The charming town of Sapa is located in the Lào Cai Province bordering China – 6 hours NorthWest of Hanoi. Its location in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains overlooking the Muong Hoa Valley rice fields makes it a popular trekking base for tourists. Many hill tribes and ethnic minority groups such as the Hmong, Tay, and Dao make up much of the local population. It’s known for its breathtaking location surrounded by cloud-covered mountains and has the feel of a small, French Alpine town. You can see its French influences while walking around town. If you have time to visit, I’d recommend you stop here for at least one or two nights! If you’re planning to go trekking, stay an extra night or two.
How to Get to Sapa
We booked bus tickets through the VeXeRe site and picked the “Green Bus” operator after reading good reviews. The ticket costs 250,000 VND per person for a one-way from Hanoi. This company is known as a “sleeper bus,” since your seat reclines almost flat with full legroom. I’d recommend this company as the buses are clean and we had a pretty good experience with them. Make sure to NOT book seats in the very back. We did this on our ride there and it’s VERY tight as you’re elbow-to-elbow with the person next to you. The seats on the rest of the bus are individually separated. The journey includes an English-speaking “conductor” who is there to facilitate the trip. The total trip time is 6 hours, which includes 3 rest stops. A bottle of water is also provided to each passenger, which I thought was a nice touch.
Something to Know
One of the things you’ll notice as soon as you arrive in Sapa – there are small (and I mean SMALL, some as young as the age of 3-4) local Hmong children walking around trying to sell bracelets/goods to any tourists they see. You will see them everywhere, as well as the mothers/women nearby offering their services as a trekking guide or selling their embroidered goods. These children aren’t in school and it’s difficult seeing them out in the cold all day long trying to make a living at such a young age. I know there’s a lot of conversation surrounding whether you should or shouldn’t be buying from these kids. Some will say giving them money will encourage the vicious cycle of keeping the children on the streets and others will say giving them a $1 or $2 will help them. It’s hard to know the right answer, but support them with however you’re comfortable. There are many local organizations in Sapa (like the one I mention below in the trekking portion) that aims to empower and educate women and children in this community.
I came across this blog that outlines how you can consciously support the locals and practice responsible tourism when you visit Sapa. I don’t have any photos of the Hmong women or children as I didn’t feel comfortable photographing them.
Where to Stay
We stayed at Golden Villa Sapa Hotel, which I’d recommend if you’re looking for a central, affordable, clean double room. This hotel is located in the city centre of Sapa. The town itself is quite small, so the whole area is very walkable. There are tons of hotels outside of the city centre located up in the beautiful mountains, but we chose to stay in the centre since it’s close to restaurants. It’s also walkable to Sapa Station where you go to catch the train to Fansipan, which was the main attraction we wanted to visit.
How to Get Around
You can rent a motorbike/scooter for 80,000 VND – 240,000 VND per day if you plan on visiting several locations. If you’re not comfortable riding a scooter, I found that the “Grab” app prices were a bit more expensive than the taxis for one-way distances. If you plan on visiting more than one spot, I’d recommend hiring a taxi driver. You can negotiate the price to have the driver take you to several places. Since it’s a big tourist destination, expect to pay close to 300,000 VND for just visit one destination round-trip. Like I mentioned before, the town itself is quite walkable, and it’s lovely just to explore and visit many of the cafes or shops.
What to Do/See
One of the most popular reasons why tourists visit Sapa is to go trekking through the mountainous highlands, visiting and discovering the remote village of the Hmong people. These treks are led by the Hmong women which provide them with sustainable incomes. Many of these women speak very good English and are extremely friendly. There are one-day tours available, or overnight tours where you actually stay in one of their homes overnight for a real authentic experience. We didn’t do this, as we visited during winter and felt it was too cold to be going trekking (we are chickens in the cold!). I’ve heard great things about an organization called Sapa Sisters, which is completely run by the Hmong women and is ‘dedicated to paying the guides fair wages for their trekking expertise.’ If you’re not sure which tour to go with, you can book one through your hotel.
Visit Fansipan Peak Via Cable Car
Fansipan Peak, also known as the “rooftop of Indochina” with a height of 3,143 metres, is the tallest peak in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The views during the cable car ride up the mountain and at the very top are absolutely incredible. You will be higher than the clouds! If you visit during the winter months, make sure to bundle up… it gets COLD!
Go By Taxi
A taxi ride from Sapa town will only take approximately 10-15 minutes and cost approximately 40,000 VND. It’s the fastest option.
Go By Train
This is the option we took and that I’d recommend is taking the train. It’s short 2 km train ride from Sapa Station (next to Sapa Square) to Fansipan Cable Car Station and is incredibly scenic! The tickets for both the train + cable car ride are expensive, but worth it. The price for the 2 km train, round trip is 200,000 VND/adult. If you buy the train + cable car combo, the tickets are reduced by 50,000 VND for a total price of 700,000 VND/adult. Buy tickets directly at the station. You can pay buy credit card if you’re short on cash. The cable car ride is 15 minutes long and offers plenty of time for photos!
Train Ride Views
Once you arrive to Fansipan Cable Car Station, hop on!
Once at the top, admire the beautiful scenery from a 360 degree view. There are 600 more steps you will have to climb in order to reach the top of Fansipan peak. If you don’t want to climb the stairs, you can take the funicular train which costs 150,000 VND/adult, one-way. It was extremely cold the day we went so we took the train up to the peak and walked back down. There are several temples and Buddha statues that you can visit up top as well.
The funicular train to Fansipan Peak
Remember to take your time and go slow since the steps are steep and your oxygen rate will be much lower due to the high altitude. Individuals with a history of cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases are not recommended to take this trip.
Don’t forget to bundle up!
Visit the Tram Ton Pass
At 1900 metres, this is Vietnam’s highest mountain pass and wraps around Mount Fansipan. It’s located 12 km from town and the ride to this viewpoint is a beautiful one! The roads twist with sharp turns as mountains become grander the farther you go. You’ll pass many forested limestone peaks before reaching your destination. Make sure to stop at Silver Falls on the way there.
Once you arrive, there are several wooden viewing decks to choose from. These decks are all on top of local-owned, small “shops” that sell jerky or souvenirs so expect to pay a fee when visiting. We paid 10,000 VND. Once at the top, enjoy the landscape that makes Sapa so special.
Explore the Town
Make sure to take time just to walk around Sapa Town. Visit the Sapa Market, Notre Dama Cathedral and Cat Cat Village! Don’t be afraid to explore some of the small, hidden alleyways.
Make sure to stop by Sapa Square. It’s a great place to watch the sunset and people-watch.
Visit Sapa Lake
This area is a nice place to relax and walk around. There are lots of good cafes overlooking the lake as well. You can apparently hire paddle boat here too!