Established as a hill station by French in 1922, Sapa today is the tourism centre of the northwest.
Sapa is orientated to make the most of the spectacular views emerging on clear days,, overlooking a plugging valley, with mountains towering above on the sides. Views of this epic scenery are often subdued by thick mist rolling across the peaks, but even when it’s cloudy, local hill-tribe people fill the town with colour.
If you were expecting a quaint alpine town, recalibrate your expectations. Sapa’s French colonial villages fell into disrepair during successive war with the French, Americans and Chinese, and modern tourism has mushroomed haphazardly. Sapa today is undergoing a construction boom and, thanks to rarely enforced building height restrictions, the sky line is continually thrusting upwards.
But you are not here to hang out in the town. This is Vietnam’s premier trekking base from where hikers launch themselves into surrounding countryside filled with cascading rice terraces and tiny hill-tribe villages that seem a world apart. Once you have stepped out into the lush fields you will understand the Sapa area’s real charm.
Sights & Activities:
Sapa Museum (103 Xuan Vien st. 7.30-11.30am & 1.30-5pm):
Excellent showcase of the history and ethnology of the Sapa area, including the colonial times of the French. Exhibitions demonstrate the differences between the various ethnic minority people of the area, so it’s definitely worth visiting the museum when you first arrive in the town.
Sapa Market (Ngu Chi Son st, 6am-2pm)
Unfortunately turfed out of central of Sapa, and now in a purpose-built modern building near the bus station, Sapa market is still a hive of colourful activity with fresh produce, a butcher’s section not for the squeamish and hill-tribe people from surrounding villages heading here most days to sell handicrafts. Saturday is the busiest day.
Tram Ton Pass
The road between Sapa and Lai Chau crosses Tram Ton Pass on the northern side of Fansipan, 15km from Sapa. At 1900m this is Vietnam’s highest mountain pass, and acts as a dividing line between two weather fronts. The lookout points here have fantastic views. Most people also stop at 100m-high Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall) 12km from Sapa.
On the Sapa side, it’s often cold and foggy, but drop a few hundred metres onto the Lai Chau side, and it can be sunny and warm. Surprisingly, Sapa is the coldest place in Vietnam, but Lai Chau can be one of the warmest.
Victoria Spa (Hoang Dieu Ward, 8am-10pm)
After a few days of trekking, treat yourself with a bit of pampering. This upmarket spa complex at the Victoria Sapa resort has gorgeous massage and treatment rooms. The spa’s pool area (with sauna and shower facilities) is open to people not staying at the resort for $10 per person.
You won’t step too far out of your hotel in Sapa before being accosted with offers to guide on your hikes.
For longer treks with overnight stays in villages, it’s important to hook up with someone who knows the terrain and culture and speak the language. We recommend using minority guides, as this offer them a means of making them a living. Note it’s illegal to stay overnight in villages that are not official recognised as homestay. Ignoring this could cause significant problems for you hosts and yourself.
The surrounding landscape is now part of Hoang Lien National Park and all the villages that can be visited have admission fees from 20,000d to 40,000d.
The nearest village within walking distance is Cat Cat, 3km south of Sapa. It’s a steep and beautiful hike down, and there are plenty of xe om for return uphill journey.
Sa Seng and Hang Da
For spectacular valley views ( if the mist and cloud gods relents), there’s a beautiful hike a long a high ridge east of Sapa through the Black Hmong settlements of Sa Seng and Hang Da down to the Ta Van River,, where you can get transport back to Sapa.
A very popular hike from Sapa is to Ta Phin village, home to Red Dzao and about 10km from Sapa. Most people take xe om to a starting point about 8km from Sapa, and then make a 14km loop through the are, passing through Black Hmong and Red Dzao villages.
Surrounding Sapa are Hoang Lien Son Mountains, dubbed the Tonkinese Alps by the French. These mountains include the often cloud-obscured Fansipan (3143m), Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan is accessible year-round to sensibly equipped trekkers in good shape, but don’t underestimate the challenge, It is very wet, and can be perilously slippery and generally cold.
The summit of Fansipan is 19km by foot from Sapa. The terrain is rough and adverse weather is frequent. The round trip usually takes three days; some experienced hikers do it in two days, but you will need to be fit. After walking through hill-tribe villages from the first morning, it’s just forest, mountain vistas and occasional wildlife, including monkeys, mountain goats and birds. Whether-wise the best time is from mid-October to mid-December, and in March, when wildflowers are in bloom. Don’t attempt an ascent if Sapa’s weather is poor, as limited visibility on Fansipan can be treacherous.
No ropes or technical skills are needed, just endurance. There are a few rudimentary shelters at a couple of base camps en route, but it’s better to be self-sufficient with sleeping bag, waterproof tent, stove, raincoat, compass and other miscellaneous survival gear. It’s important to carry out all your garbage, as some of the camps now are impacted by trash. Hiring a reputable guide is vital, or porters are also recommended.
Fancipan’s wild, lonesome beauty has been somewhat shattered with the opening of a 6282m-long cable car, taking people across the Muong Hoa Valley and up to the summit in 15 minutes.
Indigo Cat (46 Phan Si st. 9am-10pm.)
