With its dramatic scenery, it’s tough not to fall in love with this town. Sa Pa, or more commonly, Sapa, is a town in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains of northwestern Vietnam. Established as a hill station by the French in 1922, the bustling alpine village is now famous for its trekking spots and the highest point in Vietnam, Fansipan Mountain.
Sapa’s real beauty lies in its mountains and cascading rice terraces of the Muong Hoa Valley. It’s also in its friendly locals, both around town and mountain tribes. Sapa is a district-town of Lao Cai province. It’s about 40 km from Lao Cai, and 380 km from Hanoi. Sapa covers an area of 670 km2, with 62,000 in the population (as of 2018).
Sapa is famous for its mountainous scenery, cool weather, and diversity in culture. It’s well known for the Fansipan peak, the highest mountain in Indochina. It is a favorite spot for those who like hiking, adventure, and sightseeing.
Six different minority groups of people are living here: H’Mong, Dao, Ta, Giay, Xa Pho. Their different way in farming habits together with Sapa’s topographic characteristics created “cascading rice terraces”, the most significant image of Sapa.
In the ancient H’Mong’s language, Sapa means “sandbank”, where people gather and trade. The French came, built, and left many imprints here, though this ancient name was kept unchanged as a cultural appreciation for the minority people.
Before the late 1880s, Sapa was a hidden village of minority people. In 1903, the French debarked in highland Indochina. They did a study about Sapa topography since then the name “Sapa” was spread widely.
In 1917, the French built their first villas for the purpose of relaxation. Till that day, Sapa was acknowledged and located on the national map. This was a key location for the French military as well as missionaries. It was called the “summer capital of the north”.
During the war between Vietnam and China in 1947 and 1979, most of the French constructions were destroyed. In the early 1990s, Sapa was again re-invested and became a travel attraction of Vietnam.
The Stone Church (Holy Rosary Church) was designed and erected by the French architects in 1935. This is the only intact imprint of French in Sapa.
Ham Rong Mountain is located right behind the Stone Church. With an entrance ticket, you have the possibility to visit 3 destinations: Ham Rong Flower Garden, Thach Lam Stone Garden, and Ham Rong Viewpoint.
Ancient Rock Field is in the Muong Hoa Valley area, consisting of 159 small and large craving boulders.
- Cat Cat Village is nestled in a beautiful valley; the village is 2 km from the town. This is the village of H’Mong people.
- Ta Phin Village is 17 km to the east of Sapa, where Red Dao ethnic people live. Since 1998, Ta Phin has become the village of brocade, which supply hand-made brocade to other countries. It’s a decorative shuttle-woven fabric. In addition, on your way from Sapa to this village, you can pass by Ta Phin abandoned monastery. It’s an interesting and non-touristy attraction.
- Ta Van Village is about 17 km away from Sapa. This place is famous for its ratten bridge over Muong Hoa stream and terraced fields.
- Other villages: Sin Chai, Ho, Lao Chai.
- Silver Waterfall is the highest waterfall in Sapa.
- Love Waterfall is hidden deeply in Hoang Lien National Park. To get to the waterfall, you must walk through 3 km of forest road. Also, at Hoang Lien national park entrance, you can choose another direction, to climb up to Fansipan peak (will be mentioned in Recreations).
- Other waterfalls: Tien, Coc San, and Cat Cat Waterfall in the area of Cat Cat Village.
O Quy Ho Pass – The 50-kilometer mountain pass connects two provinces Lai Chau and Lao Cai. This is the highest country road of Vietnam, at an altitude of about 2,000 meters above sea level.
Heaven’s Gate – The highest viewpoint of O Quy Ho Pass, where you can stop by and enjoy the greatest view in Sapa.
Hoang A Tuong Castle – A 4-hour-drive from Sapa, it’s a combination of Asian and European architecture in the middle of a tribal mountain. If you plan to spend a long time in Sapa, this is a destination that can be combined on the journey to Bac Ha market.
A market is a place that best reflects the life of locals where you visit. If you’re at all interested in ethnic culture, textiles and have much time in Sapa, you should consider Sapa’s local markets. The three following markets are all located in Bac Ha province, about 80 to 120 km from Sapa town.
- Coc Ly Market, the closest market to Sapa. It is held on Tuesdays. At the market, Mong Hoa, Black Dzao, and Nung people exchange and trade goods. Address: Cốc Ly, Bắc Hà, Lào Cai
- Bac Ha Market is another 20 km from Coc Ly market. This is the biggest market in the northwest area. It can be visited on Sundays. Address: TT. Bắc Hà, Bắc Hà District, Lao Cai
- Can Cau is even 20 km further than Bac Ha, held almost every Saturday. About 8 different minorities gather at this market to exchange their products. Address: ĐT153, Cán Cấu, Si Ma Cai, Lào Cai
Sapa is a mountainous area where you cannot reach all the places at once easily. That’s why we would like to recommend several routes that you can follow and cover as many attractions on your way as possible.
- Route 1: Stone Church, Ham Rong Mountain, Cat Cat Village
- Route 2: Sin Chai Village, Silver Waterfall, Love Waterfall, O Quy Ho Pass, Heaven’s Gate of Sapa, Glass bridge
- Route 3: Ancient Rock Field, Ta Van, Lao Chai, and Ho Village
- Route 4: Ta Phin, Abandoned Monastery
There are no combi-tickets. A ticket is required at every single attraction.
