What is it like to visit Sapa in Vietnam?

Backpacker’s Guide to Sa Pa, Viet Nam

If you want to experience Vietnam’s diversity, head out to its north. Sapa is home to the proud and hospitable hill communities, their terraced rice paddies, and Mt. Fansipan – the roof of Indochina. Abhijeet Deshpande shares this backpacker’s guide to Sa Pa, Viet Nam – an inspiring country.

Why you must visit Sapa when backpacking Vietnam?

Sapa, or Sa Pa, in the winters is a misty town curated with sporadic showers – a contrast to the popular Ha Long Bay area. Visibility remains poor and some reckless bus drivers can make your short hilly-ride (< 40 km) from Lao Cai railway station to Sa Pa, memorable. Just as you climb down and the whirring engine of a solitary bus dies down, Sapa breathes fresh life in to its new arrivals. The sleepy mountains and the greens, rain-fed streets, the early morning chill factor, and views of idyllic cottages; it all makes up for a nerve-soothing welcome.

What are the things to do in Sapa when backpacking Vietnam?

Trek to Mt. Fansipan

One of the main attractions in Sapa is to trek upwards of 3000 meters to Mt. Fansipan, often dubbed as the roof of Indochina. Many travelers to Viet Nam had made prior arrangements to hire trek guides and camping gear. But.

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The rainy weather in late December can play spoil sport and it did during the time. Most, whom we met, chose to cancel their itinerary entirely, while some shortened it from 2-4 nights to a day’s trek. We had decided to observe the weather (it snows sometimes) and local conditions before committing any sums of money. Though disappointed to miss out on the trek, we did not lose a booking fee. To top it, we found this namesake cafe and made quite a many friends to feel better.

Hike to Cat Cat Village

A Slovenian couple, an athletic and agile backpacking duo from Ljubljana made for perfect company to hike to the nearby (3-4 km from central Sapa) Hmong Cat Cat village and its valley. The paved route was a long and narrow cobbled staircase crossing few Hmong community settlements or more often, plantations and wilderness.

Few old Hmong women in their traditional attires and jewelry knew the everyday tourist routine and offered to be photographed in exchange for a few thousand Dongs – Vietnamese currency. One even approached us with an offer to sell crack or other drugs and a free photograph with her. We walked right past them. If the old were tired of seeing the tourists, the young were growing up curious. Many kids stopped to say hello or posed for pictures. Sometimes their mothers too.

Once in the valley, we crossed hanging bridges and witnessed Hmong traditional dance forms. The troupe performed on the hour in a community center, irrespective of the number of visitors. It was afternoon and we haven’t had anything to eat since an early breakfast.

More than the dance or music, it was the adjacent eatery (header image) that had piqued our curiosity a tad bit more. Hmong folks seem to enjoy selling most of their food roasted / barbecued. In a rainy, foggy, misty weather, it was ideal. Be it cornsticks, vegetables, fish, chicken, bacon-wrapped mushrooms, birds, or frogs.

Check out Hmong Skills

Hmong people displayed a distinct form of artistry. Be it dyed fabrics or other hand-made crafts. In central Sapa, you are likely to see groups of women with giant merchandise baskets slung on their backs. They had this uncanny ability to start a conversation with tourists that often concluded in a sale. So, if you are on a budget, and not interested in souvenir shopping, beware not to respond to anyone carrying a basket full of crafts or fabrics.

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It is likely that one of the women from a group will walk with you from central Sapa for hours (in whichever direction you are headed). If along the route you enter a cafe, she will patiently wait outside. And once you resume your walking tour after lunch, follow you again.

We have had a lady walk with us for over 5 kilometers. But they are seldom intrusive – they are close enough to be in sight (if and when you turn around) but far enough to not eavesdrop. Sometimes, you will buy something simply to get rid of the tail. Sometimes, their patience might just impress you before you give in. Hmong folks are intuitive sellers – they mark their target and follow them for hours. Mostly, they succeed.

