Located at 1500 meters (4921 feet) above sea level in Vietnam's remote northwest mountains, Sapa is famous for both its fine, rugged scenery and also its rich cultural diversity. Sapa is an incredibly picturesque town that lies in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam, known as "the Tonkinese Alps". Sapa and its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam. Other great mountains like Aurora & J, where Sa Pa sees the first rays of sun, make up a very steep valley. However, as a result of a recent surge in popularity Sapa has rapidly become a tourist hotspot where money is the new drug of choice. Don't be put off by the rush, your explorations of the surrounding countryside will be worth the trouble. Be mindful of all the locals selling in the streets as they can be quite demanding. Groups of locals can be known to follow visitors around, aggressively selling handmade goods. The local government does not encourage tourists to buy from street sellers or give money to children, however it has become customary to hand out toothbrushes to the children.
Many ethnic minorities live in and around Sapa. Excluding the Kinh people or ethnic Vietnamese, eight different ethnic minority groups are found in Sapa. They include H'mong (pronounced Mong), Dao (pronounced Yao), Tay, Giay (pronounced Zai), Muong, Thai, Hoa (ethnic Chinese) and Xa Pho (a denomination of the Phu La minority group). However, the last four groups comprise less than 500 people in total. The population of the district is estimated at 31,652 (1993) of which 52% are H'mong, 25% are Dao, 15% are Kinh, 5% are Tay and 2% are Giay. Around 3,300 people live in Sapa town, and the remainder are peasant farmers distributed unevenly throughout the district.
Many older women make items such as ethnic clothes and blankets to sell to tourists. Striking up a conversation with them can be very rewarding and their spoken English is impressive. Sadly, doing this in Sapa town will sometimes lead to a scrum as other vendors taste a potential sale.
Children from these ethnic minorities often begin to support their families financially through selling trinkets to tourists. Do not encourage this by buying from children - buy from adults. They peddle small metal or silver trinkets, embroidered pillow cases and friendship bands in the main town, and often walk for several hours from their surrounding villages to reach the town. At the end of the day, some take a motorbike ride back to their village, some walk home and some sleep in the market.
Children have poor or non-existent dental hygiene. As the signs around town say, do not give them candy or sweets - it will cause dental issues. If you want to give them something, safe toys from your home are highly regarded.
There are schools in Sapa's villages. Most of them lack essential learning tools like books, pens or pencils. Give those to the teachers if you'd like.
Girls and boys get married young (around 15-18) and often have two children by the time they are 20 years old. Poverty has led to a great number of girls leaving their villages each day to go sell trinkets in Sapa town.
The billboard in Sapa states proudly of its weather: "Four seasons in one day." Chilly winter in the early morning, spring time after sunrise, summer in afternoon and cold winter at night.
In winter (the 4 months between November and February), the weather in Sapa is invariably cold, wet and foggy (temperatures can drop to freezing and there was snow in 2011). Travelers have rolled into town on a glorious clear day and proceed to spend a week trapped in impenetrable fog. When it is like this there really isn't very much to do. Also, the rice paddys are brown & empty (they are planted in spring), the paths very muddy & slippery & the glorious vistas of summer are completely hidden in the mist. If you choose to visit in winter, bring along warm clothing or prepare to be cold and miserable, as many hotels do not have efficient heating in their rooms. During that time, the more upscale hotels that do have heating fill up quickly, so make reservations in advance if you can afford not to freeze. (Or don't go there in winter time).
It rains very often during the month of August, especially in the mornings - though this is also the time when scenery is at its greenest and most beautiful.
Bear in mind that some of the minorities do not wish to have photos taken of them - ask permission beforehand. To ask for permission, smile, lower your head down and raise your camera up to ask. If you take pictures of anyone, it's considered polite to show them their pictures. Most won't charge you for a photo.
Bring along a poncho, or you can also buy a cheap one in the many shops around. Rubber boots and trekking shoes can be rented from some shops or perhaps at the hotel you are staying in. However, do bear in mind that they have limited sizes. If you are going trekking these are highly recommended, particularly if it has been raining!
