Located not very far from the Vietnam’s border with China, the hill station town of Sapa feels like its worlds away from the typical Vietnamese lifestyles seen elsewhere in the country. Lying amidst the terraced rice fields and gorgeous mountains, the scenery surrounding the town is stunning.
Along with the beautiful setting, Sapa is also well known for its diverse cultural makeup. Tiny villages dot the hillsides and are home to many different ethnic minorities, each with their own customs and culture.
While the remote location of this hill town makes it a bit of a hassle to get to, it also has helped preserve the rich cultural heritage and scenic beauty for so long. There are few things, however, you should know before visiting Sapa.
When To Go
As is the case with any destination, it’s important to think about when is the best time to go. There’s nothing worse than to plan an outdoor adventure, only to arrive and find yourself in the middle of the country’s rainy season. This is particularly important when visiting Sapa, since a trekking experience will most likely be on your list of things to do while in the Vietnam countryside.
The summer months are the rainy season, lasting from June until September, when the grounds can get super muddy and slippery, making hiking more difficult. This is also when Sapa’s weather is at its warmest, with temperatures climbing to 77 degrees with 75% humidity. While 77 may not seem all that hot, when you’re out trekking all day, it can still be pretty bad, not to mention the humidity makes it much worse. Fortunately, the weather does cool down in the evenings.
Harvest season in Sapa is October to November, and is probably the best time for a visit to this picturesque area of Vietnam if you want to see those stunning golden fields you often see in pictures. Definitely don’t forget your camera if you visit Sapa in the fall!
December to February are the winter months and can get very cold in Sapa, with snow covering the mountains. When it’s not cold enough to snow, light rains can make the trails and roads icy and slippery. This should be taken into consideration if you plan on trekking. If you do go in the winter, make sure to bring any necessary extra gear and wear layers.
What to Pack
When visiting Sapa, no matter what time of year, there are a few essential things you will want to make sure to pack.
Plenty of water! No matter what you do in Sapa, you want to make sure you bring enough water. It can get hot, especially in the summer, and you want to make sure you have bottled water to keep you hydrated. (Vietnam is a place to be cautious about the water, so use bottled water.)
Sunscreen and a hat
You will also want to bring sunscreen, along with a hat and maybe sunglasses. Even if it’s the raining season, there will be many times where there aren’t many clouds during the day. You definitely don’t want to get back from your trek looking like a lobster.
Trails and roads around Sapa are often slippery and not very well maintained. I’m pretty sure every person in our trekking group slipped at least once. You need to make sure to wear a pair of tried and tested shoes.
Poncho or rain jacket
A poncho or rain jacket can come in handy if you’re out on a trek and it starts to rain. This is especially true during the rainy season.
You can’t take those breathtaking photos of the terraced hillsides without a camera.
I feel like this one may be self-explanatory.
Getting to Sapa
The best way to get to the hill station town of Sapa is from Hanoi, where you’ll find two options: bus or overnight train. The train departs from Hanoi to Lao Cai station and takes around nine hours. If you choose this option, you will need to hire a tax or take a shuttle bus to Sapa. As for the bus, you can choose one that leaves in the morning or take a sleeper bus. The bus will take you all the way to the town. There are also some Sapa tours/trekking trips that leave from Hanoi.
Sapa by Train
TraiWhen taking the train to Sapa, it’s a good idea to book your ticket in advance, especially on weekends and the summer months. There are several “classes” to choose from, with prices varying accordingly. Tickets can be anywhere from $18 up to more than $100 for a really nice private cabin, and there are many trains to choose from as well.
Sapa by Bus
The journey by bus to Sapa is usually around six hours and lets you off in the middle of town, eliminating the need to find a shuttle bus. Prices vary with the bus as well, with basic options up to luxury lines. Bus ticket prices typically range from around $10 for basic options to around $20 for nicer, more comfortable lines.
The roads to Sapa are winding
The roads to Sapa are definitely winding and drivers aren’t exactly the most cautious, this includes the drivers of the minibus from Lao Cai to Sapa. If you’re prone to car sickness, or just motion sickness in general, you should bring a bag or any nausea relief medicine.
Sapa has a tout problem
You’ll often hear “buy from me” or “you buy” in the streets of Sapa. I didn’t get more than two feet from the bus when I arrived in town before someone was trying to get me to buy something. You’ll find many Black Hmong children and women selling their wares around tourist spots.
If you encounter touts in Sapa, either give a firm “no” or simply keep walking and ignore the relentless calls to buy their wares. Never give them a “maybe,” unless you actually mean it. Otherwise, they will likely keep following you until you buy something.
There’s a variety of food
Sapa town is home to a variety of international restaurants, street food, and cafes.Sapa town is home to a variety of international restaurants, street food, and cafes. While you can find an array of Vietnamese street food near Sapa Square, P.Cau May road boasts several international dining establishments. You can also find many streetside food joints where you can eat on the sidewalk sitting on plastic chairs, just like the locals.
P.Cau May is the main street
P.Cau May is Sapa’s main road, running through the heart of the town. You will find many souvenir shops, massage businesses, clothing, cafes, and international restaurants here.
Trekking to some villages requires a permit
Some of the villages will have a pay station at their entrance, at which you will need to show your trekking permit. This can be bought at the tourist information center in Sapa. If you’re with a trekking tour, however, this most likely is included in the cost.
Hire a trekking guide
In case you haven’t realized by now, Sapa and the surrounding area is known for its trekking and hill tribes. The majority of Sapa trekking guides include the Hmong, Tay, D’zay, and Red Dzao hill tribe communities. Try to hire directly with one of the responsible tour companies in town.
Go to Sapa Radio Tower for the best view
The hike to Sapa Radio Tower is the easiest in town and you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree, panoramic views.
Shop for Hill Tribe crafts
The crafts of Vietnam’s Red Dzao and Hmong tribes are some of the most interesting souvenirs you can find in Sapa. There are two main spots where you can shop for these fashion items, jewelry, and other crafts: Sapa Square and the Sapa Market.
Beware the dye
Some of the dye used by the Hmong in their crafts can stain your skin or clothes, since the die isn’t set. If you buy any fabrics while in sapa, keep them separate from your clothes or other items, and be sure to set the die before you use or wear them.
If you didn’t bring the clothes you need for trekking, don’t worry. There are many shops in Sapa that sell trekking essentials, from ponchos and shoes to apparel and backpack. Be aware, however, that while you may think you found a great deal on North Face, it’s likely a counterfeit.