Established as a hill station by the French in 1922, Sapa is the one place in the northwest where tourism is booming. It’s now firmly on the European and North American package -tour circuit, and well-equipped trekkers are a common sight around town.
The town is oriented to make the most of the spectacular views emerging on clear days. It overlooks a plunging valley of cascading rice terraces, with mountains towering above on all sides.
The town’s French-colonial villas fell into disrepair during successive wars with the French, Americans and Chinese, but following the advent of tourism, Sapa has experienced a renaissance. The downside is a hotel building boom, and because height restrictions are rarely enforced, the Sapa skyline is changing for the worse.
Inherent in this prosperity is cultural change for the hill-tribe people. The H’mong people are very canny traders, urging you to buy handicrafts and trinkets. Many have had little formal education, yet all the youngsters have a good command of English, French and a handful of other languages.
Sights & Activities
(103 Ɖ Xuan Vien; 7.30-11.30am & 1.30-5pm) Excellent showcase of the history and ethnology of the Sapa area including the colonial times of the French. Exhibitions demonstrate the differences between the various ethnic minority people of the area, so it’s definitely worth visiting the muesum when you first arrive in town. Downstairs is a handicrafts and weaving demonstration with items for sale.
(6am-2pm) Hill-tribe people from surrounding villages go to the Sapa market most days to sell handicrafts and ethnic-style clothing. Saturday is the busiest day, and every day the market’s food stalls are popular for breakfast and lunch. The location of the town’s market may change in the next few years.
(020-387 1919; 16 P Thach Son; massages from 150,000d; 7am-10pm) Hiking those mountain trails can be tough on your joints, so come to this humble spot for bona fide foot and body massages.
(020-387 1522; www.victoriahotels-asia.com; Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa, P Hoang Dieu; 8am-10pm) This upmarket spa complex at the Victoria Sapa Resort has gorgeous massage and treatment rooms. The spa’s pool is open to people not staying at the resort for US$10 per person.
For overnight stays in villages and longer treks into the mountains, it’s important to hook up with someone who knows the terrain and culture and speaks the language. We recommend using minority guides, as this offers them a means of making a living. Note it’s illegal to stay overnight in villages that are not officially recognised as homestays. Ignoring this could cause significant problems for your hosts and yourself.
Speak to travel agencies or guides (who’ll probably approach you in the street), pick up a decent map and plot your course. The villages and the surrounding landscape are now part of Hoang Lien National Park.
Another popular hike is to Ta Phin village (admission 20,000d), home to Red Dzao and about 10km from Sapa. Most people take a xe om to a starting point about 8km from Sapa, and then make a 14km loop through the area, passing through Black H’mong and Red Dzao villages.
For spectacular valley views (if the mist and cloud gods relent), there’s a beautiful hike along a high ridge east of Sapa through the Black H’mong settlements of Sa Seng and Hang Da down to the Ta Van River, where you can get transport back to Sapa.
There are also community-based tours to the nearby H’mong village of Sin Chai, with an overnight in the village to learn about textiles or music and dance. Other popular communities to visit include the Giay village of Ta Van and the H’mong village of Matra. Note that admission charges (between 20,000d and 40,000d) also apply to these other villages.
Surrounding Sapa are the Hoang Lien Mountains, dubbed the Tonkinese Alps by the French. These mountains include the often cloud-obscured Fansipan (3143m), Vietnam’s highest peak. Fansipan is accessible year-round to sensibly equipped travellers in good shape, but don’t underestimate the challenge. It is very wet, and can be perilously slippery and generally cold. Don’t attempt an ascent if Sapa’s weather is poor, as limited visibility on Fansipan can be treacherous.
The summit of Fansipan is 19km from Sapa and can be reached only on foot. The terrain is rough and adverse weather is frequent. The round trip usually takes three days; some experienced hikers do it in two days, but you’ll need to be fit. After walking through hill-tribe villages on the first morning, it’s just forest, mountain vistas and occasional wildlife, including monkeys, mountain goats and birds.
No ropes or technical climbing skills are needed, just endurance. There are a few rudimentary shelters at a couple of base camps en route, but it’s better to be self-sufficient with sleeping bag, waterproof tent, food, stove, raincoat or poncho, compass and other miscellaneous survival gear. It’s vital to carry out all your garbage, as some of the camps are now impacted by trash. Hiring a reputable guide is vital, and porters are also recommended.
Through local operators, count on an all-inclusive rate of around US$150 per person for a couple, US$125 per person for a group of four and US$100 per person for the sensible maximum group size of six.