Do buy some hand made items direct from the ethnic minorities, especially if you have enjoyed a good conversation or received help from them. Though they do charge slightly more than the shops, bear in mind that the majority of them are very poor and depend on tourist money to survive.
If you want to support the ethnic minorities, try to hire a guide directly instead of doing it through your hotel. This way all your money goes directly to the minorities instead of the 50% they get if booked through a hotel or agency. Some hotels ask for $30 per person for private trekking of group of 2-4, but will only pay $10 to the guide. If you want to save money, some locals will guide you on a 4 hour hike to their village (including a lunch) for 600,000 VND (30$). Keep in mind that this very cheap price does not includes return transportation. You will have to come back on your own or hire a taxi (around 50 000VND or 3$).
From Hanoi it is a 8-hour train journey to Lao Cai Railway Station, the gateway to Sapa.
Vietnam Railways operates 3 services everyday: 2 express trains SP1/SP2, SP2/SP3 and 1 local train LC1/LC2. Occasionally during high season and national holidays the railway company may announce additional services, such as SP7/SP8 and LC3/LC4 services. Express trains run during the night and stop only in major stations, whereas local trains run during daytime at slower speed and stopping in all stations along the Hanoi - Lao Cai railway line.
The train consists of a single dragging engine head carrying cars operated by Vietnam Railways and cars operated by private railway companies, such as Tulico, Ratraco, Fanxipan, Orient, Pumpkin, King, Sapaly, Chapa and Victoria. Vietnam Railways provides cars for different classes: hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. Cars operated by private railway companies are generally soft sleeper only, with 2-berth or 4-berth compartments.
Warning: several private cars are not significantly better than standard Vietnamese sleeping cars though, and still substantially more expensive. Pumpkin second class is actually a VNR car booked via this company. Even Pumpkin first class only has a squat toilet (although a sign above the toilet door says: "western style toilet"!).
Cheaper tickets (especially those in hard sleeper class) can be hard to come by at times as tour companies and travel agents will snap up these tickets to sell to their own customers... too frequently a promised soft sleeper berth will turn into a hard sleeper when it comes time to board. To avoid ripoffs it's often better go to the train station by yourself and get the ticket from the ticket office. This is the only way to make sure that you will get what you have paid for. Travel agencies in Vietnam are known for their bad business practices. Although one cannot be assured of finding a place, it is often possible to arrive at the station a short while before boarding time, as there are usually young men hanging around trying to hawk unfilled berths at the last minute. The price of these tickets will fall dramatically as departure time draws near.
Prices vary according to both the type of class purchased and the season during which you are traveling. The times around Vietnamese holidays are particularly expensive and tickets cannot be assumed available for same day travel, so book ahead if possible. Travelers are highly recommended to purchase a berth in a soft or hard sleeper car, though the trip in soft seat class is not intolerable.
The ticket price for Vietnam Railways generally ranges from 150,000-385,000 VND (6-17 USD), depending if the fare is hard seat up to soft bed. Tickets for private railways companies are more expensive, ranging from 650,000-3,500,000 VND (30-150 USD) for a soft bed in a 4-berth or a 2-berth compartment. Prices depend on the company, some brands offer standard cars such as the ones operated by Vietnam Railways with minor upgrades and some offer completely revamped cars with luxurious interiors and 5 star service.
Besides the seat and sleeper cars there is usually a dining car serving good, surprisingly affordable noodles (10,000 dong) and rice porridge (10,000 dong), but it's always wise to bring your own snacks and drinks as well. Be warned: if you're offered food or drink by any of the workers on the train, know that it's not free.
If you are backpacker, bring an instant noodle cup ($1) with you. There's free hot (boiling!) and cold water at the entrance gate of each car. The left tap is usually hot and the right cold. "BEWARE" if you are a first time user - on the hot value, the cold water will come for 20-30 seconds before the boiling flows out and cooks your hand!
