A GUIDE TO SAPA, VIETNAM
There's no question about it: Sapa is one of the most awesome places in Vietnam. Nestled high up between the dagger-like karst mountains of Lao Cai Province in the extreme north of the country, it’s a totally wild place. It's surrounded by sweeping vistas of deep-green rice paddies and forest. The horizon is marked by the colossal outline of Phan-Xi-Pang (also known as the Fansipan Mountain), which is Vietnam's highest at a whopping 3,100 meters above sea level. Meanwhile, winding rivers and clutches of fir trees pepper the surroundings, creating a place that rarely fails to take the breath away (seriously, no cliché!).
We've been heading high into the hills here for years, taking groups on our Vietnam Explorer packages up to the mist-topped town of Sa Pa and its massifs. We simply love that part of the trip, and always look forward to going back, whether it's for an arduous trek through the rice farms or just a chilled highland break in the cool air away from the coast.
In this guide to Sapa, Vietnam, we'll take a look at all the ins and outs of this top destination. We'll see what the main attractions are and how to get there from nearby Hanoi. We'll reveal what the cultural makeup and history of the town is, and what sort of weather you can expect when there. Enjoy…
Where exactly is Sapa?
The highland town of Sapa can be found nestled up in the northern Hoang Lien Son Mountains of Vietnam. Close to the border with China and Laos, it's one of the remotest places to get to in the country, and comes surrounded by a high phalanx of karst massifs. From here, it's actually much closer to the border crossing with the People's Republic at Lao Cai than to the city of Hanoi.
Technically speaking, Sapa is located at the far end of the Himalayan mountains. The great peak of Fansipan that rises above it to more than 3,000 meters actually marks one of the last summits of significance in the same range that includes Everest and K2. However, there's rarely a snow-topped mountain here – it's much more likely to be forest-dressed pinnacles or grass-clad peaks that pierce the clouds.
What's the history of Sapa?
Sapa has a truly fascinating history. Before the arrival of the French colonists in the late 1800s, the place was an untrodden fold in the Hoang Lien Son. It was inhabited by number of different regional tribal groups, who made their living by farming the fertile (fertile thanks to the unceasing rains, of course) soils. The presence of some ancient petroglyphs in the Sapa valley have indicated that the town's past goes back even further than these tribes though; perhaps all the way to the 15th century.
Later on, the French headed up to the hills on their mission to pacify the powers of Tonkin. The result was a large Francophone influence, especially as the Europeans here realized that the climate of the Sapa hills was much more soothing and hospitable than the heat they weren’t used to in the lowlands.
After the tumult of the Vietnam War, Sapa was quick to replace itself on the tourist map. By the 1990s there were already big groups of trekkers arriving here to enjoy the endless miles of trails. The crowds have only grown since then, and we at LBW understand why – those hiking excursions into the karst hills and through the rice paddies are a real bucket-list-topper if there ever was one!
How to get to Sapa?
As we've already mentioned, Sapa is hardly the easiest place in Vietnam to get to. It's not only shrouded by nearly impenetrable peaks, but also isolated far in the north of the country. Most travellers will be coming in from the city of Hanoi. From there, train connections to the border town of Lao Cai remain perhaps the most popular option. These will be overnight, and the Orient Express service will have sleeper carriages to get you there nice and fresh – just bear in mind you'll still have to get an onward bus once you arrive at the station.
For some, that means a simple overnight bus connection straight to Sapa might be the better choice. These leave regularly from Hanoi's central station, not to mention a whole load of other major tourist spots in the country. One caveat: be ready for a weaving, winding ride!
Where to stay in Sapa?
Because it's a super popular destination these days, Sapa is now packed with everything from luxury resort hotels to budget backpacker digs. However, unquestionably the best place to stay while visiting the Sapa region is in a local homestay. These are run by the area's native tribespeople, and ooze rustic highland charm. You'll be invited to eat homecooked meals and bed down on crooked timber beds in traditional longhouses – it's an awesome experience you won't forget in a hurry!
What are the top attractions in Sapa?
There's one attraction that reigns supreme in Sapa: hiking. That's the reason we continue to flock up this far north from the coast and into the rugged peaks of the Hoang Lien Son. In fact, our Vietnam Explorer itinerary includes one of the most popular trekking routes in the Sapa region, going for a total of two days through the mist-clad backcountry, meeting the local Hmong and Dao tribes, and even – if the season is right – helping out with the rice harvest picking.
Along the way, you'll pass countless other trekkers on the paths for sure – this is Vietnam's top hiking mecca, after all. You'll also see other visitors hitting the winding hairpin bends of the mountain roads on a motorcycle, many of whom will be undertaking the famous Lao Cai loop which goes even deeper into the mountains. We prefer to stick to two feet and safer ground though!
Once you're done stretching your legs on the trails, it's also possible to unwind in Sapa. Consider a soothing pedalboat ride on the shimmering waters of Sapa Lake, which unfolds like a mirror in the midst of the town. Or, you could just join your new travel buddies on the balconies of a local bar and watch as the sun dips behind the rugged peaks – it's the perfect evening show to accompany a cold beer!
Have you been to this beautiful highland town already? Can you think of anything that's worth adding to this guide to Sapa, Vietnam? We'd love to hear all about it in the comments below. Or, if you think it's time you got on the road, strapped on the walking boots, and explored Vietnam's highland reaches, be sure to check out our offering of top Vietnam tours.