Weather-wise the best time is from mid-October to mid-December, and in March, when wildflowers are in bloom.
(loop track admission 3000d) The road between Sapa and Lai Chau crosses the Tram Ton Pass on the northern side of Fansipan, 15km from Sapa. At 1900m this is Vietnam’s highest mountain pass, and acts as a dividing line between two weather fronts. Even if you’re not touring the northwest, come up here to experience the often-ferocious winds and the incredible views.
On the Sapa side, it’s often cold and foggy, but drop a few hundred metres onto the Lai Chau side, and it can be sunny and warm. Surprisingly, Sapa is the coldest place in Vietnam, but Lai Chau can be one of the warmest.
Alongside the road, 12km from Sapa, is 100m-high Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall); the loop track is steep and scenic. The waterfall is sometimes included on tours offered by Sapa travel agencies and another option to get there is to rent a motorbike.
(http://indigocat.dznly.com; 46 Ɖ Phan Si; per person per project 100,000d; 9am-7pm) Learn traditional H’mong weaving at this funky and friendly craft shop co-owned by a H’mong-Swiss couple. There’s no time limit; just come back as many times as you need to finish your work. Bags and iPad covers are popular items for sale.
(020-388 7112; www.thehillstation.com; 37 Ɖ Phan Si; per person US$29; from 9am) Features five local dishes, and is conducted by an English-speaking H’mong chef. The class begins with a 30-minute market tour and includes local rice wine and dishes like smoked buffalo and homemade tofu.
( 020-650 5228; www.saparooms.com; Ð Phan Si; per person US$35; from 9:30am) Pop into the Sapa Rooms cafe and ask about its cookery courses held at the Hmong Mountain Retreat. Classes kick off with a visit to Sapa market, just 10m from the cafe.
Sapa has accommodation ranging from bare-bones cheapies, through to boutique-style offerings, and a luxury hilltop resort. Most hotels listed have views, but Sapa’s building boom can change that overnight; check when you book.
Prices are competitive, but often double on busy weekends with the influx of Vietnamese tourists. Note some midrange places also have excellent budget rooms.
Beware of hotels using old-style charcoal burners for heat, as the fumes can cause severe breathing problems if the room’s not well ventilated. Most hotels have now switched over to electric heaters or open fireplaces for the winter.
It’s also a good source of information for onward travel to Laos or China.( 0979 110 800; [email protected]; 45 Ð Muong Hoa; dm US$4, s US$7-10, d & tw US$10-15; ) Sapa’s only true backpacker hostel is this welcoming spot with great views. Motorcycles can be rented for US$5 per day, and there’s a cosy on-site bar with pool table.
( 0974 418 111; www.sapacasablanca.com; Ð Dong Loi; r US$22-30) One of Sapa’s first boutique hotels has a new lease on life thanks to the friendly family owners. Look forward to colourful decor and good hospitality from Mr Tom.
(020-387 2310; www.familysapa.com; 28 Ð Muong Hoa; s/d US$15/18; ) This friendly guesthouse is slightly away from the hubbub of downtown Sapa. Motorcycles and bikes can be rented, trekking and transport arranged, and there are valley views from front balconies.
Hmong Mountain Retreat
(020-650 5228; www.hmongmountainretreat.com; 6 Ban Ho Rd, Lao Chai; d/f incl breakfast US$59/120) Accommodation in bungalows or a restored H’mong house is simple, but the real attraction is sleeping above a cascade of rice paddies several kilometres out of Sapa. Rates include breakfast, served in the retreat’s restaurant, crafted from an 80-year-old tribal house; up to 95% of ingredients are sourced within a 2km radius. The grounds are dotted with the owner’s artworks.
(www.topasecolodge.com; Nam Cang Village; d US$60) Located in a valley 36km from Sapa, this stylish wooden house with nine rooms is a collaboration between a Red Dzao family and Topas Travel. Final access is across a private bridge over a river and rates include breakfast. Look forward to remote isolation surrounded by stunning scenery. Enquire at Topas Travel in Sapa town.
(0977 448 866; www.thaibinhhotel.com; 45 Ð Ham Rong; d/f US$35/70) Run by a couple of teachers, the Thai Binh enjoys a quiet location near Sapa’s church. Rooms are spotless and decked out with crisp pine furniture and cosy bedspreads. Rates include breakfast, and the owners are well equipped with information about onward travel to China.
