At 1,650 m above sea level in Vietnam's remote northwest mountains, Sa Pa is known for both its fine, rugged scenery and its cultural diversity. Sa Pa is a picturesque town in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near the Chinese border in northwestern Vietnam, known as "the Tonkinese Alps". Sa Pa and its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces, lush vegetation, and Phan Si Păng (Fansipan), the highest peak in Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). As a result of a recent surge in popularity, Sa Pa has become a tourist hotspot where money is the new drug of choice. Throngs of vendors can be found in the streets, aggressively selling their wares. Don't be put off by the rush, your explorations of the surrounding countryside will be worth the trouble.
Many ethnic minorities live in and around Sa Pa. Excluding the ethnic Vietnamese Kinh people, eight different ethnic minority groups are found in Sa Pa: H'mong (pronounced mong), Dao (pronounced yao), Tay, Giay (pronounced zai), Muong, Thai, Hoa (ethnic Chinese), and Xa Pho (a sub-set of the Phu La minority group). However, the last four groups comprise fewer than 500 people in total. The population of the district was estimated at 31,652 (1993) of which 52% were H'mong, 25% were Dao, 15% were Kinh, 5% were Tay, and 2% were Giay. Around 3,300 people live in Sa Pa town, while the remainder are peasant farmers distributed unevenly throughout the district.
Many older women in particular make items such as ethnic clothing and blankets to sell to tourists. Striking up a conversation with them can be very rewarding and their spoken English is impressive. Sadly, however, doing this in Sa Pa town itself will sometimes lead to a scrum if other vendors taste a potential sale.
Children from these ethnic minorities often help support their families financially through selling trinkets to tourists. They peddle small metal or silver trinkets, embroidered pillow cases and friendship bands in the main town, and often walk for several hours from their villages to reach town, perhaps skipping school. At the end of the day, some take a motorbike ride back to their village, some walk home and some sleep in the market. Do not encourage this by buying from children. Buy from adults.
Girls and boys marry young (around 15–18) and often have two children by the time they are 20 years old. Poverty has led to a great number of girls leaving their villages each day to go selling in Sa Pa town, and depending on their luck, may only have one meal per day.
In winter (the four months from November to February), the weather in Sa Pa is invariably cold, wet and foggy (temperatures can drop to freezing and there was snow in 2011). Travellers have rolled into town on a gloriously clear day and then spent a week trapped in impenetrable fog. When it is like this there really isn't very much to do. Also the rice paddies are brown and empty (they are planted in spring), the paths very muddy and slippery and the glorious vistas of summer are completely hidden in the mist. If you choose to visit in winter, take along warm clothes or prepare to be cold and miserable as many hotels do not have efficient heating in their rooms. During that time, the more upmarket hotels that do have heating fill up quickly, so make advance reservations if you can afford not to freeze.
It rains often during the month of August, especially in the mornings.
However, if you choose to come in summer, say in May, then be prepared to sweat. Hostels may not have air-conditioning so check them out first before making your booking. If you have come to see the rice terraces, you will be disappointed as you would not be seeing beautiful, green rice terraces as the local farmers would have just started to work on the field.
Vietnam Rail operates some of the carriages in the train, but others are operated by private companies (Fanxipan Express, Friendly, Ratraco, Tulico, Victoria Hotels, and many others). Some of these cars are significantly nicer than the standard cars. You may need to arrange with a travel agency to get tickets on these tourist cars, but any traveller can purchase tickets for the Vietnam Rail cars at the Hanoi train station. Warning: several of these cars are not significantly better than standard Vietnamese sleeping cars, but are still substantially more expensive. Pumpkin second class is actually a Vietnam Rail car booked through this company. Even Pumpkin first class only has a squat toilet (although a sign above the toilet door says "Western-style toilet"!).
Prices vary according to both the type of seat purchased and the season during which you are travelling. Dates around Vietnamese holidays are particularly expensive and tickets cannot be assumed available for same day travel, so book ahead if possible. Travellers are strongly recommended to purchase a berth in a soft or hard sleeper car, though the trip in soft-seat class is not intolerable.
- Cheaper travel. Cheaper tickets, especially in hard sleeper class, can be difficult to come by at times, as tour companies and travel agents will snap up these to foist on their own customers (too frequently a promised soft sleeper berth will turn into a hard sleeper when it comes time to board). To avoid ripoffs, it is better to go to the train station yourself and get the ticket from the ticket office. This is the only way to make sure that you will get what you have paid for. Although one cannot be assured of finding a place, it is often possible to arrive at the station a short while before boarding time, as there are usually young men hanging around trying to hawk unfilled berths at the last minute. The price of these tickets will fall dramatically as departure time draws near.