If you have very rigid travel dates, traveling on a public holiday, or can't be bothered to head down to the train station before your train departs you can book tickets online before you come to Vietnam. Tickets to Lao Cai/Sapa can be booked at the official online ticketing site of Vietnam Railways available in Vietnamese and English, dsvn.vn, but only if you wish to travel in cars operated by the national railway company. Although the website provides the option for foreign payments, it does not work. As alternative Baolau.vn can be used which does accept international payments for a small service fee (10% + 20k dong, a lot less then a travel agent would charge). If you prefer to travel with a private railway company there are some reputable websites that sell train tickets for all these brands:
Train tickets for Vietnam Railways are now electronic, so when you book online you will receive an e-ticket that you can print or carry on your mobile phone ready for boarding. Private railway companies still work traditionally with physical tickets, so in case you book online you should receive a voucher that you can exchange for a physical ticket at the office of that company in Hanoi Railway Station or Lao Cai Railway Station.
Trains bound to Lao Cai depart from the west side of Hanoi Railway Station accessible from Tran Quy Cap St, not the main entrance located in the east, Le Duan St. This entrance is commonly referred as Entrance B or Tran Quy Cap Railway Station, although it's still part of Hanoi Railway Station.
The train ends at Lao Cai Railway Station. From there, dozens of mini buses will be waiting outside the station to take you the remaining distance to Sapa, usually at a 'fixed' rate of 50-60,000 dong or US$2.50-$3 (July 2013) or US$25 for a private car. It's best to ask your hotel to arrange a car for you, as they'll get you a guaranteed flat rate. It's often possible to bargain down to a lower price, depending on demand. However, if demand is low and the bus is not completely full, the driver will sometimes cruise around trying to find additional passengers. The ride is about an hour of beautiful views (if the weather is good, it may be an hour of fog at other times) more than 1000 meters up into the mountains. Warning: The road to Sapa is incredibly curvy. If you're prone to motion sickness at all, take medication or you'll likely spend the ride vomiting into a bag.
You may want to book a return ticket when you buy your outward journey, as picking up tickets in Lao Cai is harder than in Hanoi. Ticket counter at the train station is open 8 to 10 am and from 2 pm. The staff do not speak as much English, and they possibly only sell tickets for travel on the same day so sleepers may already be sold out unless you go first thing in the morning. Pay attention to the time of your return train. Trains leaving Lao Cai around 20h00 will arrive in Hanoi at around 5h00 early in the morning.
The train can often run 1-2 hours late. Have some instant noodle in your personal bag along with some activities.
If you go back to Hanoi by Sunday night, be prepared. The train is usually full. Some conductors may let people sneak aboard your car. They will sleep along the passage, in front of the restroom or anywhere else they can find space.
Women traveling alone: be warned. Each sleeping car has cabins that accommodate 4-6 people per cabin. The cabin has a heavy door that locks "from inside". When locked, the door reduces noise considerably. If you're feeling unsure, it's better to ask for the upper bunk. While the upper bunks are less comfortable than the lower bunks, you'll likely feel safer.. Plus, there's less smell from the feet of your cabin partners.
If you don't make prior arrangements to return at an early hour, you may find yourself sitting outside of your hotel, waiting for the desk to open. If this has happened, ask your taxi to bring you to Hoan Kiem Lake instead of your hotel and use the spare time to watch early morning activity. The south-west bank of the Lake will give you the stunning Sunrise view over the lake's Pagoda. BTW, the famous Den Ngoc Son temple is at North East bank. The coffee shop will open around 06:00am. Have your breakfast there while looking and the warm and lovely sunrise.
If you don't want to walk around, ask your taxi to take you to the north-west side around City View cafe. Walk across the road to the north bank with your luggage. Then you can walk along Hang Dao road (west) or Hang Be road (east) until Hang Bac to watch the vendors on their bicycles.
