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City Pass Guide

YOUR INSIDER'S TRAVEL GUIDE BLOG TO SA PA

in Vietnam 🇻🇳 Since 2008

HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL SAPA BEST TIME TO VISIT SAPA

When Shall You Travel To Sa Pa?

Famous for its breathtaking scenery and rich cultural diversity, Sapa is one of Vietnam’s best draws for tourism. However, your experience will be dependent on the time of the year you plan to visit. The best time to visit Sapa is just before wintertime from June to October. The area is exceptionally picturesque during the rice harvest months of September and October. The hills are awash in greens and yellows and make for picture-perfect postcards.

 

Local insight: Wake up early for stunning vistas of the terraced rice paddies of Sapa.

 

While it is the best time to visit Southern Vietnam, the months of November to February are wet and misty. It can also get very cold with temperatures generally hovering in the single digits. Make sure to bring appropriate clothing and some rooms will have electric blankets or space heaters to keep you warm at night.

 

sapa-meteo-average-weather - www.citypassguide.com

Local insight: Remember that the air conditioner that kept you cool in the South can also keep you warm in the North

 

The rainy season starts in March and doesn’t really finish until May. Not only will you have to contend with rain but also with thick heavy fog. If you plan to visit during these months, be prepared for a muddy slogfest.

 

Local insight: Bring some sturdy shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty during this time of the year.

 

Hope you enjoyed our post on the best time to visit Sapa!

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HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL SAPA MYSTIFIED AT CAT CAT VILLAGE

Most tourists who come to Sapa visit Cat Cat as it is the closest village.

This was my first tour in Sapa. The tour guide, Tim, said we were going to set out at 9 but I was busy in my room unpacking things so we started my half-day tour 30 minutes behind schedule. The great news was: I was the only person on the tour! 😉 This was very advantageous on my part: I could ask questions whenever I want and I could take time photographing the valley without having to bother other people.

 

Cat Cat Village - Sa Pa - Photo source: https://mir-s3-cdn-cf.behance.net/

This village is home to the Black Hmong, a sub-group of Miao ethnicity, who are said to have come from Southern China. It is easy to get to this place; some would even visit the village without a tour guide. You will know you are here because there is an entrance gate and the entrance fee is 40.000 VND. With that meager amount, you have the whole village to explore! I had not spent much time browsing the web about this community so I opted hiring a tour guide for directions and information.

Cat Cat Village and Waterfall - Photo source: https://www.expatolife.com/

Tim gave me 2 options: hike for a total of 7 kilometers or 5.5 kilometers. Given I am not exactly what health books label as “fit”, you can already guess what my choice was. After confirming with my guide, I grabbed my camera and old zip sweater then hopped on the motorbike. We rode down the beautiful valley for less than 10 minutes and parked the motorbike outside at one of the restaurants before we did what they call as “easy trekking”. I tell you, I have no problems walking downhill, but going uphill makes me a dog sticking out my tongue, catching my breath every now and then. Oh well, I did the epic hike anyway and hey, it wasn’t EASY at all! But that’s about to change as we moved further.

‘Woohoo! Whatta view!’ I exclaimed as I stood by a restaurant on top of the hill.

 

I watched the gleams of the sun over the fully-terraced rice paddies, making the mountains look like a pile of golden treasures while the shadows of other mountains made the other side look dark green. The curves, lines, and S-shaped dikes painted by the rays of the sun, and the cool wind blowing my face took my breath away. I stood up there, not moving, just feeling the sensation of nature’s elements showering me with great delight. I was confused about whether I was on earth or in paradise-I was mystified! Right there and then, I declared that this was the best place in Vietnam, among the cities and towns, that I have ever visited. I wish I had come to this place earlier! The view had just made me a poet! And I tried hard to get back to my senses to take photos of such beauty and capture the moment! It was just priceless.

They say it is best to visit this place in August or September. That is before the harvest time but still, I was already mystified seeing this anciently engineered rice fields, which were done by hand. After looking at the panoramic view of Sapa, we trekked down passing by and admiring the Hmongs’ native houses-which were made of wood, their hand-made products, the serene waterfalls and the pride and sheer joy in the eyes of the people. The experience was magical and that has somewhat touched my soul.

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HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL SAPA HA GIANG PROVINCE, THE PEARL OF NORTHERN VIETNAM

Tourists often regard Ha Giang as one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam.