- More expensive travel. For a bed in a hard or soft sleeper carriage, expect to pay in the area of 430,000–525,000 dong one way. For a soft seat, expect to pay 220,000 dong one way (May 2012). Tickets can be booked online from a travel agent such as Vietnam Impressive. You will be emailed a voucher which must be printed out and presented to a train company representative at the station about 30–60 minutes before the departure time to obtain the actual tickets.
- The Victoria Hotel train has a dining car serving good, surprisingly affordable noodles (10,000 dong) and rice porridge (10,000 dong), but other trains such as Fanxipan do not. On the latter train a packet of biscuits, a banana and a bottle of water are provided as part of the cost of the ticket (October 2013), and it is possible to purchase pot noodles and snacks on board. However, you may prefer to purchase your own hot food, snacks and drinks from vendors in the grounds of the railway station. There are toilets on the train but no showers.
It is recommended that you book a return ticket when you buy your outward journey, as picking up tickets in Lào Cai is harder than in Hanoi. The staff do not speak as much English, and they possibly only sell tickets for travel on the same day, so sleepers may already be sold out unless you go first thing in the morning. Pay attention to the time of your return train. Trains leaving Lào Cai around 20:00 will arrive in Hanoi at around 05:00. If you are planning to stay in a hotel or hostel that does not have a 24-hour reception and do not make prior arrangements when you return to Hanoi at an early hour, you may find yourself sitting outside your hotel waiting a few hours for the reception desk to open.
Transfer between Lào Cai and Sa Pa
The train terminates at Lào Cai. The hotel where you are planning to stay will often be able to arrange minibus transportation between Lào Cai and Sa Pa for you for about 50,000 dong (February 2012). If you're looking to pay less, you'll have to walk to the central park area in Lào Cai in front of the railway station where minibuses and vans cruise for passengers and are willing to bargain to 40,000 dong (March 2012). Getting on an empty or half-empty bus will mean waiting for more passengers, regardless of whatever departure time is promised by the driver and his ever-present crew of buddies who are hanging around. The ride is about an hour of beautiful views if the weather is good – otherwise it may be an hour of fog – more than 1,000 m up into the mountains.
If you are planning to visit the Bắc Hà Sunday market, it is worth planning your travel so that you arrive in or leave from Lào Cai on a Sunday, as Bắc Hà is nearer to Lào Cai than Sa Pa. The Bắc Hà Sunday market (much larger than the market in Sa Pa) is a big, colorful bazaar overflowing with everything under the sun, including handicrafts by minority tribes, apparel and accessories, meat and vegetables, and household goods. Your hotel in Sa Pa may be able to arrange for someone to meet you at the Lào Cai train station and put you on a tour (USD15 in October 2013) that will take you to the Bắc Hà Sunday market; a village inhabited by the Flower H'mong; and the border between Lào Cai and Hekou, a small town in Yunnan, China; and then bring you to Sa Pa (or the reverse if you are leaving Sa Pa and catching the train from Lào Cai).
Sleeper buses run direct from Hanoi to Sapa for around USD13–18. Ask at the local tourist office, a reputable tour agency, or your hotel or hostel regarding tickets. These buses are reasonably modern, the beds are small and recline back, typically in three single or two double rows. The bus will make stops for bathroom breaks and snacks, and once in Lào Cai city. If you are a light sleeper the journey could be uncomfortable with many sharp twists and turns, and some claim that the mountain roads are dangerous, although there is no evidence of accidents on the route. The bus stop is near the lake area.
Travellers have reported that when journeying back to Hanoi from Sa Pa, bus drivers sometimes drop passengers in the western outskirts of Hanoi, despite assurances that they will be transported to the airport or the Hanoi train station. Should you find yourself in this situation, there is a bus station around the block called Xe Ben Khach My Dien, where you can get on Bus 34 towards the Hanoi city centre for 3,000 dong. Alternatively, taxis will quote you 200,000 dong to take you to the Old Town.
The expressway from Hanoi to Lao Cai means daytime buses are also a possibility. The Sapa Express (with 2+1 seating) and Good Morning Sapa buses take around 6 hours including one or two 30 minute stops. They leave Hanoi around 7am and Sapa around 3-4pm, both charging around 17USD one way.