In their Cat Cat village, where you visit them, there’s a marked difference. The shopkeepers displaying the souvenirs do not persist or follow you. In fact, you may walk past a string of outlets without even being spoken to. But, you are likely to stop by to admire their amazing creations.

Cook your own wine

Later that evening, the Slovenians put on their chef-hats as we borrowed the hotel’s kitchen to cook wine, a European traditional hot drink for the winters. They added peeled oranges and diced apples, spices like cinnamon and cloves, to two portions of red wine and one portion of water. We cooked the mix on a gas stove and then poured through a strainer into a rustic kettle to be kept warm by the wood-fired hearth. The mildly intoxicating, aromatic drink served hot in coffee mugs felt nice and warm in our hands.

Ride to Muong Hoa Valley

When the sun finally showed up in Sapa, we hired motorbikes to go to see the famous terraced rice paddies of Muong Hoa valley. Besides the Slovenians, riding along with us that day were a ‘Keep Calm and Keep Traveling’ Swiss duo.

Crossing parts of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range covered by a dense rainforest, six of us went till Nui Xe, an entry point to Hoang Lien National Park (home to Mt. Fansipan). The hilly roads, flanked with some steep-faced mountains offers you a nice flavor of what lies ahead. The popular trek route to Mt. Fansipan however, starts from Heaven’s gate and crisscrosses many communities en route. Few programs may even arrange sleep overs at a Hmong or Red Dzao family home.

For us, it was easy hiking at Nui Xe before proceeding to ride along the highway to witness Viet Nam’s famous terraced slopes covered with rice paddies. These seem to come straight out of a landscape designer’s book – as if the people working the land know how to create visually stunning patterns while producing food for themselves.

On the way back to our guesthouse, a sunny Sapa offered clear views of few more places of interest. Such as this lake in the center of the town or the picturesque Năm Đức Tin church. Being a French retreat in an era gone by, the colonizers had built places of worship here. On the day, a Vietnamese couple was about to enter into a wedlock.

How to plan a backpacking trip to Sapa, Vietnam?

Where to stay in Sa Pa?

The Pinocchio Hotel we slept in was located on Muong Hoa Street in central Sapa, within walking distance of many restaurants and other places of interest. Being in a room on the third floor meant climbing a high-tread staircase and testing the lungs. Spacious rooms came with spacious verandas to gaze at the mist and to hang-dry the laundry (futile to do in such weather).

Room rent included a basic breakfast, as with most backpacker’s properties. The dining lobby was on the first floor and sported a classic wood-fuelled fireplace. That Sapa gets cold ensured that hotel guests took to couches next to the fireplace after sun down.

What to eat in Sapa, Vietnam?

Besides the exotic Hmong food, Sapa has a culinary culture that would delight any traveler and every palate. From an Indian Bombay Restaurant to the continental-style Gecko. Though Viet Nam is known for Phở, a popular savory noodle dish, and Bánh mì sandwiches, based on a variation of French baguette, Sapa lends its own twist to the menus.

Food assumes prime significance, if you find yourself caught up in rainy weather. It ensures that you would never have a dull moment in Sapa.

How to get in to and out of Sa Pa, Vietnam?

The overnight train from Hanoi halts at Lao Cai railway station just past 05:00 am, while a similar overnight ride takes you back. Trains in Vietnam are comfortable but may not always be punctual. Your guesthouse can arrange the last mile bus from Lao Cai station to central Sapa and likewise, for the return.

Have you been to Sa Pa in Vietnam? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).

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65 thoughts on “Backpacker’s Guide to Sa Pa, Viet Nam”

  1. I would never dream of visiting there but I would love to go to try out their food.

  2. I’ve never been here when I was in Vietnam! I’m literally going to show this place to my relatives there so we can visit in the future.

  3. Thank you for stopping by. You just increased our motivation quotient and we are happy our posts keep bringing your back here. We slow travel quite a lot and cover many places. At the same time, we invite guest posts too as we love to share our and others travel stories.

  4. thevintagegypsygirl

    Sa Pa seems like a beautiful place to visit. I would certainly want to hike here when it is good weather since it looks like it can be quite rainy.