Located near the Chinese border, Ha Giang offers unique scenery in the land of Uncle Ho: steep cliffs, a lush landscape, and a foggy atmosphere. This wild and mountainous region, rich in ethnic minorities, is quite outstanding. The road winds endlessly between mountains. Below, small plots of rice or corn are lost in the rocky vastness and silence that characterizes this region. At the top, perched out of sight, are sharp mountain peaks wrapped in a belt of clouds.

And from time to time, round a corner, one can glimpse the brightly coloured clothing still proudly worn by locals. Ha Giang is a compendium of contrasting colors, fresh air and surprising encounters. Even if its eponymous capital does not have a lot of interest, it is the gateway to one of the world’s 91 UNESCO-listed parks: Dong Van park, located 130 km north of the city.

 

This huge massif consists of limestone peaks, deep valleys and canyons, populated mostly by black Hmongs, an ethnic group with Chinese origin. But they are not the only ones. An estimated population of over 250,000 people live within the region, including 17 different minority groups. Here, Hmong, Hoa, Ray, Tay and Nung people have lived together for a long time.

Situated in the heart of the park, Dong Van city, whose old quarter is an architectural relic, includes forty old houses built during the 19th century after the French took control of the region and set up local government. Often composed of one or two floors, with Ying-Yang style tiled roofs and mud walls, these buildings have resisted time and weather.

 

The central point of the city, the old market, near which men wearing black berets and women in traditional dresses gather, was built in stone from 1925 to 1928. The market’s rough and poetic charm reflects the area: beautiful, still untamed, with living conditions that remain difficult for the vast majority of people. Near the northern border of Vietnamese territory, Lung Cu town is another must-see location on the Dong Van plateau. Its main attraction is a tower perched on Mount Rong (“Dragon”), on which floats a 54m² flag (9m x 6m), symbolizing the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam.

This area, nicknamed “The roof of Vietnam”, is of great significance in terms of national sovereignty. It is in this region that the People’s Republic of China attacked Vietnam on February 17, 1979, following the entry of the Vietnamese army into Cambodia. Further on, 60 km away from the city of Quang Tan and 100 km from the capital city of Ha Giang, is Hoang Su Phi, one of the most unspoiled Vietnamese provinces with impressive landscapes of rice terraces and steep ravines. Generations of farmers in six towns (Ban Luôc, San Sa Hô, Ban Phùng, Hô Thâu, Nâm Ty and Thông Nguyên) have reshaped surrounding hills to grow rice. The landscape is incredible.

 

Meo Vac is a small town of a few thousand inhabitants, located dozens of kilometers away from Dong Van, in the far north of Vietnam. It is lost in a valley surrounded by high limestone mountains.  For many Vietnamese, the name Meo Vac evokes the far end of the world. The city is organized around a market filled with Chinese products. Streets are narrow, with plenty of typically low houses found in most of the mountain cities. Even though it has no monuments or special sites to visit, the path to go there is worth a visit. Roads from Yen Minh to Dong Van and from Ding Van to Meo Vac are indeed among the most spectacular and sensational in Vietnam.

Once you are in Meo Vac, do not miss going to Khau Vai to visit a market that bears the sweet name of “love market”. Here a great traditional festival is held once a year, on the 27th day of the third moon (according to the lunar calendar) where people come to reconnect for a day with the love of their youth. The legend states that there was once a young couple from two different tribes who fell madly in love.

 

The beautiful young woman fervently wished to marry her fiancé but her family opposed her decision and refused to allow a wedding with a man from another tribe. Their farewells were heartrending, but the couple could not choose to never meet again, so they decided to reunite once a year, on the 27th day of the third lunar month, which is now the day for all old lovers throughout the region.

 

Named the World Geological Park in 2010, Ha Giang province is experiencing a rise in visitors but it is still isolated compared to major tourist destinations. However, things could change in the coming years. Provincial authorities are constructing plans to build several casinos and a golf course on this natural site.

Practical Information:

– As the area is under military control, it is necessary to purchase a permit to visit Ha Giang at the Immigration Service, adjacent to the tourist office at 134 Nguyen Trai Duong. Travel agencies can also take care of this procedure. The cost is around 10 USD.

 

– There is a bus connection at night between Hanoi and Ha Giang (150.000 VND): buses are leaving My Dinh bus station in Hanoi at 4am and 5am. The ride lasts 6 to 8 hours for 300 km.

– There are three hotels in Ha Giang, Dong Van and Meo Vac. However, it is recommended to reserve a room in advance, especially if you arrive late by motorbike.

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HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL SAPA DISCOVERING SAPA, VIETNAM WITH TOPAS ECOLODGE

 

Sponsored feature

Topas Ecolodge Exemplifies What You Can Experience While Traveling in Ha Giang.