Sa Pa can also be reached by motorcycle from Hanoi by a variety of routes. The most direct route takes at least 10 hours for first-time riders, though local expats often brag about making it in less. Bikes can be rented in Hanoi for unguided passage, or local guides can lead the way. Along the way be sure to top up with fuel regularly, as petrol stations sometimes prove few and far between. Fuel vendors in small towns often mix their petrol with other liquids such as alcohol or bio-fuels, and such fuel should be bought and used only when there are no alternatives.
Anywhere in the main village of Sa Pa can be reached on foot, and the town is small enough that you're not likely to get lost. A basic map will be good enough for most visitors.
Small step-through Honda motorbikes can be rented in the touristy parts of town, as well as near the gas station on the road leading to Lào Cai, for USD3–6 depending on the amount of time you wish to rent for and your bargaining skills (i.e., determination). Day trips into the surrounding countryside can be very rewarding, although a good up-to-date map and a healthy dose of caution are required as roads are winding and populated with all manner of conveyance, and road signs can be misleading as the north undergoes some odd town-relocation schemes.
Tourists intending to trek to the various villages through the paddy fields should be prepared with good trekking shoes or rubber boots, a walking stick and extra clothing kept in a waterproof bag. Hotels often have gumboots and ponchos to lend to their guests, and such equipment can also be rented or purchased from shops in the town. Depending on the season, the rice fields, which are built in terraces, can be slightly steep, and very muddy and slippery. If one does not wear shoes which enables a good grip in mud, one is likely to keep slipping and falling or even sliding down the slopes! As the paths are also taken by water buffalo, excrement can be found everywhere. Walking sticks can be bought from children from the ethnic minority groups at about 5,000 dong. These enterprising children cut sturdy bamboo and sharpen one end to turn them into sturdy sticks.
For the less adventurous, some of the villages such as Lao Chai are accessible via Jeep, motorcycle and van.
- Church of Our Lady of the Rosary (Nhà Thờ Đức Mẹ Mân Côi; Église Notre-Dame du Rosaire) (Next to the central square; when no services are being held, the interior of the church can be accessed from a door on the right side of the building), ☎ +84 20 387 3014, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. A Roman Catholic church established by the French and constructed between 1926 and 1935. Mass is held on weekdays at 19:00 and on Sunday at 09:00, and the adoration of the sacrament is held at 18:30. Free; donations welcome.
- Hàm Rồng Resort (A short walk south from the central square and then up some stairs). A hillside attraction with great views and various gardens such as an orchid garden and a European garden, ethnic minority dance performances, and restaurants. 70,000 dong (August 2012).
- Sa Pa Culture Museum (behind the Tourist Office). Daily 07:30–11:30, 13:30–17:00. If you have time, the museum is worth visiting to learn about the history of Sa Pa, and the costumes and traditions of the ethnic minorities of the region. Free; donations welcome.
If you do not intend to hike in the countryside around Sa Pa on your own, you can join a tour or arrange a private guide who will take you to visit the sights. Your hotel should be able to assist. If you do not feel up to hiking all the way, arrange to hike out of Sa Pa and return by Jeep, minibus or motorcycle, or pick a tour that provides transportation all the way.
Admission fees are required to visit most of the villages. One popular, if rather touristy, tour visits two villages near Sa Pa, Lao Chải and Tả Van, including a lunch stop (admission fee: 40,000 dong in August 2012). Tả Giàng Phình and Bản Khoang are less touristy but much further away from Sa Pa. Other villages worth visiting include Sín Chải (20,000 dong in August 2012), and Má Tra and Ta Phìn (30,000 dong in August 2012 for both).
- Cát Cát (A few kilometres' walk from Sa Pa. You're not likely to get lost. Just walk down the road out of Sa Pa, which should be marked on maps, and after a while you'll find a path which descends the hill to your left. This path runs through the village before climbing another hill back to the road.). This walk provides a good chance to observe Vietnamese farming and farm animals, and there are excellent views. The walk back up can be difficult (it is steep in parts), but once you get back onto the road there are plenty of enterprising locals ready to take you back to Sa Pa on motorbikes (40,000 dong per person per bike). Walking down you will see a few cottage industries like weaving, carving, and art shops. In the middle of the trek, you come to a rest stop, with a so-so waterfall, and a supposedly minority village which is a block of dwellings with no sign of any activity. A nice stroll if you have a morning or afternoon free. Persons of limited mobility should skip this hike. Admission: 40,000 dong (Aug 2012).
