Local Insight: Sapa
Mountains and minorities
We spoke to Sapa specialist Asger Koppen, director of Topas Travel and founder of the famous Vietnam Mountain Marathon, to determine how to get the most out of an authentic Sapa experience.
When travelling to Sapa, it is ideal to stay for a minimum of two-three nights due to the distance from Hanoi, with April and May (not too cold and not raining), and September and October (right after the rain) being the best months to visit, with the most visibility and the least fog.
Photo by pululante
Topas Travel has been giving tours since 1973, and has a knack for guiding travellers through unbeaten paths. As Asger recommends, with Sapa, it almost necessary to avoid what 90% of others do: only staying in Sapa Town, visiting Cat Cat, Lao Chai and Ta Van, and visiting Fansipan on the weekend. If you ignore this advice, prepare to face swarms of tourist groups and pushy local sellers of handicrafts.
“It almost necessary to avoid what 90% of others do in Sapa.”
Luckily, you can shun the popular attractions and activities and instead opt for the numerous unspoiled alternatives. There are two features of Sapa that any traveller should experience during their visit: hiking/biking and the minorities. Or as Asger puts it - mountains and minorities. Just a note: the guide below does not talk about Fansipan.
Most minorities in Sapa Town or surrounding popular villages have been jaded by tourists, and have got used to persistently attempting to sell their wares to anyone looking remotely foreign. This might give them a bad image when it very well shouldn’t - they are kind and hardworking people and seeing villages untouched by gawkers is a rare chance to witness genuine mountain life. For an alternative to Cat Cat, head to Nam Cang, a Red Dao village where minority life is not interrupted with the need to haggle, and the people go about their activities in peace.
Photo by alexFranka
Hiking to and around Nam Cang also presents as good a nature hike (or bike tour) as you can get in the region, with cascading rice terraces, happy grazing animals, rock-studded rivulets and beautiful greenery. Nam Cang is over an hour away by car, so if you want something closer to Sapa Town, Ma Tra Village is walking distance from the town and much more authentic than Cat Cat.
“For an alternative to Cat Cat, head to Nam Cang, a Red Dao village where minority life is not interrupted with the need to haggle.”
As for local cuisine - this is limited at best. “Locals” are minorities - they’ve been here for hundreds of years, the Vietnamese noticeably less. In Sapa Town, you can find some authentic, tasty Vietnamese dishes behind the church and around the lake. If you want to try minority food, either make friends with a minority, go to their village and participate in a family dinner or wedding, or try The Hill Station Signature Restaurant, which has minority fusion dishes and homemade flavoured rice wine in an intimate, low-lit and chic space. There is a similar restaurant at the Topas Ecolodge.
Photo by David McKelvey
Finally, there are things you should know before heading up north. Sapa Town can be very busy, especially on the weekends. To get the authentic experience you can combine a stay in town with a homestay on the outskirts, or beyond. Second, if you want a genuine minority market experience, maybe consider Muong Hum market 45 minutes from the city centre instead of the well known Bac Ha market: it is smaller and more traditional than the latter. Third, if you want a quiet alternative of the town and something surrounded by lush cascading mountains, head for Topas Ecolodge, located about 18 km outside of the centre.
Finally, don’t give the beggar children candy or money, this encourages them and their families to stay on the streets and avoid school. Instead, find a reputable organisation that works with minority children and see how you can help through them.