(020-387 2907; www.chapagarden.com; 23B P Cau May; r US$65-82; ) Cha Pa occupies a sensitively restored colonial villa amid lush and private gardens in the heart of Sapa. There are just four rooms, all presented in contemporary style, with wooden floors, uncluttered lines and hip bathrooms.
(020-387 1946; www.catcathotel.com; 46 Ð Phan Si; s/d from US$30/35) This excellent spot has 40 rooms over nine floors, many with great views. There’s something for every budget, with homely, comfortable pine-trimmed accommodation, and even a seriously spacious three-bedroom apartment (US$180). The cheaper rooms are the best value: bargain hunters should check out the budget digs starting from US$10 for a single.
(020-387 2727; www.boutiquesapahotel.com; 41 Ð Phan Si; s/d from US$30/40) This hotel features classy furniture, flat-screen TVs and superb vistas from the terrace cafe, while the downstairs dining room does pizza and warming hotpots. Pay a little more for a room with valley views. Massage and cookery classes are both available.
Fansipan View Hotel
( 020-387 3759; www.fansipanview.com; 45 Ð Xuan Vien; s/d from US$25/30 ) Here you’ll find cosy rooms tucked away in a quiet lane. Ask for a room at the front for views of the town. Downstairs is the good Sapa Cuisine restaurant. The owners were busy building a new hotel nearby when we last dropped by.
(020-650 5228; www.saparooms.com; Ð Phan Si; d/f US$59/72 ) Billing itself as a boutique hotel, this place is decorated in a highly quirky style and has an excellent lobby cafe. The rooms are more prosaic, but show some nice touches including fresh flowers. Prices include a good breakfast.
( 020-387 2771; www.sapaluxuryhotel.com; 36 Ð Phan Si; s/d/tr from US$28/28/35) One of the newer openings on Ð Phan Si features spacious rooms with wooden floors and trendy Asian decor last seen at your local furniture superstore.
(020-387 2388; www.sapaview-hotel.com; 41 Ð Muong Hoa; s/d/ste from US$65/75/85) Look forward to excellent valley views, especially from the attached Tam Tam restaurant. The decor is a winning combination of local tribal art and lots of Scandinavian-style wood.
( 020-387 2404; www.topasecolodge.com; bungalows US$115-140) Overlooking a plunging valley, this ecolodge has 25 lovely stone-and-thatch bungalows, each with front balconies to make the most of the magnificent views. The whole project is sustainable and environmentally friendly, with solar energy providing the power. Hiking, biking and market tours are all available, and romantic dinners (1,500,000d per couple) in a private hilltop pavillion can also be arranged.
The lodge is also open to outside guests for lunch (mains 120,000d to 200,000d), with a free shuttle bus departing from the Topas Travel office (9.30am Monday to Saturday) in Sapa.
( 020-387 1522; www.victoriahotels-asia.com; P Hoang Dieu; r from US$190) This alpine-style hilltop hotel is a well- maintained establishment, right down to the manicured lawns. Rooms aren’t large, but they do feature hand-carved furniture and private balconies. Facilities include two bars, a heated swimming pool and a fitness centre. Get here in style from Hanoi on one of the resort’s luxury Victoria Express train carriages.
Traditionally, the H’mong have been employees of Vietnamese-owned trekking companies, restaurants and accommodation, with many H’mong children kept out of school to sell handicrafts or to be trekking guides, often walking up to 10km daily from their villages to Sapa to earn money. A new generation, including former handicraft peddler Shu Tan’s organisation Sapa O’Chau, is now focused on securing a more independent and positive future for their people.
Meaning ‘thank you Sapa’ in the H’mong language, Sapa O’Chau is focused on providing training and opportunities to H’mong children. The Sapa O’Chau Learning Centre is a live-in school where up to 20 H’mong children can learn English and Vietnamese.
Sapa O’Chau is always interested to hear from travellers keen on volunteering as English-language teachers, and the organisation also runs excellent walks and treks. Their cafe in Sapa is also a cosy spot for a drink or a snack.
For eating on a budget, humble Vietnamese restaurants huddle below the market on Ð Tue Tinh, and the night-market stalls south of the church can’t be beaten for bun cha (barbecued pork).
(18 P Cau May; mains 50,000-80,000d; 8am-10pm) One of the better-value eateries along touristy P Cau May, Little Sapa also lures in locals. Steer clear of the largely medicore European dishes and concentrate on the Vietnamese menu.
(www.sapaochau.org; 8 Ɖ Thac Bac; snacks from 20,000d; 6.30am-6.30pm) Cosy cafe that’s also the best place to ask about trekking, homestays and volunteering opportunities with Sapa O’Chau. Don’t miss warming up with a cup of ginger tea sweetened with Sapa mountain honey.