Craft shop Indigo Cat runs afternoon workshops where you can learn traditional Hmong weaving and embroidery skills. Workshops take place in the village of Ta Ven. Call into its Sapa shop for details.
Hill Station Signature Restaurant (37 Phan Si, from 9am)
Excellent three-hour cooking classes with an English-speaking Hmong chef starting with a 30-minute market tour and featuring five local dishes, including homemade tofu, smoked buffalo and Hmong-style black pudding, as well as the chance to try the local rice wine. Book the evening before.
There are plentiful restaurants along Cau May Ward serving identikit menus of Vietnamese and Western staples. Look out for hill-tribe specialities utilising Sapa’s wild mushrooms and herbs and local fish.
For eating on the budget, humble Vietnamese restaurants huddle on Tue Tinh st., and the stalls south of the church can’t be beaten for Bun Cha (barbecue pork).
Little Sapa (Cau May ward, 8am-10pm)
One of the better-value eateries along touristy Cau May Ward, little Sapa also lures in locals. Steer clear of the largely mediocre European dishes and concentrate on the Vietnamese menu.
Sapa O’Chau (8 Thac Bac st., 6.30am-6.30pm)
Don’t miss warming up with a cup of ginger tea sweetened Sapa moutain honey at this simple cafe attached to the Sapa O’Chau tour company. Also does good breakfast and a few simple snacks.
Barbecue Restaurants (Phan Si st., noon - 11pm)
Several easygoing spots along the northern and of Phan Si st. specialise in grilled meat and vegetables. Pull up a pew at one of the simple tables and tuck in.
Hotpot Stalls (Xuan Vien st. 11am-11pm)
Dig into Vietnamese-style lau ( hotpot; meat stew cooked with local vegetables, cabbage and mushroom) at these stalls.
Hill Station Signature Restaurant (37 Phan Sy st. 7am-11pm)
A showcase of Hmong cuisine with cool Zen decor and superb views. Dishes include flash-cooked pork with lime, ash-baked trout in banana leaves, and traditional Hmong-style black pudding. Tasting sets of local rice and corn wine are also of interest to curious travelling foodies. Don’t miss trying the dedicate rainbow-trout rolls; think of them as “Sapa sushi”
Nature View (51 Phan Si st., 8am-10pm)
You’ve got love the photos of the owner’s kids on the walls at this friendly spot with great valley view. Look forward to decent Vietnamese and European food and just maybe Sapa’s best fruit smoothies. Those who aren’t fans of tofu should try the sizzling tofu with lemongrass and be converted. Don’t worry - it’s not all vegetarian food.
Baguette & Chocolat (Thac Bac st., 7am-10pm)
Head to this converted villa for a fine breakfast, baguette or tasty slab of lemon tart. Many of the staff are students at the Hoa Sua School for disadvantaged youth and are being trained in the cooking and hospitality industry.`
Hill Station Deli & Boutique (Muong Hoa st., 7am-10:30pm)
With cheese and charcuterie plates, pork terrine and local smoked trout, the Hill Station Deli & Boutique is a stylish addition to the Sapa dining scene. Factor in some of Sapa’s best coffee and an interesting away of international beers and wines, and you’ve got the most cosmopolitan option in town.
Viet Emotion (27 Cau May ward, 7am-11pm)
This intimate bistro features a cosy fireplace for cold mountain nights. The menu rambles from pizza, pasta and steaks to Vietnamese with a couple of Sapa’s specialities, such as herbal medical hotpot
Sapa Memories (29 Muong Hoa st. 8am-10:30pm)
You’ll find all the Vietnamese staples here but there’s also more adventurous local dishes, including fried frogs and venison. The dinky terrace at the front is a great place to sit back and watch Sapa daily life go by.
A bar crawl in Sapa will take in a maximum of there or four venues - this is not a party town.
Mountain Bar & Pub (2 Muongw Hoa st., noon-11pm)
Dangerously strong cocktails, cold beer and ultracompetitive games of table football conspire to make this Sapa’s go-to place for a great night out.
Color Bar (Phan Si st., noon-11pm)
Owned by a HaNoi Artist, this atmospheric spot sticks all the boxes with reggae, table football, shisha and ice-cold Bia Lao Cai. A great refuelling option on the steep walk up the Cat Cat village.
Hmong Sisters (Muong Hoa, noon-late)
This spacious bar with pool tables and open fire has pretty decent music, but can feel a bit sparse if it’s a quite night.
Indigo Cat (46 Phan Si st., 9am-7pm)
This Hmong-owned handicrafts shop offers a wonderful selection of interesting local crafts, including bags, clothing, pillows and belts.
Hemp & Embroidery (Phan Si, 9am-8pm)
A super-friendly shop owned by a charming Hmong lady, selling gorgeous textiles all made in the Sapa area. There are some divine bedspreads and cushion covers to browse through and the sales pitch is distinctly low-key, which many traveller will heartily appreciate.
The best way to get around compact Sapa is to walk. Bicycle can be hired, but you’ll spend half your time pushing them steep hills.
For excursions, motorbikes are available from about US$15 a day. If you’ve never ridden a motorbike before, this is not a place to learn. The weather can be wet and treacherous at any time of the year, and roads are steep and regularly damaged by floods and heavy rain.