  5. I would have never thought of visiting this place but it is so good that you bring out new travel destinations everytime 🙂

  6. The trek during summer will be good but rainy season is a as equally memorable….. Don’t want to miss the rain either….. Viet culinary are a must…..

  7. This is my first time hearing of Sa Pa but after reading I definitely want to learn more.

  8. How beautiful! What an thrilling adventure that would be to travel so closely to the culture and land.

  9. Vietnam is one of beautiful country in southeast Asia! and actually that is one of my bucketlist that I want to visit someday! Very cultural pos!t 🙂

  10. My boss just visited Vietnam and her pictures were phenomenal! I want to visit so badly!

  11. Sa Pa seems like a mystic place with that fog!It is a nice post about Western Viet Nam! I have to ask my Vietnamese Tae Kwon Do partner if he knows about it.

  12. Thank you Tushar. Yes, we slow travel quite a a lot to keep bringing back stories for our lovely readers such as you. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Vietnam is a fabulous country so ially for tourism…..the detailed coverage and beautiful pics contained in your article will certainly help anyone planning a trip to Vietnam .

  14. I like the attires of the Hmong women, I would even cave in and buy a little something. 🙂 What an interesting selling technique- persistence is the key! I love the story about Slovenians making mulled wine in the hotel- I could imagine the cozy atmosphere and the scent in the air (as a Croatian, I am used to mulled wine in the winter as well, it’s a real winter warmer!).

  15. I’m making a mental note to enjoy hikes the way you enjoy them! I LOVE how you took in nature, the villages, but also the people around you. I can only imagine that these factors made for a more engaging hike!

    1. So true Tara. Getting absorbed in the local lifestyles gives a whole new dimension to the travel experience!

  16. We have not visited Vietnam yet reading this inspires us. You paint a vivid picture of all these sights and sounds. We would love to try some of the east meets west culinary treats. Mixing south-east Asian culture is French cuisine traditions creates such an interesting flavour experience.
    Thanks for sharing. Keep travel blogging. Adventure is better shared with friends!

  17. This sounds like such an amazing adventure! I love all the interactions with others that you had along the way, especially seeing the photo of the couple about to get married. People may be different around the world, yet we’re so similar in so many ways. Also, I tip my hat to the tenacity of the souvenir sellers!

    1. You are so right Cynthia! That’s the fun about travel. You get to meet amazing people and some of them stay friends for life! Cheers.

  18. I was in Vietnam earlier this year and a bit disappointed because we weren’t able to make it over to Sapa – I’ve seen photos and heard about how incredible it is. You’re description and photos really solidify my resolve to get back to Vietnam and visit this region. 🙂

  19. Sounds like a very traditional experience with a lot of learning about the local culture. The cooked wine is so unusual…how did it taste? I would not be able to eat that whole bird…so spooky. (that’s what it looks like)

    1. Haha! The whole bird for picture effects 😉 We loved the cooked wine and in the cold it was a perfectly welcomed drink for sure!

  20. I haven’t made it Vietnam yet, but I would like to visit. Cat Cat Village looks really breathtaking! Even if it’s raining, those stairs look very inviting! I like that you won’t be chased by shopkeepers and can admire their work and shop without being hounded. That right there makes me want to visit!

  21. Since I had only three weeks for Viet Nam, Sapa is a region I unfortunately missed. I think it’s one of the most interesting and cultural areas and if I go back to Viet Nam, it will be mainly to the North which I liked better than the Southern part – so there’s still a chance to visit. Thanx for another great inspiration.

  22. I’ve never been, no! To be honest, this is the first time I’m hearing of Sa Pa. Vietnam is high on my list though. The people seem amazing and I love their clothing.

  23. I’ve never really been interested in visiting Vietnam, despite quite a few of my friends having been there and saying they loved it. I think I need to do a bit more research though, as after reading your article I am starting to find out more and am reconsidering adding it to my bucket list 😉 x

  24. I visited Sa Pa a few years ago and this post brought back happy memories. Yes, the local sellers could be a bit persistant at times but the scenery, the walks, the food -just amazing. Now I want to back!

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