- Ham Rong Mountain: 70,000 VND (US$3)
- Cat Cat Village: 50,000 VND (US$2.2)
- Ta Phin Village: 20,000 VND (US$0.9)
- Ta Van Village: 70,000 VND (US$3)
- Ho Village: 15,000 VND (US$0.7) (US$0.9)
- Silver Waterfalls: 20,000 VND (US$0.9)
- Love Waterfall: 75,000 VND (US$3.2)
Trekking – Ham Rong, Ta Phin, and Cat Cat village are easy to trek. When it comes to longer treks or an overnight stay in the villages, local guides are highly recommended.
Hiking – Fansipan is a favorite destination for those who love adventure hiking. To hike Fansipan, you would take a trip of 2 or 3 full-days. This mountain is very challenging and you cannot do it without a local guide and porter.
Now everything seems much easier for those who want to reach Fansipan peak without much effort. Since the cable car and then funicular has been operated in 2018 and 2019, you can visit Fansipan within an hour or two.
Traveling to Muong Hoa Valley by funicular – The station is in MGallery Hotel by Sofitel. Trains run from 6:30 am to 6:30 pm daily, and depart every six minutes.
Taking a cable car to Fansipan – Muong Hoa funicular will stop at the area of Fansipan Legend Theme Park. If you want to go further to Fansipan mountain, you can take a cable to one more station above. After arriving at Fansipan station, you can either walk up an additional 600 steps or, again, travel on the Fansipan train to the top of Sapa and Indochina at 3,147.3 meters (10,326 ft).
Adventure activities – Glass bridge Sapa has been officially opened for tourists since September 2019. It hangs on the 600-meter-cliff, about 2200 meters above sea level. Visitors cannot only have the view of Sapa from high above, but also join some adventure activities such as ziplines (US$40), parachuting (US$40), climbing (US$25), exploring old forests (US$30), visiting waterfalls (US$4), and so on.
Hotels in town: There are plenty of hotels from low-budget to luxury ones. Usually, visitors will choose a hotel in town where you can easily reach the main attractions and good restaurants. Or choose one just outside the bustle, but still a comfortable 10-20 minute walk into town.
Hotels outside center: Those who want to enjoy Sapa in peace as it used to be, will choose such hidden charm like Topas Ecolodge. You can find hotels a taxi ride away or something that is doable walking to town. Since the town is rather small, you can see its sights in a day.
Homestay: This is a great experience if you do 2 or 3 day-trekking. Such an accommodation service can be booked with a private tour guide or by booking an all-included tour at your hotel reception or local travel agent on-site in Sapa or Hanoi.
The climate of Sapa is very pleasant, with an average temperature of 15-18°C. The most beautiful time to travel to Sapa is from September to November or March to May.
April to May is the time when ethnic minorities transplant rice on terraced fields. This is also the blooming season.
September to October is when the terraced fields are covered of ripe rice. All scene turns yellow beautifully.
From May to August, it has a lot of rain. At the end of the year, when winter comes, the temperature can drop down to 0°C, sometimes it snows.
Traveling to Sapa during the lunar new year, visitors will have the opportunity to participate in unique festivals of the local people, though strange but extremely interesting such as:
Roong Pooc – A festival of Giay people is held in January/February lunar calendar.
Dancing Festival – This unique event is held by Dao people during the lunar new year.
Breakfast: There are not many options for breakfast in Sapa. Booking a hotel with breakfast included would be the best choice.
Lunch and Dinner:
- Grilled dishes: chicken eggs, duck eggs, meat skewers, meat wrapped vegetables, and many others.
- “Com lam” is rice in a bamboo tube, which is grilled over fire.
- “Lon cap nach” is a dish of pork. The pig is marinated and grilled as a whole. “Lon cap nach” means carried-under-arm-pig. The name arises from the fact that these around-10-kg pigs are really carried underarm for sale at the local market.
- Hotpot: The two most famous of all are salmon and sturgeon hotpot. Due to favorable climatic conditions, these two types of fish are well farmed in Sapa.
- Thang Co is a pot of soup that includes many kinds of meat, horse organs, vegetables, and special kinds of spices. Most of the ingredients are uncommon, even with the Vietnamese, those come not originally from the northwest area. Visit Nhà Hàng Khám Phá Việt restaurant. Their fusion cook might be a good option if you really want to try the most specialty dish of Sapa.
- By night train: This is the most comfortable way to travel to Sapa. You will have a choice between soft seats (US$6.5) or 4-sleeper cabin (US$17) or a 2-sleeper cabin (US$37). There are several trains each night, including luxury trains for tourists, and all depart from Hanoi Central Station. It takes about 8 hours to arrive at Lao Cai Train Station. It’s about an hour from Lao Cai to Sapa via taxi or shuttle bus.
- By bus: A sleeping slot on a bus costs around US$10. It departs almost every one hour from 4:00 to 24:00. Depending on traffic, it might take from 5.5 to 6.5 hours to get to Lao Cai. Buses depart from Luong Yen, Giai Phong, or My Dinh bus station.
- By shuttle bus: A smaller shuttle bus/limousine/van runs $12-20 and takes you directly from Hanoi to Sapa, hotel to hotel. It’s the fastest way at 6 h0urs.
- By motorbike: You can also rent a bike in Hanoi or perhaps you already have one and drive it. There are several routes you can take. The most direct will put you there in a leisurely but intensive 9 hours. It’s best to break up the drive and stay at some of the interesting towns and villages along the way.
From Lao Cai Train Station to Sapa town:
- Take a taxi or shuttle. A shuttle bus you can book with the hotel or get yourself a ticket after arriving in Lao Cai Station at a cost of US$2.
- Motorbike rental: is at the cost of around $5 US per day without gasoline. Remember to fill up the tank before riding. There are very few gas stations on your way.
- Xe om (A motorcycle taxi), taxi, or car rental with a driver: You can arrange a half-day or full-day trip with drivers. They will drive you to the attractions, then come back to pick you up upon request.