(P Cau May; dishes around 30,000d; 6am-1pm) Lots of local food stalls and a good alternative to another hotel breakfast or for a cheap and authentic lunch.
(020-387 1766; Ð Thac Bac; cakes from 30,000d, snacks & meals 70,000-160,000d; 7am-10pm) Head to this cafe in an elegant converted villa for one of their fine breakfasts, open sandwichs, baguettes or a tasty slab of gateau.
(Ɖ Phan Si; meals around 70,000-120,000d; noon-11pm) Several easygoing spots along the northern end of Ɖ Phan Si specialise in expertly grilled meat and vegetables. Kick things off with a lazy session at bia hoi corner nearby.
(Ɖ Xuan Vien; hotpots around 50,000d; 11am-11pm) Vietnamese-style lau hotpot (meat stew cooked with local vegetables, cabbage and mushroom) is a very popular local dish; try it at the hotpot stalls just south of the bus station.
(www.thehillstation.com; 37 Ɖ Phan Si; meals 90,000-180,000d; 7am-10.30pm) Cool Zen decor and superb views showcase H’mong ethnic minority cuisine. Dishes include chicken with wild ginger, ash-baked trout in banana leaves, and traditional H’mong-style black pudding. Tasting sets of local rice and corn wine are also of interest to curious travelling foodies. Don’t miss trying the delicate rainbow-trout rolls; think of them as ‘Sapa sushi’.
(www.saparooms.com/village_noshery; 42 P Cau May; tapas 60,000-80,000d, mains 70,000-110,000d; 6.30am-11pm) Stylish cafe with decent Vietnamese food, including tapas-sized plates of interesting snacks like barbecued beef in betel leaves, and chicken and beef lemongrass satay sticks. Noodle dishes, soups and spring rolls are also available, and it’s a top place for an end-of-day beer or cocktail. Coffee and cake is another post-trekking option. Upstairs are double rooms (US$30 including breakfast).
(51 Ð Phan Si; mains 90,000-150,000d; 8am-10pm) You’ve got to love the photos of the owner’s kids on the walls at this friendly spot with great valley views. Look forward to decent Vietnamese and European food and just maybe Sapa’s best fruit smoothies. Those who aren’t fans of tofu should try the sizzling tofu with lemongrass and be converted. Don’t worry – it’s not all vegetarian food.
(www.thehillstation.com; 7 Ɖ Muong Hoa; mains 125,000-165,000d; 7am-10.30pm) With cheese and charcuterie plates, pork terrine and local smoked trout, the Hill Station Deli & Boutique is a stylish new addition to the Sapa dining scene. Factor in some of Sapa’s best coffee and an interesting array of international beers and wines, and you’ve got cosmopolitan options if you’ve just arrived overland from Laos. It’s also a top spot for breakfast.
(www.saparooms.com; Ð Phan Si; mains 60,000-120,000d; 6.30am-10.30pm) This flamboyantly decorated cafe looks like it should be in New York or London rather than the highlands of northern Vietnam. It’s great for a snack (think corn fritters or BLT baguette), decent burgers and soups, and great coffee and cake. Noodles are also available.
Drinking( 020-387 2559; www.vietemotion.com; 27 P Cau May; meals 70,000-150,000d; 7am-11pm) This stylish and intimate bistro features a cosy fireplace and has bottles of wine hanging from the ceiling. Try the trekking omelette, homemade soup or something from the tapas menu, such as gambas al ajillo (garlic prawns). If the weather really sets in, there are books and magazines to browse, and games including chess.
(2 Ð Muong Hoa; noon-11pm) Dangerously strong cocktails, cold beer and ultracompetitive games of table football conspire to make this Sapa’s go-to place for a great night out. Even if it’s freezing outside, a shisha beside the open fire will soon perk up the chilliest of travellers. Try the warm apple wine for some highland bliss.
(www.facebook.com/colorbar; 56 Ɖ Phan Si; noon-11pm) Owned by a Hanoi artist, this rustic and atmospheric spot ticks all the boxes with reggae, table football, shisha and ice-cold Bia Lao Cai. A great local spot if your accommodation is nearby on Ɖ Phan Si, or as a refuelling option on the steep walk up from Cat Cat Village.
(Ð Muong Hoa; noon-late) This spacious bar with pool tables and an open fire has pretty decent music, but can feel a bit sparse if it’s a quiet night. Bar prices are reasonable though, so it’s always worth checking out.
