Sapa is a dream destination located way up high on the border of Northern Vietnam and China. Because of Sapa’s mountainous topography, the town is often enshrouded in a dense fog that makes walking through the streets feel like walking through a dream: nothing is quite in view, but a grounding sense of serenity can be felt. The H’mong people (local hill tribes of the area) can be seen throughout the city in an eclectic mix of their traditional garb and modern clothing, selling their wares and having fun with the visiting tourists. They’re a lively and genuine people who love to poke fun and have a good laugh.
Sapa is not the easiest place to reach (10-14 hours by train from Hanoi, the northern capital) but it is well worth the trip. It’s unlike anything else in the country and the good-natured locals will make this trip a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience. Here’s our guide to getting the most out of this bucket list destination.
Rent a Motorbike There’s nothing quite like scooting around the high-altitude, hairpin bends in the mountains of Sapa. Looking out over the lush, rice paddy fields, there’s an inexplicable sense of untouched authenticity to the region. The freedom to move when and where you like is exhilarating and will allow for your inner explorer to come forward and revel.
Hike Mount Fansipan This trek is perfect for hardcore trekkers that are short on time but not on energy. Set off at 5.30 in the morning and begin the strenuous ascent to the summit. If you walk at a good clip then the whole expedition should take 7-8 hours to complete and will take you through the mountain’s rich and diverse ecosystem. Expect to see lush evergreen forests, crystal clear mountain streams and breathtaking, windswept ridges.
Visit Sapa Market Located in a purpose-built modern building near the bus station, this bustling and lively walking market is the perfect place to try out some cheap and authentic Northern Vietnamese cuisine. Saturday is the best and busiest time to visit.
All Aboard the Orient Express The journey from Hanoi to Sapa is a long one and although it can be quite fun to catch the locals train, if you fancy a bit more luxury then you can jump onto the Orient Express train and cozy down into your own private cabin to arrive in Sapa in style.
Get Your Chef On Experience the unique cuisine of the H’mong people through a traditional cooking class. Conducted by an English-speaking H’mong chef, the classes will include a trip to the local market and the opportunity to sample some of the century-old cooking methods of Vietnam’s mountainous North.
Visit the Famous Waterfalls Sapa is renowned for its waterfalls and there are several in the region that you can visit, the most famous of which being the Silver Waterfall. The people of Sapa use the waterfalls to generate electricity and you can often see hydro-electric stations next to the rushing water.
Where to Stay
High-end For more of a luxury stay then look no further than (seriously, don’t look any further, it’s the only one – but it is lovely!) Sapa’s very own 4-star Victoria Resort & Spa Hotel. Situated toward the top of the town, the hotel offers a fantastic vantage point to take in the foggy views. It’s cozy interior is full of open fires and has a sophisticated log cabin feel to it. Rooms start from $160 USD.
Mid-range Perfect for budget travelers and backpackers alike, Mountain View Hotel isn’t just a clever name, many of its rooms actually look out over Sapa’s valleys and mountainous countryside. Rooms start from $25 USD.
Budget There are several cheap hotels and hostels in town that you can secure for about $5 a night; just be prepared to bargain for the top bunk!
Where to Eat
Northern Vietnamese cuisine is quite different than the rest of the country; as the weather is usually a little chilly and damp, expect to find a lot of hearty stews and barbecued or braised meats. For the best grub in town, check out Hill Station; here you’ll find a chilled out decor with superb views. Try the flash-cooked pork with lime and ash-baked trout in banana leaves. If you’re after more simple fare then head to the northern end of Ɖ Phan Si, where you’ll find a smattering of restaurant specializing in perfectly barbecued meat and vegetables.
Where to Drink
Sapa’s not exactly a known party town, but if you journey into the center then you’ll find a collection of little bars and restaurants where you can enjoy a cheap beer or sample some of the local rice wine. Why Not Bar is a friendly little hangout with a pool table, making it a great little spot for a game and a chat with like-minded travelers.
Local Customs and Insider Tips
The local market is a fantastic place to experience the local culture and food, but bear in mind that you may come across some things that you may find a little disturbing. Dog meat is eaten throughout the whole country and can be found in many markets; you might not agree with this tradition, but as you’re a guest in the country, try and be as respectful as possible.
As we’ve mentioned previously, Sapa can get a little chilly and pretty moist. It’s a good idea to pack some warmer clothes with you before you go, as it’s been known to snow throughout some of the colder months.
If you decide to jump on one of the locals trains to Sapa then prepare yourself for a little bit of discomfort but potentially a lot of fun. People will sleep underneath your seat with little regard for your personal space, but if you bring along some rice wine and get chatting to some locals then you could find yourself having one hell of a trip!
Stay Overnight with the H’mong People Chat to any of the cheeky H’mong people in town and they’ll ask to bring you back to their village via a 5 km trek through the mountainside. Don’t bother booking with a tour group as they’ll rip both you and the H’mong people off. Once you’ve found some locals that you click with, organize for them to take you on a guided tour of the area. This will not be a strenuous walk but it will be beautiful and it will also allow you to catch a glimpse of the day-to-day lives of the H’mong people. The villagers are very gracious and are happy to supply you with ample grub and rice wine. The women of the village love a good tipple as well, so you’re likely to be in for a bit of a party!
If Sapa is one of your dream destinations (and it definitely should be) then make sure that you share it with the world via the BUCKiTDREAM app on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You never know who else might share you dream; together you can make it a reality.