Located in Vietnam’s remote northwest mountains 1,650 meters above sea level, Sapa is a picturesque town near the Chinese border. It is famous for its terraced rice fields, offering stunning views that have indirectly contributed to the boom of the tourism industry of Sapa. The recent surge in popularity has seen Sapa becoming a tourist hotspot in Vietnam.
With no nearby airports, however, the only option of getting to Sapa is to travel 380 kilometers by road or rail. The time-consuming journey to Sapa is an adventure in itself – travelers can choose to reach Sapa from Hanoi either by motorcycle, bus or train. Getting to Sapa by motorcycle takes 10 hours on the most direct route, where fuel can be a major issue as petrol stations are few and far between. Sleeper and daytime buses take a shorter time of 6 hours to reach Sapa, but they can be uncomfortable for light sleepers as mountain roads are winding and dangerous. If you choose to travel by overnight trains, it will take approximately 9 hours to reach Lao Cai. As the train service terminates at Lao Cai, you will have to catch a public bus for an hour before reaching Sapa.
The real charm of Sapa lies in its lush fields, hence it is essential to experience it by trekking the fields along the Cat Cat Village. Launch yourselves into the surrounding countryside of cascading rice terraces and tiny hill-tribe villages to experience the beauty that is Sapa. Although you may trek on your own, it is advisable to engage in a local guide. This ensures you get the best experience in terms of trekking on the correct routes as well as obtaining accurate information on the history and culture you encounter along the way. Most local guides are fluent in English and familiar with the routes, having conducted regular trekking tours in Sapa. Rest assured that by hiring a local guide, you are also giving back to the local community.
As your tour guide is not a porter, pack light as you embark on your trekking adventure in Sapa – only bring what is deemed necessary. You should prepare raincoats in case you experience slight showers to unforgiving thunderstorms during your treks. Routes will most probably include off beaten tracks – stepping into puddles of mud, scrambling up the mountain on all fours, hopping across ditches – so wearing sturdy shoes with good support and a solid grip is recommended. If your tour includes a full-day trek, prepare snacks for you to munch on as all the trekking is sure to consume large amounts of your energy!
If you trek on a clear day, you will be presented with the most stunning views of rice fields and orchards along the mountainside as you are surrounded by nature. Experience the lives of the ethnic minorities of Sapa in the villages you see along the way – kids going home from school, people working in the fields, tribe women doing their embroidery work. During the harvest season, you will see locals beating paddy plants against hard surfaces to loosen the seeds for later collection. It is normal to encounter young children helping in the fields, a sight that may be odd to some. Under the shining sun, the endless rice paddies shimmer in golden hues, signifying the wealth in nature that these locals possess.
During your treks, you will notice that touting exists in abundance in Sapa. Women and children will walk alongside for hours next to you, only to expect purchases of souvenirs that they have with them at the end of the day. What may start as a friendly companionship will slowly transform into aggressive pitching of sales, so be prepared to receive negative remarks from them should you choose not to purchase. It is advisable not to give in to these touts as you are indirectly supporting the growth of it if you do. If you buy from one child, more children will surround you in attempt to get you to buy their products. Never offer sweets to children as they do not have direct access to healthcare in the villages.
If you are feeling adventurous and have more time to spare in Sapa, you can attempt to hike the Fansipan mountain instead. It is the highest mountain in Indochina, standing tall at 3,143 meters above sea level – earning itself the title “Roof of Indochina”. It takes at least two full days to get to the peak and back. However, the mountain can now be ascended in only 15 minutes with the newly-constructed cable car, the world’s longest and highest cable car.
The scenery of the Sapa region truly reflects the relationship between the ethnic minority and mother nature. The beautiful landscape and remarkable views are sure to capture your hearts!