Sa Pa

View of Sa Pa
Terraced fields in Sa Pa

Sa Pa (formerly Chapa) is a town in a beautiful, mountainous region of northern Vietnam on the border with China.

Understand

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.

Ethnic minorities

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.

Weather

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.

Get in

By train

Sa Pa is reached by a nine-hour train journey from Hanoi to Lào Cai (pronounced lao kai), followed by a separate transfer to Sa Pa.

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.

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).

By bus

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.

By motorcycle

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.

Get around

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.

See

Panoramic view of Sa Pa

Do

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).

Buy

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).

Eat

Drink

Sleep

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.

Cope

Connect

Sa Pa's official Tourist Information Centre can help you organize your stay.

Go next

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Friday, February 19, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.