What is it like to visit Sapa in Vietnam?

Backpacker’s Guide to Sa Pa, Viet Nam

Inbox me!
Share this post

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 places to stay in Sapa, north Vietnam?
Cottages, Sapa

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.

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.

What is the best time to hike Fansipan Mountain in Sapa, north Vietnam?
Forget the peak, Get high here!

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.

How is it to hike in Sapa, north Vietnam?
Count Down to Cat Cat!

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.

Is it safe to travel in North Vietnam?
Say Hello!

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.

What is the kind of food you get in Sapa, north Vietnam?
Popular Snacks, Cat Cat Village

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.

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.

What must I not do when visiting north Vietnam?
Buy from me!

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.

What souvenirs can I shop in Sapa, north Vietnam?
Hmong Crafts

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.

What are the must try food and drinks in Sapa, Vietnam?
Wine Tasting!

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.

How is the terrain like in Sapa, north Vietnam?
Sloped Terraced Paddies

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.

What are places to see in Sapa, Vietnam?
Lake in Sapa

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.

What are the things to do in Sapa, Vietnam?
Newly Weds

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).

What are the things to do in Sa Pa, north Vietnam?
Keep Warm!

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.

What are the must try food and drinks in Sa Pa, north Vietnam?
Steaming Noodles!

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.

What are must visit places in Sapa, north Vietnam?
See you again, Sapa!

Have you been to Sa Pa in Vietnam? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you.

Support Scale Indigo. Make a Donation.

Pin this for later

How to plan a trip to Sapa in North Vietnam?
Abhijeet Deshpande
Abhijeet Deshpande

Abhijeet Deshpande is an accidental nomad. Over time, the frequency and length of his travel has steadily risen. To keep up, his choices have been changing too—from planned holidays to spontaneous ones, from fixed schedules to flexible ones, and from working full-time assignments to freelancing.

Disclaimers: (1) Maps, wherever used on this site, serve a representational purpose only. Scale Indigo does not endorse or accept the boundaries shown, names, or designations used by map providers. (2) This story/article is based on the personal experiences and / or opinions of the author. Scale Indigo is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity and it does not assume any responsibility or liability arising out of use of any information provided herein.

Share this post
Inbox me!