must-do sapa experiences
Top 8 Best Experiences in Sapa
For a relaxing mountain getaway destination, the little town of Sapa has an incredible amount of activities to keep you occupied. Between the workshops, shopping, and physical sports, you might find yourself feeling guilty for sitting back and doing nothing. But don’t! Relaxing with a Vietnamese coffee while gazing out to the mountains is also a quintessential Sapa experience.
Read on for the other must-do experiences in Sapa.
Explore the Town
Sapa is a whirlwind of contrasts. Colorfully dressed local ladies sell handcrafted souvenirs outside luxury hotels. Chaotic hotpot restaurants overlook the eternally serene lake. And gigantic modern structures loom over century-old colonial buildings.
Don’t expect a calm mountain oasis. Much like other Vietnamese towns with history, Sapa is busy, noisy, chaotic, and fascinating. And the best way to absorb all this is with a self-guided stroll. Be sure to nab a bargain in the market, check out the old French church, take a gentle hike through Cat Cat Village, smell the flowers around Ham Rong Mountain, and do a loop of Sapa lake by bicycle.
Take a Hike
Sapa is a hiker’s paradise. Some routes are just a few hours while others span days, with the scenery the stuff of legends. There is no better way to appreciate this gorgeous piece of Vietnam than by trekking through it.
You’ll need a guide as solo hiking isn’t permitted. However, you shouldn’t see this as something negative as your guide can speak a number of languages, is most probably a member of an ethnic minority group, will prevent you from getting lost, and can answer the many questions that will arrive as you visit small villages. Most importantly, this is a great way to support the locals directly.
You can arrange guides through your hotel or tour provider, although Sapa O’Chau is a personal favorite. This award-winning social enterprise has worked to empower the region’s youths and their families since 2010, encouraging ethnic minority students to stay in school and train as trekking guides, homestay owners, artisans, and chefs.
Hit the Road
If you’re hitting the roads, then take two wheels with you. Motorbikes, bicycles, and now e-bikes are available for rent in and around Sapa and are a great way to get out into the wilderness, especially during high season (summer and autumn) when sites close to Sapa get busy.
For the best riding and driving, head west out of Sapa towards Lai Chau. Remember that roads are steep, but they’re in good condition for the most part. If you do go off-road, take it slow and be ready to turn back if things get a little too dangerous (or muddy).
Visit Hill-Tribe Villages
Village hopping is a great way to understand more about the cultures in and around Sapa as the diversity is so incredible. Sapa is inhabited by the major ethnic group, the Kinh, otherwise known as the Vietnamese, but the villages surrounding it are made up of many different ethnic groups and subgroups.
Some you can walk to in less than an hour, but most villages are far enough from Sapa that you can only get there by hiking and biking (see above) or by private car. Many are picturesque pockets of simple wooden structures, trickling streams, and friendly locals. The villages are also great places to get some souvenirs right from the source.
Ta Phin Village – Ta Phin is a Red Dzao village famous for its homestay service as well as the production of salts most commonly found in the Dzao traditional herbal baths. About 10 km north of Sapa, Ta Phin Village is also known as “the brocade village” due to its distinctively handmade bags, scarves, purses, skirts, backpacks, and coats on sale. This village is the main supplier of brocades for shops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as well.
Lao Chai Village – Lao Chai Is a Black H’mong village with small houses placed between terraced rice fields along the Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range. Even though it is only 16 km south of Sapa, it takes about an hour to reach this village by car due to the windy roads through the mountains. The views totally make up for it once you arrive though.
Ta Van Village – Home to the Giay and Dzao ethnic communities, Ta Van Village is situated within Muong Ha Valley, about 7-11 km away from Sapa. This is another great village to stay overnight in as there are quite a lot of homestays to choose from as well as local restaurants.
Sin Chai Village – This Black H’mong village is quite near to Sapa, about 5 km away from the city center. It can easily be combined with a hike through Cat Cat Village on the way to or from Sapa. The terraced rice fields are not as steep as in other H’mong communities, but they are still picturesque.
Ho Village – Ho Village can be found in the same direction as Lao Chai and Ta Van villages. Approximately 30 km from the center of Sapa, Ho Village is where the Tay minority live, a small population compared to the Dzao or H’mong. Tay houses are usually built along rivers on stilts, which prove for some beautiful picture-taking moments.
Meet the Locals
As previously mentioned above, Sapa’s ethnic diversity is one of the biggest highlights of the destination, nay the entire country. Each village will have a dominant ethnic group, with the architecture, language, and customs reflecting the culture and local traditions. For example, H’mong villages are usually found at the top of mountains, while the Tay prefer building their homes by rivers and streams in the deep valleys. Dzao settlements usually appear somewhere in between, along hillsides or the middle of mountains.
One of the best ways to get to know the locals is through activities, such as an indigo dying workshop in Ta Van Village, or even a cooking class taught by an English-speaking H’mong Chef.
Of course, trekking to homestays throughout the area still remains the most popular way to engage and interact with different hill-tribes in the area. Sapa Sisters is a H’mong company completely run by women to empower their local communities through guiding treks and organizing homestays. Stay overnight and eat dinner with the family to truly get to experience cultural immersion at its best.
A great way to prepare for any trip to Sapa is to visit the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi before your visit. Take a guided tour so that once you arrive, you can use your knowledge in a real-life situation!
Complete a Marathon
Visiting Sapa in Autumn? Consider joining the Vietnam Mountain Marathon, part of the Vietnam Trail Series. The race usually takes place in September, one of Sapa’s clearest and most beautiful months with golden rice fields just beginning to be harvested.
Distances range from family-friendly 5k and 10k circuits to challenging 100k slogs! The races are as competitive as you want to make them, with some people walking the routes leisurely and others trying to break local records.
Keep in mind that the longer routes do have cut-off times so you’ll need to train for them, especially as the routes go up and down mountains and through local families’ fields.
The Roof of Indochina
Mt. Fansipan is the highest mountain within what was once known as Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) and most people choose to hike it from Sapa. This is a challenging overnight journey that will test your will as much as the strength of your legs, but the views are unparalleled.
If you don’t feel like sleeping on the mountain at a basic base-camp or the thought of physical exercise makes you groan, no worries! Nowadays, you can make it to the summit and back down in one day.
From Sapa you can take a train from the MGallery and then cable car right to the top. The train track itself is the longest of its kind in Vietnam at a 2 km length, going through several mysterious tunnels, Muong Hoa Valley and peaceful villages.
The cable car ride itself lasts around 15 minutes, afterwards of which visitors will take between 20-30 minutes to climb 600 steps to reach the summit of Fansipan.
It might feel like cheating, but on a clear day when the views are good, you’ll hardly care. The cable car is also a great half-day activity for families wanting to explore in a slightly easier way. A ticket for the cable car and train will set you back USD35 for adults and USD26 for children.
Sit Back and Do Nothing
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