself in a homestay where it was obvious that they did not want to share, talk or explain their lives and experiences to me. So, I recommend that you make it clear already at the time of booking to demand a homestay where there is a willingness and true interest in cultural contamination. Your perception of Sapa will depend on it.
Recommended clothing for excursions in Sapa
Apart from the city, Sapa’s ethnic villages are scattered among the mountains. During the trek you will go from one village to another via paths that will easily be muddy and slippery. Even if you happen to be in a dry period, there are bound to be jungle passages that will be wet. Then again, you will be in the mountains and along the 30 or so kilomet ers you will have to hike (total kilometers over the two days) it is impossible to find everything dry, partly because it rains often and frequently in Sapa.
Thus, the recommended clothing is what you would use for a hike among the native mountains:
- Technical/synthetic clothing so that they can dry easily in case of rain.
- Goretex shoes or boots to avoid getting your feet wet.
- K-Way necessary in case of rain.
- An umbrella of the foldable kind, in this case it will not be needed for rain but to cover from the sun along the way.
- Spare parts according to the number of trekking days.
Remember this post…when you see the women of the H’Mong and Red Dao tribes who, without the slightest difficulty, will pass through impossible spots using simple plastic slippers.
It will seem strange but those slippers have an extraordinary grip, a little uncomfortable but it is like having crampons. Try it to believe!
Anyway, joking aside, I highly recommend that you leave from Italy with the proper clothing.