Topas Travel has been leading authentic tours around Southeast Asia since 1973, and Topas Ecolodge in Sapa, Vietnam has been open for over a decade. Both are committed to providing as true a Sapa experience as possible. Citypassguide.com joined Topas to tour Sapa’s unbeaten path, and later reside in their ecolodge, located near several undisturbed hill tribes and cascading mountains.

 

Sapa, Vietnam is one of the country’s most beautiful cities, given its lush, man-made rice terraces, colorful minority villages, free-range animal life, dreamy atmosphere, and rivers and rivulets giving way to silvery, icy waterfalls. This beauty is in part due to a lack of overdevelopment throughout the region.

 

Sapa town itself has not been spared, unfortunately, and although a sleepy, cozy resting place, is no one of the region’s highlights. Even sadder, some minority villages and points of interest in Sapa (Cat Cat Village, namely) have been battered for over a decade by tourists. So much, so that now these places have lost their charm and authenticity to both desperate haggling minorities and camera-trigger-happy passersby.

Topas Ecolodge Sa Pa - Vietnam - www.citypassguide.com

Citypassguide.com recently joined Topas Travel to discover Sapa’s unbeaten path, avoiding any widely known Sapa tourist attractions and instead hiking among undisturbed, stunning vistas and minority villages, with no other tourists in sight. Although during our visit to Sapa the weather was foggy and clammy, as we descended in elevation and hiked the hours away, visibility and warmth grew favorable.

 

Below is a taste of what you can expect from Topas Travel and Topas Ecolodge during your Sapa, Vietnam trip. As Topas Travel’s Sapa office aims to avoid any kitschy stopovers, we drove out in a comfy van about an hour from Sapa town to Thanh Phu, where we stopped over to a Tay minority village for sightseeing and photo-ops.

We moved on to the area of Nam Nhiu. With little luck in relying on Google Maps (you can see below that Google hasn’t yet mapped this region), we instead put our faith in our expert guide, Kien. A Northerner, Kien has lived in Sapa for 10 years and has learned as much as he could about the region. We trekked through the Red Dao village at Nam Nhiu, passing locals toiling at their daily farm work.

 

Some smiled, some continued on, and several were more than happy to get it on a photo – especially a Red Dao elder who was enthusiastic to view her beauty shots on our photographer’s DSLR. The overall impression we got was unspoiled. Unlike Sapa town, there are no groups of haggardly beggar children surrounding you with outstretched hands, or chains of Black H’mong women speaking to you in unison. It’s a breath of fresh air and a chance to calmly look at another way of life without it feeling like a human zoo.

Although Sapa is chilly and foggy in the winter and spring months, our trek proved stunning thanks to a lower elevation than Sapa town, which was suffocated in fog so thick that at some points it was hard to see past 20 meters. Hiking with Topas rendered jackets all but unnecessary – we were more than warm after the first hour.

 

We waded through Sapa’s terraced rice valleys, crossing muddy obstacles, jumping to safety, and adventuring through countless edges and narrow paths. Fun, active, and just safe enough for the older and heavier crowd, we had a great time and a great workout. Kien occasionally stopped to allow us to take photos and shoot some videos, and sometimes to explain the scene. Buffalo and horses grazed healthily, free to wander – a refreshing sight of true free-range farm stock.

Near the end of the nearly five hour trek we reached Nam Cang’s Red Dao village, where again we witnessed unperturbed minority life. The village, in fact, looked far from poor. Although aesthetically old fashioned, people had large, comfortable wooden homes, fruitful gardens, plenty of pigs, chickens and ducks, motorbikes, a school,and best yet an unending wave of smiles.

Sapa-Local-Market-Minority - Vietnam - www.citypassguide.com

Topas Ecolodge has a homestay located across a short walking bridge from the Red Dao village, part of their complete experience, which includes the tour and a night at their primary accommodation, the Topas Ecolodge. We had well-deserved lunch at the Nam Cang homestay, consisting of fresh Red Dao dishes, before making our way back to the village, with its older citizens at work and younger inhabitants at play. We waved goodbye, finishing our brief but gorgeous Sapa tour, and took the van back to Tapas Ecolodge.

Hmong Minorities Food Preparation - Sa Pa - Vietnam - Citypassguide.com

Tapas Ecolodge, to put it candidly, is one of the best hotel/resorts in Sapa. Not that there is too much competition – most are in Sapa town and of those the better options are on the high-end range. But this does not stop this lodge hotel from being a top choice for anyone wanting to avoid the tired traffic of a once-decent townlet and instead immerse themselves in what Sapa is really about – the nature and the minorities.