- Love Waterfall and Silver Waterfall (Thác Tình Yêu; Thác Bạc) (30 min drive from Sa Pa). Love Waterfall (Thác Tình Yêu), which lies within Hoàng Liên National Park (Vườn quốc gia Hoàng Liên; declared an ASEAN Heritage Park). It takes 30 minutes to walk from the entrance of the park to the waterfall. The path is paved with flat but slightly uneven stones and has many steps going up and down. Silver Waterfall (Thác Bạc), regarded by some travellers as less picturesque than Love Waterfall, is alongside the road between Sa Pa and the entrance to Hoàng Liên National Park. Love Waterfall: 35,000 dong; Silver Waterfall: 10,000 dong (Aug 2012).
- Massage. Numerous shops along Cầu Mây Street, the town's main street, provide foot and body massages. Many hotels also offer in-room massages.
- Phan Si Păng (Fansipan). At 3,143m (10,312 ft), Phan Si Păng or Fansipan is the highest mountain in Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam), and lies within the Hoàng Liên National Park (Vườn quốc gia Hoàng Liên). Hikes to the summit lasting from 1-3 days can be arranged from tour companies in Sa Pa. Most of them recommend taking the 2- or 3-day options; few guides will take tourists on the round trip in a single day. A very small village offering accommodation and food is around 1,500m (4,920 ft), and there is an overnight camp at 2,800m (9,190 ft). Most booked trips will include the use of these facilities in their price should they be required. You should be fairly fit to attempt the ascent. 150,000 dong (Aug 2012).
- Sa Pa Lake (5 min walk from the church). At the lake you can rent a pedal boat for 40,000 dong for 30 minutes, or 80,000 dong for an hour. Pedal boats are available only on weekends and when the weather is good.
- Simacai Market. Of all Sa Pa markets, Simacai Market may well best demonstrate traditional customs and habits which have not been affected by tourist commercialization.
- Handicrafts and other tourist trinkets. The usual endless supply of nearly identical tourist trinkets is available at every turn. Sa Pa is famous for its embroidery. Clothes, blankets, wall hangings and other fabric handicrafts with colorful embroidered designs traditional to the various ethnic minorities in Sa Pa can be purchased from markets and from ethnic-minority hawkers at villages visited by tourists. The indigo dye used to give a deep blue color stains the fingers, which is why many of the women who make them have darkened fingertips. When you wash these clothes the color will run. To avoid this, soak them in cold salty water, and make sure you pack them carefully in your bag to take home.
- There are two types of handicrafts: handmade and machine-made. It is easy to tell the difference. If you wish to buy handmade items, it is preferable to buy directly from their makers in the villages. Prices are highly elastic. When bargaining, try to find out how long it took to make the piece. If you do not mind machine-made products, you are better off buying them in the shops in town. It pays to shop around for the right pair of reproduction Montagnard earrings or machine-made fabric items.
- Do buy some items, whether handmade or not, direct from ethnic minority sellers, especially if you have enjoyed a good conversation or received help from them. Though they do charge slightly more than shops, bear in mind that the majority of them are very poor and depend on tourist money to survive. However, it is suggested that you avoid buying items from children (see "Ethnic minorities" above).
- Sports and winter wear. A number of shops in town sell sports and winter wear such as waterproof jackets and hiking boots. Although they bear the logos of well-known international brands, given their low cost it is unlikely that they are original products.
- Batteries. Be careful when buying batteries as some people will sell ones with no juice.
- Baguette & Chocolate Café, Thác Bạc Street (up the stairs northwest of the central plaza), ☎ +84 20 387 1766, e-mail: email@example.com. A café specializing in delicious French pastries which is run as a vocational school for disadvantaged youths. It serves both European and Asian meals, but expect patchy service from the youths.
- Bombay Indian, 036 Cầu Mây Street (on the main street), ☎ +84 20 871 799. North Indian food, with many options for vegetarians. USD7–10 (April 2013).
- The Hill Station (The Hill Station Deli), 007 Muong Hoa Street, ☎ +84 20 388 7111 (landline), +84 982 267 518 (mobile), fax: +84 20 388 7112, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Fine wine, cheese and cold cuts along with a few western style hot and cold dishes. Home-made hams and pâté. Punto Italia coffee.