By sleeper bus from Hanoi
The bus station in Sapa is in the centre of town, near the lake. While you are more likely to pay between 250,000 to 350,000 VNDs (December 2014) for a sleeper bus to Sapa from Hanoi,you can book sleeping buses to Hanoi for only 300,000 dong from SaPa (Dec 2013). Most buses you can book through travel agents for almost the same price. For online booking, travellers can book their tickets through Vexere platform, which shows schedules and price option of different bus operators in Vietnam. Minibuses to Lao Cai drive around looking for passengers, if you get on empty minibus it could take up to one hour. They drive very slowly, so it could take one hour for a 35 km journey. Price for locals seems to be around 50,000 dong. I agreed for lower price with them, but in the half way they started to collect money and asked for higher rate. I paid just agreed amount and they forced me out of the bus half-way. A good option to get between Lao Cai and Sapa is to go near the beginning of the road and hitchhike for private car. Many Vietnamese tourist traveling by their car in this route, and will take you for free or 30-40 thousands dong, it is faster even including time needed to walk to the road.
By express bus from Hanoi
The Sapa Express Bus, Hanoi - Sapa - Hanoi departs daily at 7 AM via the newly built (September 2014) Hanoi - Lao Cai highway. It takes about 6 hours of driving from Hanoi to Sapa, depending on traffic and weather (they say 5 hours, but it averages 6 hours). You will enjoy the view of the Vietnamese countryside along the road and it is by far the quickest and easiest way to travel between Hanoi and Sapa. The buses are also brand new and very comfortable - they include a bottle of water and a small snack. Note that there is no toilet, and they only make one rest stop along the way (but can apparently stop for you if you give them a few minutes notice). Most travel agencies in Hanoi can arrange the ticket, costing about USD 16/person/way (Update: $11USD September 2016) - or you can book through Sapa Express directly. If you book through your hotel it should cost less and include a free pickup from your hotel in the Old Quarter.
By bus from Lao Cai
Local minibuses leave from in front of the Lao Cai train station (there's a big blue sign saying Bus Station Lao Cai - Sa Pa) at 5:40, 6:00, 7:00, and every 30/60 minutes until 18:00. Price is 28.000 VND, stated on the bus door, and it includes bags. The ride is about 1h 15min, the minibus has AC and the road is fine. There are several stops in Sapa, ending at the stone church.
When you exit the train station, there will be a row of small coffee stalls to your left. The one nearest to the main station entrance is run by a seemingly (and overly) friendly middle–aged woman who will try very hard to get you to her stall to have some coffee. She will tell you when the next bus is going and then tell you to come wait at her stall. DO NOT GO WITH HER. She will sell you small coffees (that should absolutely cost no more than 20,000 VND at a stretch) for 50,000 VND each. That is how much a Starbucks cold brew costs, and for that, you're not getting a lukewarm cup of coffee that you drink sitting by the roadside inhaling motorcycle/bus/car fumes.
By bus from elsewhere
The road to Dien Bien Phu is in bad condition, bus costs around 200,000 dong (Dec 2012) It is small and crowded. Journey takes more than 10 hours. If you take night bus to Dien Bien Phu, there is connecting bus to OudomXay in Laos, which seems to wait for arrival of Sapa bus even if it is late.
Sapa can also be reached by motorcycle from Hanoi by a variety of routes. The most direct route takes at least ten hours for first time riders, though local expats often brag about making it in less. Bikes can be rented in Hanoi for unguided passage, or local guides can lead the way. Along the way be sure to top up with fuel regularly, as petrol stations sometimes prove few and far between. It's also useful to note that fuel vendors in small towns often mix the petrol with other liquids such as alcohol or bio-fuels, and such fuel should be bought and used only when there are no alternatives.
Anywhere in the main village of Sapa can be reached on foot, and the town is small enough that you're not likely to get lost. A basic map will be good enough for most travellers.
The way to CatCat is taxed at 40,000 dong,while the way to Ban Ho & Lao Chai villages are taxed 40,000 dong in one ticket. The way to Ta Phin village is taxed at 20,000 dong as well.