The lodge-style bungalows at the Tapas Ecolodge have no TV or Wi-Fi. An amusing paragraph on the Ecolodge website proclaims that this may not be the place for everyone, that conditions are not always perfect and the location is 45 minutes from Sapa town. But it’s hard to imagine going to Sapa just to stay in town and go through the motions of Cat Cat village, Silver Waterfall, the town markets, and so on. No Wi-Fi, no TV, no problem. Sapa is an immersive experience and should be treated as such.

Our lodge was cozy, cold for the first several hours, and wonderfully isolated. Part of a string of 25 bungalows all facing a stretch of mountains (shrouded in fog at the time of the visit, early in March – be sure to read our best time to visit Sapa guide before booking), our abode was completely quiet. Romantic, to say the least, this environment is conducive for honeymooners.

 

In fact, we only saw couples at the resort – from Vietnamese to Scandinavian to French to American. In the morning we took a Red Dao herbal bath, with our window looking out into the valley below. The spa facilities are small, well-built and should definitely be part of your Topas Ecolodge experience – melting away in a hot herbal bath while you gaze out at the chilly rolling mountains is… cathartic, especially if you’re used to seeing high-rises and the backs of motorbikes like us.

Topas Ecolodge_Pool - Sa Pa - Vietnam - www.citypassguide.com

Topas Ecolodge has a minority-cuisine-inspired restaurant above the main lounge, which gives off the feeling of a classy ski lodge restaurant. The food is well made and locally sourced – the manager and chef head down to the minority tribe and get their meat for barter. The portions are somewhat small and you must reserve well in advance, so be advised.

Looking to experience authentic Sapa and trying to avoid miserly Sapa town? Topas Travel and Topas Ecolodge are here for this very reason. We highly recommend you check out their tours and ecolodge – these are one-of-a-kind experiences that genuinely go off the beaten path.

Citypassguide.com adv

HCMC INSPIRATION TRAVEL SAPA A GUIDE TO MOC BAI BORDER AND WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

The “border run”, as dodgy as it may sound, is an experience that many expats in Vietnam are familiar with. For expats living in Saigon or other nearby southern provinces, the thought of the long ride up to Moc Bai in Tay Ninh Province on the border of Cambodia could evoke anything from a disgruntled groan to a fair bit of excitement. It depends on how you feel about burning at least half a working day going somewhere you’d rather not be, just to ensure you remain in the country legally.

Typically, most expats will have to wait a few weeks or months to get their official work permit sorted out. This means if you’re the proud owner of a 1, 3 or 6-month tourist or business visa, you will need to ensure you get a new visa on the day the current one expires.

Buying a Visa for the Moc Bai Border Crossing

Depending on which country you’re from, the process starts with finding a legitimate and reputable visa agent to obtain a letter that you’ll need to submit to the immigration officer. You can easily find a visa agent amongst the many expat groups on Facebook. All you need to do is ask, and you’ll either get a private message from one, or a referral from another expat.

Vietnam allows visa-exemptions to citizens of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, The United Kingdom, South Korea, Japan and fellow ASEAN member states, excluding Timor Leste and Cambodia, for limited periods ranging from 14 to 30 days. If you’re not from any of these countries, or if you need a visa for more than a month, you’ll need to find that visa agent regardless of where you’re from. It’s best to seek this information directly from the visa agent as the immigration rules are constantly changing and it can be quite confusing and challenging trying to keep track.

The countries that do not enjoy visa-exemptions are categorised into different “tiers” that determine how much you will need to spend for the letter and what kinds of visas you are eligible for. This letter typically costs anywhere between US$25 to US$40 and will be e-mailed to you within 2 working days. Then the fun starts.

Getting To The Moc Bai Border

There are many ways to get to Moc Bai Border, either via private transport through your visa agent that might cost quite a bit but will save you lots of time or public transport. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the latter as that’s the most commonly used and also the cheapest.

It’s always good to start your border run bright and early in the morning, preferably before 9:00 a.m. because it will generally take anywhere between 5 to 8 hours depending on how familiar you are with the process and the traffic situation during the journey. It’s also a good idea to pack some small snacks and a bottle of water and have plenty of VND in small denominations. Alternatively, you may also bring USD with you, either currency is fine. Don’t forget to bring along a printout of the visa letter, plus 2 passport-sized photographs and cash for the stamping fee either in USD or VND.