- Little Sapa, 018 Cầu Mây Street (on the main street), ☎ +84 20 387 1222, +84 1688 063 526. A popular, low-priced restaurant. Serves outstanding local and decent Western dishes to a mixed local and foreign clientele. Features some unique dishes in addition to the fixtures available at any other Sa Pa restaurant. Try the H'mong king-style chicken.
- Marketplace food stalls. Food stalls selling good noodle soup for 10,000 dong, fried rice for 15,000 dong and the other usual Vietnamese fare for around 30,000 dong. It's a great experience to dine with the locals!
- Red Camelia, 030 Cầu Mây Street (on the main street). A fairly reasonably priced restaurant offering a variety of local and Western dishes, as well as wines.
- Rose Garden Sa Pa, 054 Phan Xi Păng Road (on the way to Cát Cát village), ☎ +84 20 387 1734. 10:00–22:00. A mid-range restaurant. They have freshly baked baguettes and hamburgers from their own bakery. The desserts, ice cream, cakes, and cookies, are sweet delicacies at an affordable price.
- Hill Station Signature Restaurant, Fansipan. Refined local (mostly Hmong) food in small dishes - the speciality, if they have found fresh fish that day, is their raw trout. Perched on the edge of the valley, some tables have views right across it. A few decent options for vegetarians.
- Hmong Sisters Bar, 031 Muong Hoa Street (close to the Sa Pa Bamboo Hotel), ☎ +84 983 379 862. Has a pool table, darts and a computer with free Internet.
- Mountain Bar & Pub, 002 Muong Hoa Street (near Royal Hotel), ☎ +84 98 388 9798. Good bar in Sa Pa with many flavours of shisha. Good place to drink.
A near-endless supply of cheap rooms is available in the touristy area down the hill from the town centre, and generally a flock of young men and women will leap on you the moment you arrive with offers from USD3 and up for a double room.
In addition to the places listed below, homestays in some of the villages surrounding Sa Pa are available.
In Sa Pa, as in many other provinces of Vietnam, it is the law that you must turn over your passport to your hostel, hotel or guesthouse. However, a photocopy of the main page and your visa should suffice, and if they refuse, simply tell them your passport is in Hanoi because you are applying for a visa extension.
- Cha Pa Garden Boutique Hotel, 023b Cầu Mây Street (take the flight of stairs on your left between a hot dog stand and Fansipan Restaurant (023 Cầu Mây Street); about halfway up, the hotel is on the right), ☎ +84 20 387 2907, e-mail: email@example.com. Check-in: 12:00, check-out: 11:30. Boutique hotel with four rooms in a refurbished colonial villa. USD60–75.
- Chau Long Sapa Hotel, 24 Dồng Lợi, ☎ +84 20 387 1245, fax: +84 20 3871 844. A large hotel with clean, pleasant rooms that is popular with group tours. It has a restaurant, lounge and bar, an indoor heated swimming pool, a fitness center, and a business center. Rooms in the old wing are cheaper. There is no additional charge for Wi-Fi access. USD50–160.
- Fansipan View Hotel, Xuan Vien Street, ☎ +84 20 387 3579. A nice relaxing hotel with boutique interiors.
- Green Bamboo Sa Pa (near the entrance to town). It serves a cheap and good breakfast at USD2.50. Rooms in the main and old wings of the hotel which are above the ground floors offer breathtaking views of the Fanxipan mountains. USD25 (USD10 in the old wing).
- Hoang Ha Sa Pa Hotel, Thac Bac Street (in the centre of Sa Pa), ☎ +84 20 387 2535. Overlooks the beautiful Muong Hoa Valley. All rooms are equipped with a large balcony, fireplace, cable TV and free Wi-Fi. The hotel has a meeting room and restaurant, and provides room service.
- Khach San Hoang Ha, 10 Thac Bac Street. Check-out: 10:00. Stands like a haunted Chinese elementary school overlooking Baguette & Chocolate. Free Internet in the lobby. Beds are a bit hard. USD15.
- Little Sa Pa (near the market). Basically a restaurant, it also serves as a hotel for long-stay travellers. Big rooms with balconies, TV, hot water. USD60 per month.
- Lotus Hotel (a few metres from the Royal Hotel). Nice rooms, tea, TV, hot water, restaurant and for some rooms, a fireplace and a nice view. The staff are a little cold. Hotel closes each night at 23:00. USD4–7.