Tourists intending to trek to the various villages through the paddy fields should be prepared with good trekking shoes or rubber boots, a walking stick and extra clothing kept in a waterproof bag. These treks are best done in groups as the guides know where they are going and can help you if you get lost or fall over. Depending on the season, the rice fields, which are build in terraces, can be very muddy and slippery. If one does not wear shoes which enables a good grip in the mud, one is likely to keep slipping and falling or even sliding down the slopes! As the paths are also taken by water buffalos, excrement can be found everywhere. Walking sticks can be bought from children from the ethnic minority groups at about 5,000 dong. These enterprising children cut sturdy bamboo and sharpen one end to turn them into sturdy sticks. You'll also find local people offering to hold your hand throughout the trip, buy some souvenirs from them at the end for their help!
For the less adventurous, some of the villages, such as Lao Chai Village, is accessible via jeep, motorcycle and van.
Renting a motorcycle in Sapa is a real challenge. The operators (18-20 year old boys) will want your passport as the guarantee, or a $250 deposit. However, be careful about handing out your passport. You can usually rent motorcycles from your accommodation aswell. The price of renting is around $4 - $7 depending on whether they are manual or automatic, engine size, new/old model, etc. One day rental time is from morning until evening of the same day. You must return the motorcycle around 6 pm, though 7pm can be agreed in advance.
Be very careful when you're driving - these are not the roads that you're used to. Mountain Dirt is not delicious. There are no doctors or emergency services. And if accident occurs while you're out of town, no one will know where you are. Drive slowly. Downhill at 15-20 km/hr is the safest bet - use your horn at every corner.
DO NOT FORGET TO WEAR A HELMET.
Sapa is a charming mountain town, surrounded by picturesque mountains and rice terraces. Great views of the area can be had (weather permitting) from the nearby hills. One of these has been built up into a tourist attraction ("Ham Rong Resort") with various gardens (orchid, European), ethnic minority dance performance areas, viewpoints, and restaurants. It's a short walk south from the central square and then up some stairs. Entrance is 70,000 dong.
If you got time then it's worth going to the "Sa Pa Culture Museum" (Open daily 7:30AM-11:30AM,1:30PM-5:00PM.~Admission free,but donations accepted~) where you can learn about the history of Sa Pa and the costumes & traditions of the Ethnic groups of Sa Pa.The museum is located behind the Tourist Office.
It's also worth to check some of the colonial buildings left by the French colonialists such as the church,the square and Town Hall building. While walking in the mountains you will encounter many hill tribes such as the Red Dao tribe.
Volunteer activities: V4D (Volunteers 4 community development organisation www.v4d.asia) works to support highland development by cooperating with local communities to set up this, and other, volunteering programs. This program is designed for those who want to discover the natural and cultural wonders of the North of Vietnam, share experiences with the local community, and be face-to-face with these colorful cultures. This experience will provide participants a meaningful program combined with ecological tourism, and plays an incredibly important roll enabling hill tribe people to take full advantage of employment and training opportunities, whether they choose to stay in their communities or decide to earn income in urban areas. Consequently, hill tribe people could enhance their capacities to ensure sustainable rural development based on the skills they acquire from YOU! The villages, activities, vulnerable groups, visiting place & homestay accommodation have been carefully chosen through a rigorous selection process, ensuring you have a great opportunity to share your talents, creativity, and compassion.
There are more restaurants than one could stomach along the main strip, Pho Cau May; they all have nearly the same menu, with many of them offering, oddly enough, Italian as well as Vietnamese fare. Tread with caution.
Keep in mind that in Sapa, as in many other provinces of Vietnam, it is the law that you must turn over your passport to your hotel/guesthouse/hostel. However, a photocopy of the main page and your visa should suffice, and if they refuse, simply tell them your real copy is in Hanoi getting a visa extension.
A near-endless supply of cheap rooms are available in the touristy area down the hill from the town centre, and generally a flock of young men and women will leap on you the moment you arrive with offers from US$3 on up (price quoted for a double).