Sapa Province- travel guide
Established as a hill station by the 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 plunging valley, with mountains towering above on all 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 villas fell into disrepair during successive wars with the French, Americans and chinese, and modern tourism development has mushroomed haphazardly. Sapa today is undergoing a construction boom and, thanks to rarely enforced building height restrictions, the skyline is continually thrusting upwards.
But you are not here to hang out in the town. This is northern Vietnam’s premier trekking base from where hikers launch themselves into a 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.
(Đ Ngu Chi Son; 6am-2pm) Unfortunately turfed out of central Sapa, and now in a purpose-built modern building near the bus station, Sapa Market is still a hive of colorful 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 the 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 drops 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.
You won’t step too far out of your hotel in Sapa before being accosted with offers to guide you on hikes.
For longer treks with overnight stays in villages, it’s important to hook up with someone who knows the terrain and culture and specks the language. We recommend using minority guides, as this offers them a means of making a living. Note it’s illegal to stay overnight in villages that are not officially recognized as homestays. Ignoring this could cause significant problems for your 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.
Sa Seng & Hang Da
For spectacular valley views(if the mist and cloud gods relent), there’s a beautiful hike along 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.
(admission20, 000d) A very popular hike from Sapa is to Ta Phin villages, home to red Dzao and about 10km from Sapa. Most people take a xe om to a starting point about 8km from Sapa, and then make a 14km loop through the area, passing through Back Hmong and Red Dzao villages.
Surrounding Sapa are the Hoang Lien Mountains, dubbed the Tonkinese Alps by the French. There 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 day, but you’ll need to be fit. After walking through hill-tribe villages on the first morning, it’s just forest, mountain vistas and occasional wildlife, including monkeys, mountain goats and birds. Weather-wise the best time is from 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.