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Sapa, Vietnam

Sapa Rice Terraces © Katherine Sazdanoff

Sapa Rice Terraces © Katherine Sazdanoff

Sapa is a wonderland for adventurous travelers.  The landscapes are brilliant, day activities plentiful and the markets are some of the most colorful in all of Vietnam.  After the lengthy train ride from Hanoi, Sapa’s dazzling scenery and views are a worthy reward for a long journey.

The Vietnamese government opened Sapa to international tourism in 1993, and ever since the town’s popularity with visitors has grown exponentially. Located in Vietnam’s sparsely populated, rugged northwest mountains, Sapa’s scenery is downright spectacular. Emerald-colored rice terraces cloak the surrounding hills and the Hoang Lien Son Mountains tower in the distance. Even during the monsoon season when rain and fog obscure the surrounding views, there’s something special, even mystical about Sapa.

And then there are the friendly, colorfully clad Hmong locals, as well as other minority ethnic groups, that fill up the town square and markets with their produce and wares. Opportunities to support these small-scale entrepreneurial farmers and artisans abound in the marketplace. Fresh produce and unique herbs line the market floors, along with skillfully crafted handicrafts and knickknacks. A word of advice – if you’re squeamish (or vegetarian), avoid the bloody raw meat sections.

Sapa Vietnam Cooking School © Katherine Sazdanoff

Sapa Vietnam Cooking School © Katherine Sazdanoff

A great way to explore the markets as part of a group tour is to sign up for a cooking class.  The popular Hmong Mountain Retreat Cooking School (website) is held daily, each class beginning with a trip to the local produce market followed by an afternoon of learning popular Vietnamese dishes in a picturesque rural setting approximately fifteen minutes outside of Sapa.  Don’t worry, the school provides transportation. In addition to learning to cook Vietnamese food, it’s an excellent way to meet other travelers.

Hiking opportunities are plentiful in Sapa. Do make sure to hire an experienced guide as the weather can turn on a dime and it’s easy to get lost. Handspan Travel Indochina (website) is consistently popular with travelers, and most Sapa hotels have their own cadre of trusted local guides as well. One popular short hike from Sapa is to Cat Cat village, approximately a 2 mile trip. It’s a steep, knee-buckling descent to Cat Cat, and a challenging ascent back to Sapa; traditional Hmong homes and small farms line the trail, along with a plunging waterfall. One portion of the hike is overly commercialized with a seemingly never-ending row of handicraft shops, but the remainder of the trail is pristine.

Longer treks from Sapa exist as well including various full day adventures within the surrounding rural communities and multi-day hikes high up in the mountains. Trekking to Fansipan Mountain, the highest peak in the nearby Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range is a popular, albeit very challenging option.  Homestays with local ethnic minorities are generally part of the package. Cyclists, particularly mountain bikers, can certainly join in on the action. There are several dirt roads and paths on the outskirts of Sapa. As previously mentioned, undertake physical adventures in the area with an experienced guide.

 

Practicalities

When to visit: The weather in Northern Vietnam can be tricky. The best months to visit Sapa are September through October and April through May.  The weather is comfortably warm, and mountain views are sublime. Try not to visit Sapa in the winter (November through February) as it’s generally cold and rainy. Views are obscured due to blanketing fog and the rice paddies are brown. The rainy season runs from May to September with the worst downpours between July and August.

Getting there: Sapa is best reached via train from Hanoi. There are a few different train departure times, including an overnight option. The train departs Hanoi and nine hours later arrives into Lao Cai, the gateway town to Sapa. From Lao Cai, it’s a 24 mile (approximately one hour) minivan ride to Sapa. There’s a range of seating options on the train – from cheapie hard-backed chairs in stifling hot cabins to relatively luxurious, air-conditioned privately owned rail carriages. Two popular private companies are ET Pumpkin and Victoria Express. If all of the options are making your head swirl, speak with someone at a reputable hotel or travel agency – they’ll happily arrange your transport (for a small fee, of course).

Currency: Vietnamese dong. For ease and peace of mind, it’s best to arrive in Sapa with plenty of local currency. However, there are a couple of ATMs in town. If you are planning on exchanging currency in Sapa, make sure to bring very crisp US dollars as most places will not accept tattered or ripped bills.

View from Cat Cat View Hotel © Katherine Sazdanoff

View from Cat Cat View Hotel © Katherine Sazdanoff

Where to Stay

Sapa has comfortable, good value lodging in the mid-range and budget categories. Make sure to reserve rooms well in advance, particularly during the prime tourist seasons, as the most popular hotels do fill up.

Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel (Phan Xi Pang Street, Sapa, website) has all of the qualities of an outstanding hotel – the location is central, the characterful common spaces are stylish and unique, and the rooms are comfortable. The hotel’s restaurant serves tasty, primarily organic food. Double rooms $35 -$50, suites $60.

The owners of Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel brought the sparkling new Village Noshery Mountain Lodge (42 Cau May Street, Sapa, website) to the town’s hotel scene last year. Rooms are simple and classic, with unique local artwork practically everywhere.   The hotel restaurant, The Village Noshery, may just be the best in Sapa – think local and organic food served in a rustic, understatedly cool space. Rooms $30 – $35.

Cat Cat View Hotel (046 Fansipan Road, Market Area, Sapa, website) is a solid budget traveler option. Rooms are simple but clean and the staff is friendly – though the real draw here is the brilliant view of the surrounding mountains. Make sure to request a room with a view. Rooms around $25.

Village Noshery © Katherine Sazdanoff

Village Noshery © Katherine Sazdanoff

 

Where to Eat and Drink:

Most restaurants in Sapa have menus with both Vietnamese and Western entrée options. As mentioned above, both Sapa Rooms Boutique Hotel and the Village Noshery Mountain Lodge have top-quality restaurants. For additional variety, the following restaurants and bars are good options as well

Nature Bar and Grill Restaurant
Nature Bar and Grill (Pho Cau May, Sapa) is a comfortable restaurant with tasty food and a friendly staff. Great value as well.

Nature View Restaurant
As the name would suggest, the view at Nature View Restaurant (51 Fansipan St, Sapa) is sublime. It’s a great spot for an early evening sundowner. Make sure to snag one of the tables at the far end of the restaurant so you have a picture-perfect view. Unfortunately, portions are small and the food is just so-so.

Color Bar
Fun and artsy, this small bar located on the road to Cat Cat has no address (it’s on the downhill road near Cat Cat View Hotel). It’s a great spot to have a coffee or beer, listen to music and play a round of cards.

 

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