Bia Hoi Corner
Shopping(cnr 56 Ɖ Phan Si & P Cau May; 4-11pm) The cheapest beer in town and the occasional company of assorted locals and Sapa’s small crew of expat residents. Adjacent are good barbecue restaurants for a cheap and tasty night out.
Scour the stores on P Cau May and Ð Phan Si for clothing, accessories and jewellery produced by the area’s minority peoples. Urban Vietnamese designers are also producing clothes and household furnishings inspired by tribal motifs.
Lots of the minority women and girls have gone into the souvenir business; the older women in particular are known for their strong-armed selling tactics. When negotiating prices, hold your ground, but avoid aggressive bargaining.
Note that on some cheaper clothing, the dyes used are not set, which can turn anything the material touches (including your skin) a muddy blue-green colour. Wash the fabric separately in cold salted water to stop the dye from running, and wrap items in plastic bags before packing them in your luggage.
If you’ve arrived in town with insufficient warm clothing, stores along P Cau May sell lots of ‘brand-name’ walking shoes, parkas and thermals. Some of it might even be authentic. Anyone for a North Fake daypack?
(http://indigocat.dznly.com; 46 Ɖ Phan Si; 9am-7pm) The only H’mong-owned handicrafts shop in Sapa offers a wonderful selection of interesting local crafts including bags, clothing, pillows and belts. Co-owner Pang speaks good English and her young son Sanji is a real charmer. Pop by and ask about joining in the H’mong weaving lessons.
Internet access – including complimentary wi-fi – is available at hotels, restaurants and cafes around town.
There are two ATMs in Sapa, and many of the hotels and businesses will change US dollars and euros.
The Sapa Tourist Map (20,000d) is an excellent 1:75,000 scale map of the walking trails and attractions around Sapa. The Sapa Trekking Map is a worthwhile hand-drawn map showing trekking routes and the town.
Sapa Tourism (020-387 3239; www.sapa-tourism.com; 103 Ð Xuan Vien; 7.30-11.30am & 1.30-5pm) Helpful English-speaking staff offering details about transport, trekking and weather. Internet access is free for 15 minutes, and the organisation’s website is also a mine of useful information.
Handspan Travel ( 020-387 2110; www.handspan.com; Chau Long Hotel, 24 Dong Loi) Offers trekking and mountain-biking tours to villages and markets.
Sapa Pathfinder Travel ( 020-387 3468; www.sapapathfinder.com; 13 Ð Xuan Vien) Trekking, mountain biking, Fansipan and advice on transport.
Topas Travel ( 020-387 1331; www.topastravel.vn; 21 Ɖ Muong Hoa) A Sapa-based operator that has high-quality trekking, biking and village encounters. Options include a stay in Topas Eco Lodge or the Nam Cang Riverside House.
Getting There & Away
The gateway to Sapa is Lao Cai, 38km away via a smooth, well-maintained highway.
Bicycle & Motorcycle
Motorcycling from Hanoi to Sapa is feasible, but it’s a long 380km trip. Put your bike on the train to Lao Cai and save yourself the hassle. The 38km between Lao Cai and Sapa is all uphill – hell on a bicycle.
Sapa’s bus station is in the north of town, but you can also check schedules at the tourist office or most travel agents. Direct sleeper buses for Hanoi (300,000d) also depart from Sapa’s main square, and there’s a 5pm direct sleeper bus to Bia Chay for Halong Bay (500,000d).
Buses from Sapa:
Duration & Frequency
12hr; 7.30am, 5.30pm
3hr; frequent 6am-4pm
Minibuses to/from Lao Cai are frequent between 5am and 5pm (50,000d, one hour), leaving from outside the church. Hotels and travel agents offer direct minibus services to Bac Ha (from US$30 return) for the Sunday market. It’s cheaper, but much slower, to go to Bac Ha by public minibus, changing buses in Lao Cai.
There’s no direct train line to Sapa, but regular services from Hanoi to Lao Cai. Most hotels and travel agencies can book tickets back to Hanoi.
The best way to get around compact Sapa is to walk. A bicycle can be hired, but you’ll spend half your time pushing it up steep hills.
For excursions further afield, motorbikes are available from about US$5 a day. If you’ve never ridden a motorbike before, this is not the place to learn. The weather can be wet and treacherous at any time of the year, and roads are steep and regularly damaged by floods and heavy rain. Consider hiring a bike with a local driver (about US$15 a day).
Cars, 4WDs and minibuses are also available for hire.