Traveling to Sapa takes an overnight train journey or 5-6 hour bus ride from Hanoi, Sapa is a stone’s throw from the Chinese border. Located in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 people reside in this picturesque town (official and unofficial figures vary), split among six ethnicities (including the Vietnamese). The area includes Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan, at 3,142 meters. Sapa weather is moderate and cool in the summer, wet from May to September and foggy and cold in winter, with occasional snow. From March to May the days are sunny and nights are cool and crisp, with the best photo-op views from September to October.
Sapa is home to five ethnic minorities: the Hmong, Red Dao, Tay, Giay and a small number of Xa Pho. Most of them live in small villages in modest huts and hamlets scattered throughout the district. In fact, the Vietnamese are not locals here - it’s the minorities that have come from as far back as 800 years, down from Southern China. In the 19th century Sapa was colonized by the French, but around 200 colonial buildings were destroyed by 1954, leaving Sapa to start over from scratch. Slowly, the Vietnamese began to migrate upwards and in 1993, Sapa opened its doors to international tourism.
Once a sleepy, charming town, Sapa’s city center has been leaning more and more towards tourism, and has lost some charm along the way. Fortunately, the town is not region’s main highlight, and there are certainly more genuine destinations in the Lao Cai province. Some, like Cat Cat Village and Silver Waterfall are tailored for tourists, while further reaches still preserve the beauty and authenticity of terraced rice fields and peaceful hill tribes.
If you’re in the market for ethnic minority handicrafts, the villagers will be more than willing to oblige. Especially popular are the traditional quilts and clothing. Be wary that when near touristic areas, a “maybe” for their wares might warrant the minority saleswomen or children to follow you, lightly haggling you to buy something until you do. Give them a more firm “no” if you don’t want anything. This can get bothersome if you simply want to experience the town, so either be prepared to stand your ground or move out to further accommodation such as the Topas Ecolodge, which is surrounded by natural beauty.
One of Vietnam’s best hiking destinations, it is easy to hire a local guide for both day hikes and longer trekking adventures. Many are of course attracted by Fansipan. The trek up the intimidating mountain can be done in a day, but it is recommended that hikers go overnight as you don’t want to run down a muddy trail to beat the sunset. For those preferring the unbeaten path, Topas Travel conducts tours that specifically avoid kitschy points of interests, and instead opt for little known destinations and villages not yet overrun with tourists or hagglers.
Those looking to sample local (ethnic minority) cuisine have three options: try the Hill Station restaurant in Sapa town, the restaurant at Topas Ecolodge, or if you have/make a Hmong or Red Dao friend, have them invite you over for a family meal. No ethnic minorities have opened up restaurants in the area as of yet, so the above options are your best bets. Otherwise, there are plenty of Vietnamese restaurants, the best of which are more “local” spots around the lake.
There are daytime and overnight sleeper trains between Hanoi and Lao Cai. Sleeper trains leave Hanoi at 9:50 p.m. and arrive in Lao Cai at 6:15 a.m. Private cabins are available at livitrans.com.