Sapa, a mountain town located in the far North of Vietnam, promises breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains, rice terraces and a chance to see the colorful hill tribes of Vietnam.
This of course makes everybody visit Sapa and unfortunately also kind of makes it a circus town, where the genuine and authentic feeling seems to be long gone.
I’ve arrived to Sapa on the fourth day of my motorbike trip around Northern Vietnam and like any other good tourist, went on a two days trek.
I left Sapa three nights later, with very mixed feelings.
Sapa was established as a hilltop retreat for the French colonialists in the 1920s, but has in recent years become one of the main tourist destinations in Vietnam.
On clear days it offers majestic views of the surrounding mountain range (dubbed as “the Tonkinese Alps”) and Mt. Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam.
Its climate is unique for Vietnam – it is said that you can experience all four seasons in a day – and it is not unusual to see snow in late December and January, when average temperature can drop well below 10 °C.
Sapa and its surrounding villages are home to a diverse mix of ethnic minorities. The (Black) H’mong make the majority of the population (52%), followed by (Red) Dao (25%), Kinh (15%), Tay (5%), Giay (2%) and four smaller ethnic groups.
Poverty is a big problem and the majority do the strenuous daily walk to Sapa town to make a living by selling trinkets and handicrafts to tourists or to work as trekking guides, many of them still very young.
Its “main street” has an abundance of Western restaurants, massage parlours, shops with fake trekking gear and ladies that follow you around and want to sell you stuff. And they can be very very persistent.
When to visit Sapa?
Visiting Sapa requires some planning, especially if you want to see the lush, colorful rice terraces. I was there in late October and it was too late – the rice harvest had already been done, so the colors were gone.
Rice terraces are at its greenest around June and start turning into golden yellow in August when approaching harvest, which is in September. It’s raining more in those months, but should be the best time to visit for the views.
And regarding the weather.
Think: Cold and Wet.
Bring: Warm and Water resistant.
Or buy cheap, fake trekking and rain gear in one of the many shops in Sapa and donate it to someone after you leave if you don’t want to carry it. Good trekking shoes are a must.
Don’t forget the mosquito repellent!
The two day trekking in Sapa
I’ve missed Sapa on my previous visit of Vietnam – it was Sapa or Halong Bay and I chose the latter. And did I like it? No. But more on that in another post.
So this time trekking in Sapa was definitely on the top of my list.
You can book the trek just about anywhere in Sapa – through your hotel, through one of the shops in Sapa town or from locals directly. I was tired from four days of driving a motorbike and lazy, so I just booked it through my hotel. The price for a two day (18 km) trek, a night in a village and a few meals was 500.000 VND (22 USD) after haggling a bit.
Our guide, Su, a very pleasant and energetic 18 year old girl from a nearby village, came to pick us up at our hotel and after meeting with two more groups of people we were on our way – at around 10 AM.
We were a mixed group of ten (cool) people from UK, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Slovenia (me), followed by a bunch of local “Buy from me.” ladies, so time passed quickly.
We’ve stopped for a mediocre lunch in one of the villages after just a bit less than three hours of walking. And well, except the pushy H’mong lady sellers and a lot of “trekkers” (seated in a large eatery), the village was empty. Our guide, Su, explained that no one was there, because they were working.
After lunch we were on our way again. Another village and two hours later (around 3:30 PM) we’ve reached our destination for the day – a village, where we’d spend the night.
Soon it was dinner time and with it came the beers and … Happy water! (khm, rice wine, khm, schnapps).
It was a fun night that made the trek worthwhile, but too soon it was time to wake up and walk again. We left after breakfast, around 10 AM. A different group of H’mong ladies followed us this day and they were really fun to joke around with.
The walk was a bit harder this day – a bit steeper and muddy, because it rained at night, so people were slipping and falling a lot. Again – good shoes are mandatory.
We’ve skipped the waterfall at the end of the trek, because of fog and just like that, it was over. We’ve reached our destination just a little past 1 PM, got instant noodles for lunch, joked with the lady sellers a bit more and then got picked up by a van that drove us back to Sapa town.
Final thoughts … ?
Well, what to say …
I didn’t like Sapa town, the trek was nothing special and would completely suck if it were not for the cool group of people and our fun guide Su, but … if your time is limited, Sapa is probably still your best bet to see the mountainous Northern Vietnam, the rice terraces and hill tribes of Vietnam. Even if it’s just like having an instant noodle soup instead of a proper Pho Bo from a street vendor that has perfected his soup-making craft over the years. You just can’t expect it to be the genuine, real deal.
And if you do have more time or even better – your own motorbike – still don’t skip Sapa. Go and see it for yourself, so you won’t regret it later when the sheep that have eaten the instant noodle soup tell you “OMG, it’s soooo amazing!!”, but don’t waste time here. If I’d go again, I would just drive around the hill tribe villages by myself – the majority of them have road access and you can hire a local guide that will take you for a walk around the hills or have some food with a local family where you like. This way, they’ll at least get to keep all the money.
And that genuine hill tribe village life that everybody comes searching for to Sapa? It can still be found in the villages that you’ll pass on the road to Sapa and in the not-that-frequented Northeast Vietnam.