is home to astounding scenery, from the majestic limestone islands of Halong Bay to the sparkling waters of Con Dao. While so much of the country’s splendor is seaside (thanks to its long and varied coastline), some of Vietnam’s most beautiful landscapes can be found in Sapa, a northern town near the Chinese border. In addition to its epic scenery—Sapa is located near the stunning Tonkinese Alps—the destination offers visitors a unique opportunity to learn about the history and culture of Vietnam’s ethnic minority populations.
The region requires several days to explore; but for the right traveler, it can be a true highlight. Indagare contributor Allison DiLiegro recounts ten tips to planning a visit to Sapa.
1. Sapa is known for its spectacular landscapes. Photographers rejoice: the beauty of the Tonkinese Alps is awe-inspiring, and every turn reveals soaring peaks and plunging valleys lined with gleaming rice terraces. The town of Sapa is completely surrounded by mountains, including Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Southeast Asia. Guides can arrange hiking for all levels, from an easy stroll through surrounding villages to a rigorous multi-day trek.
2. … But it offers more than just views. Five of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic populations live in the Sapa region, including the Black Hmong, Red Dao and Tay groups. Touring the small villages outside of town is the best way to interact with the local people and learn about their rich, fascinating cultures (which pervade the region despite it being a tourist destination). The Sapa Market has been a bustling hub of trade and social life for 200 years and is well worth a visit, offering beautiful traditional clothing in addition to fresh produce.
Related: Vietnam Destination Report
While there are several Hmong villages within walking distance of the town of Sapa, these have been adapted for tourism and feel like the Vietnamese version of Colonial Williamsburg. In order to avoid the tourist trap, drive (with a guide who knows the region well) to the villages where residents live and work. These visits will prove to be authentic and enlightening (rather than voyeuristic) and will deepen travelers’ perspectives on Vietnam. On my recent trek, local people I met were excited to meet tourists and welcomed us into their homes. These intimate interactions made for some of the most memorable moments of my time in Vietnam. During our full day of trekking, we did not see any other tourists.
4. The truly intrepid should consider an overnight hike. Travelers seeking an authentic village experience may elect to spend the night in a local home during a multi-day hike. Accommodations are simple (mattresses lie on the floor and basic meals are cooked by a guide), but an overnight stay offers a chance to view village life up close while in a spectacularly beautiful setting.
5. There are comfortable accommodations in Sapa. If sleeping on the floor isn’t for you, the four-star Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa is the most sophisticated hotel in town and offers tasteful rooms and a spa. www.victoriahotels.asia
6. Despite the town’s colonial history, it lacks charm. Sapa’s cool climate and beautiful scenery inspired French colonists to build a hill station here in 1922, which led to an influx of tourism. However, few colonial villas remain due to a succession of wars. Rapid development in recent years has further diminished the region’s alpine charm, but the beauty of Sapa lies in its surrounding landscapes.
7. Know when to go. Given the regions’ elevation of nearly 5,000 feet, Sapa is prone to fog that can obstruct mountain views. December and January are cold months—temperatures drop into the 40s—with very foggy mornings and crisp afternoons. Spring (March-June) maintains warmer weather and clear skies, and Sapa is best avoided in July and August when there is heavy rainfall. Harvest season (September-November) is a particularly beautiful time to see the changing colors of the rice fields under (mostly) clear skies. No matter the season, however, be sure to pack layers, as the region’s average temperatures are cooler than in the rest of Vietnam.
Related: Next Stop Southeast Asia
Trekking through fog or rain can be frustrating, so it is recommended to build in an extra day to account for weather (if you have time during your visit, which may also include visits to nearby towns).
9. Getting to Sapa is an adventure. For years, the only way to access Sapa was by train from Hanoi to Lao Cai followed by a one-hour drive. Since 2014, there has been a well-maintained highway that runs from Hanoi to Sapa and the drive takes 5-6 hours. While driving is a comfortable choice, the overnight train is still a good option for travelers who prefer to wake up in Lao Cai rather than lose a full day in transit. The private cabins on the Victoria Express Train are by far the most comfortable, with old-world charm and beds with fluffy duvets. This train is not as glamorous as the Belmond Orient Express train (bathrooms are shared, for example), but it is still a fun experience and is particularly enjoyable for children. As for the drive, the roads are mostly smooth and straight (with the exception of the Lao Cai to Sapa portion, which contains a few winding turns).
10. Respect the local traditions. While your guide will brief you before entering a village, it is important to be mindful of the local customs. Always ask, if only by gesture, before taking a photo. Be aware of animistic totems and altars when visiting a villager’s home. Feel free to purchase embroidery if you are offered, though it is also acceptable to politely decline.
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