When you are in Northern Vietnam, you have a few choices of where to visit. If you ask anyone, Sapa will always be the first or second response.
Sapa is a mountain town in Northwest Vietnam. It was a hill station established by the French in 1922. It was destroyed after the Second World War and remained very quiet until 1993, when the decision was made to open the door fully to international tourism. In the shadow of Fansipan Mountain, this once-quiet town made up of Vietnamese minority groups has seen huge growth in tourism. It has become a popular getaway, first for French Colonial residents, then to foreign tourists, as well as the Vietnamese middle class.
When you hear about Sapa as a Westerner, undoubtedly you will hear about all of the awesome trekking. Trekking is hiking, and hiking is work! Close to the China border, it is located in the Hoang Lien Son Mountain range. The town has an elevation of almost 5,000 feet, and it’s jewel, Mt. Fansipan, is over 10,000! If you have seen the pictures of the terraced rice fields in Vietnam, it was most likely in Sapa. If you like climbing hills, this is the place you go. So, why did we go? Good question!
The town of Sapa has a lot to offer. It has 4 very distinct climates, and the natural beauty can only be rivaled by the cultural allure. As you stroll through town, your eyes will no doubt look up in wonder at the towering landscape, only to be distracted by the minority family walking down the street in bright and colorful headdresses, jackets, and dresses. Some of them are so bright that they are reminiscent of an 80’s high school dance. We got to see some of that, but let’s come back to that later.
From where we were in Hanoi, there are only a couple ways to get to Sapa. You can take a train that leaves Hanoi and goes to Lao Cai, as Sapa does not have a train station. From there, it is about another 50 minutes by bus or taxi. We knew we would be taking a few trains in Vietnam, so we decided to embark on our first sleeper bus.
Sleeper buses are nothing like we had ever seen in the US or any of our other travels before getting to Southeast Asia. It is a large bus with reclining seats stacked two levels high inside the bus. Your feet go inside a padded cavity that goes underneath the reclining portion of the seat belonging to the person in front of you. These buses are equipped with just under 40 seats, and some even have a toilet. They are a very common and inexpensive way to travel over here. Our trip was just over 6 hours and cost about $12USD. This turned out to be quite the adventure in and of itself!
We arrived at the bus station bright and early at 7:30am. We were crammed onto a van with several other passengers and our bags while we went to a few more places and crammed on even more people and bags. When we finally arrived at the “real” bus station, we were encouraged to move quickly to our awaiting bus. We threw our bags in the storage underneath, and in a matter of moments, we were off. The bus seemed full, so we headed to Sapa. The bus had travelers and locals alike making their way to Sapa or at least somewhere on the way. We have come to realize that the driver and his accompanying attendant may have had a racket going on the side to offer other transportation to locals. All along the way, the bus would pull over and even more people would get on. When there were not anymore bunks, they simply started to lie down in the aisles on the floor! We watched as the bus would pull over and load cargo, from produce to a motorcycle, in the cargo hold. Then, the bus would pull over at random on the side of the highway and people would hop off in the same manner they came on, taking their cargo with them. One such character seemed to be a regular on the route and had boarded the bus with a 1.5 liter bottle of river water with several small fish in it. He taped the bottle to the ladder of the bunk above him and fashioned a straw to put inside, which he used (I can only presume) to make bubbles in an effort to give the fish oxygen.
After making it almost all the way to the Chinese border, we turned off the highway and started our ascent to the town of Sapa. It looked like we were ahead of schedule because, at this point, we were only 11 miles away according to Google Maps. I was wrong, however. These last 11 miles are basically a wide one-lane road switching back and forth up and through the mountains. This is where we began to see the famous rice terraces from all of the pictures. It is also the only way in or out of Sapa. Buses, cars, trucks, and motorbikes, all going to or from Sapa, and everyone is in a hurry. This trip is not for the faint of heart, I can assure you. Drivers trying to keep a schedule will speed and pass on a blind corner, trusting only their horn to alert any oncoming traffic. The higher you go, it seems like the narrower the road becomes, and the closer to the edge you get. There are no concrete barriers or guardrails, just some wild bamboo to perhaps slow you down as you would no doubt roll to your death. The bus seems a little top heavy and sways accordingly. If you have saved any sleeping meds or happen to have some Valium, this is where you should take it. I would have much rather not been aware! Just over an hour of terror and 11 miles later, we finally arrived!