The cheapest way to get to the border is by bus number 703 that you can board at Saigon Bus Station at Pham Ngu Lao street in District 1. You can find these buses parked near the entrance facing the Cong Quynh Street roundabout. The buses, run by SAPACO Tourist are usually blue or silver with Moc Bai written on the front display. The 3-hour journey will cost you only VND40,000 each way.

For those of you who have never taken a public bus in Vietnam, all you need to do is board the bus, take a seat and a few minutes later, the bus conductor will collect the fare in exchange for a paper ticket. As your bus streams across the city, you will be joined by a whole bunch of other passengers, mostly locals. They will not be doing the border run with you. At some point, the erratic swarms of motorbikes and incessant honking will be replaced by vast fields with grazing buffaloes and half-completed skeletons of bridges, highways and roads as you make your way out of Saigon.

The Actual Visa Run

Once your bus reaches the destination, it will be fairly obvious to you because the driver will yell something in Vietnamese. Then you will see a group of xe om drivers circling the bus, congregating near the exit and you will see a whole bunch of trucks lined up along the road, waiting to cross the border. At this point, you have two options.

The first option, or what I call, the ‘express package’, is to get on the back of one of these bikes and for a fare of VND100,000, the xe om driver will drive you through the checkpoints at the border and back to the bus station. This option can be very tricky for the first timer because there is a very high chance you might end up spending much more than the VND100,000 quoted to you.

These additional charges include simple tasks such as filling out forms for you or helping you join ‘express queues’ at the various checkpoints. The good thing with this option is you will most likely clear the whole process within an hour. However, if you prefer doing this entire border run without spending a single dong or cent, then option two is for you.

Once you disembark from the bus and politely decline the swarm of xe om drivers, walk towards the large line of trucks. Here, you will realise that you’re on a road that’s about 500 metres long that leads directly to the border. The walk itself will take about 10 minutes until you reach the complex. There is a high chance you will see multiple lines which all seem the same. However, since you didn’t get the ‘express package’, you’ll have to join the ‘normal queue’, on the extreme right. This queue is usually the longest.

Once you’ve gotten your exit stamp, you can proceed to walk towards the Cambodian immigration complex about 200 metres away. Upon arrival, a couple of guys may approach you, offering to fill out the immigration form for you. If you’re not in the mood to hold a pen, these guys will do it for you for a small fee, not more than VND50,000. If you require a visa to enter Cambodia, these guys can help you with the process.

Once you’ve cleared Cambodian immigration, you can proceed towards the exit ahead of you, turn around at the rear parking lot and head towards the exit queue, which is outdoors and also doubles up as a checkpoint for vehicles. After you’ve gotten your exit stamp, you’ll have to walk back towards Vietnam to sort out your Vietnamese visa, the reason why you’re even here in the first place.

When you enter the complex, you will see a bunch of guys wearing blue uniforms. They work at the border and will insist on helping you fill out the application form, then help you submit the form to the immigration officer once you’ve paid the stamping fee. This amount depends on which visa you’re getting. You can always refuse this service and do it by yourself but it’ll take longer.

After a 15-minute wait, you’ll get your passport returned to you with the new visa in place and you can then proceed to the final phase of your border runre-entering Vietnam. Don’t forget to check the visa before you leave to make sure you got what you paid for. Once you’ve cleared the exit queues, congratulations. You’re now legally back in Vietnam. Now you just have to sit through the arduous 3-hour journey back to Saigon Bus Station.

What You Need to Remember When Doing a Visa Run

There are a few important things you need to know to ensure a safe and smooth border run. The first thing is to make sure you have the required documents with you. These include the visa letter, photographs and cash.

The latter is the most crucial. It is advisable to bring a slightly higher amount than you expect. As a foreigner, and especially if you’re a first-timer, you’re going to be bombarded by service providers you don’t really need and you might end up forking over some extra cash. In addition, there is no ATM at the border. The nearest one is a 15-minute bike ride away courtesy of a xe om ride that will probably cost you another VND100,000.

Another important thing to remember is to check the expiry date of your current visa. If you’ve accidentally overstayed your visa, the immigration officer will point it out to you and you will be required to pay a fine depending on how long you have overstayed. You will also be required to sign some documents as part of the paperwork process. Once again, an inconvenience that could easily be avoided. Also ensure your passport has a minimum validity of six months or you might not be allowed to enter Cambodia, effectively wasting your time and effort getting there.

If you need more information, feel free to reach out to visa agents who are mostly bilingual.