- Pumpkin Hotel, 042 Cầu Mây Street, ☎ +84 20 872 350. Very friendly and helpful staff. Good-sized rooms with desks and computers. The hotel may try to charge extra for a space heater at a rate of 150,000 dong. If you are staying here as a part of an ET Pumpkin tour, make sure to get an assurance (in writing, if possible) that your space heater will be included in the price. USD18.
- The Royal Hotel, Cầu Mây Street (bottom of the main street). Some rooms provide a nice view over the valley or the town, and many open on to a small balcony. It has an attached café offering standard traveller fare (banana or chocolate pancakes) and can help you out with travel arrangements. USD12–15.
- Sapa Paradise View Hotel, 018 Phạm Xuân Huân Street (when walking downhill along Cầu Mây Street, the main street, you can take a shortcut to the hotel by taking a flight of stairs on your left between a hot dog stand and Fansipan Restaurant (023 Cầu Mây Street), and then turning left at the top of the stairs), ☎ +84 203 872 683, fax: +84 203 872 684, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 11:00. A good value three-star hotel. The décor is nothing to scream about but the rooms are comfortable, clean and well-stocked. Some of them have an interesting aerial view of the village. Breakfast is usually included in the cost of the room, and the hotel provides a complimentary fruit basket, bottles of water, a daily afternoon smoothie and snack, Wi-Fi (including a desktop computer in the room!), and gumboots for hiking. The staff are attentive and friendly. In-room massages can be arranged. Visitors who have difficulty with stairs should note that the four-storey hotel does not have any lifts, but the staff will help carry your luggage. USD40–80 (check website for promotions).
- Sa Pa Rooms, 018 Phan Xi Păng Road, ☎ +84 20 650 5228. Great little boutique hotel with a ground floor restaurant that serves a wide range of good dishes and has free Wi-Fi. They can arrange tours with local guides and optional homestays, with a percentage of the profits going directly to support local community projects and schools. They also rent motorbikes, offer cooking classes, provide opportunities to volunteer in the community, and accept clothing donations.
- Thai Binh Sa Pa Hotel, Hàm Rồng Street (from market, walk straight up from the left of the church, then turn left at the end of the street), ☎ +84 20 387 1212. Check-out: 12:00. In a quiet part of Sa Pa and within five minutes' walk of the market and restaurant street. Free Internet in the lobby and Wi-Fi in rooms. Electric heater and electric mattress available in the room. The hotel boss (a local teacher and education officer), and the female receptionist are very friendly and speak good English. They are able to provide local tours, buy train tickets at Lào Cai train station for you, and transport you to and from the train station. USD22–25.
- Topas Eco Lodge (30-minute drive south of Sa Pa). Perched on beautiful grounds on a hill with stunning views of the surrounding valley. Spacious, detached bungalows, each with its own balcony, which can be a comfortable double or accommodate a small family. The "eco" part of the title comes partly through the lodge hiring local staff and using solar power and hot water in all of their bungalows. About USD99 per night for a detached bungalow.
- Attire. Bring along a poncho and/or an umbrella. You can also buy cheap ones in the many shops around. Rubber boots and trekking shoes can be rented from some shops or perhaps borrowed from your hotel. Sizes may be limited.
- Cash. It is possible to change money, travelers' cheques, and get cash advances on credit cards at the bigger hotels in Sa Pa. Furthermore, there are ATMs on the main street that now accept all major cards such as Visa, MasterCard, or Maestro. If you intend to change foreign currency, make sure the notes you bring to Sa Pa are as new and crisp as possible. It is very hard to obtain local currency with tatty notes; some hotels will reject them. There have been reports of shops taking customers' crisp notes, switching them with cut and taped-up ones, and insisting that were the ones the customers gave them.
- Photography. Bear in mind that some of the minorities do not wish to have their photographs taken. Ask permission beforehand.
Sa Pa's official Tourist Information Centre can help you organize your stay.
- For those looking to go farther afield, the road to Dien Bien Phu is simply stunning and makes for a fantastic four-to-five-day trip. Always give yourself plenty of daylight hours to return home, however, as highly changeable weather could strand you in dense fog without notice, especially during the winter months. There is also a bus to Dien Bien Phu which runs from the tourist office at 07:30 each day, and costs USD11.
- Bắc Hà