Getting off the bus, you are immediately bombarded by locals asking if you need a homestay or hotel. Vietnam is actually a place you can easily travel in without plans because as soon as you arrive, it is simple to find accommodations with no reservations. We had, however, planned ahead, so we made our way to our hostel. As I mentioned, Sapa is in the mountains, so it is not flat. The walk to our hostel was uphill and a bit farther than anticipated, especially with our full packs on.
We made this visit during the second week of March, and as Sapa entertains four seasons, we were coming out of winter. We wore down jackets most places we went, and unfortunately, we did not get to see most of the natural beauty described since it was very foggy during the week we visited. We were only treated to the occasional glimpse of the surrounding mountains if there was a break in the clouds, and it was, sadly, never enough to show us Sapa’s full majesty. We did manage to make our way to Fansipan and ride the cable-car up. I am terrified of heights, so it was good that 95% of the ride was in the clouds.
When we got to the top, the clouds parted, and we were able to see some amazing views. The cable-car goes almost to the top. There is a challenging 600+ steps to actually make it to the summit! We had been bamboozled! We were going to have to climb if we wanted to claim victory over the highest peak in Vietnam.
With several rest stops, a possible heart attack, and just a bit of sweat, we made it. We summited Fansipan! I would like to make mention here that there is no beer up at the top waiting for you, in case you were holding out hope for such a reward for your perseverance.
Walking around the town, it was apparent that this was, indeed, a tourist town. Shops lined the street with bright LED signs beckoning travelers inside. People out on the street tried to get you to come inside and even tried to wave down buses and taxis to attract customers. We did see many of the local minority people in all of their garb, and it was even more memorizing than I could explain. These women would approach you and ask if you would like to go trekking and visit their village. We are not trekkers, and the thought of walking in the hills for 11 kilometers to have lunch just did not appeal to us in the least. We did have fun just strolling the city and rummaging through the markets. It is a great place to people-watch. The town is not short of coffee shops where you can just watch the world go by.
We had some great adventures eating in this city. The food in this country is amazing, but it is very different from city to city. Each place seems to have their “thing.” Pigs roasted on spits were found all over, and there was no shortage of rainbow trout and sturgeon from the mountain streams. After getting fed at the café that had Brittany Spears on a YouTube loop and a kid feeding a rooster on a chain, we ventured out to find something new. It is always important to find food you know you can handle and where to get it before venturing! We walked past grills on every corner that had piles of different skewered meats and vegetables. You simply choose the skewers you want and hand them to the cook to prepare! We tried several new things, including our first frog! The “Skewer Lady,” as she became known, quickly replaced the Brittany Spears café.
The Skewer Lady grilling up goodness! Can you find the frogs?
On the weekends, the tour buses started showing up early in the morning and did not stop. Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese tourists poured into this small city, and it literally became a circus right before our eyes. Pigs were roasted in front of every restaurant in town, and the market and town center were shoulder-to-shoulder people with cameras and bright hats identifying them to their respective tour groups. This is when the luster of what I am sure was once an amazing cultural gem began to lose some of its shine.
The argument of over-tourism is a hot topic of debate and a very real issue. I am quite torn on the issue. As a traveler, I want to see everything the world has to offer. Many of our travel decisions are based on the past experiences of those who have gone before us. However, the things that they may have seen and experienced during their stay may not be the same as they are today. A short trek into a small village to experience everyday life and traditions may now be less enchanting, as the children may now be sporting smartphones. The biggest problem with an area like this is that most of the tourism dollars go into the hands of the big tour companies and the people they hire to run these tours. These people are usually not the locals who live there, so very little of the tourism money goes into the actual local economy. Sure, the area may be showing signs of growth, but 5-star resorts do not always translate into positive growth. That being said, try to support sustainable tourism so your money goes into the hands of the locals and not an outside entity making money from an area they have no real stake in. Okay, off the soapbox!
Overall, we enjoyed our stay in Sapa. We felt like we stayed longer than we needed to, but only because the weather did not allow us to truly “see” Sapa. If you decide to come to Sapa and are coming because of all you have heard and seen, do not visit in March. It is cold and foggy, and the terraces are brown and unplanted. You will be lucky to look out your window and see the other side of the street, let alone the beautiful mountains surrounding you. A few months later, say in May, would be way better. We left Sapa the same way we came, on the sleeper bus heading back to Hanoi for a night before we headed to the next stop: Cat Ba Island.