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Sapa travel guide

Sapa Introduction

| 08 Nov 2016
Last updated 08 Nov 2016

Set amidst spectacular, misty mountains, covered in rice terraces, Sapa is the centre of tourism in this uniquely beautiful region, on Vietnam’s border with China.

Sapa Travel tips

* Sapa town is developing way too fast and the impact is starting to show, with noise, congestion and a dramatic loss of character in the town.
* Get out of town, even on foot, and the mountain walks and village life are in most cases, holding up surprisingly well. There are still memorable experiences to be had all around Sapa.
* A new cable car and mega-development at the top of Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in Vietnam, encapsulates the problem.  Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent building a grandiose tourism extravaganza, while those below live as they have for centuries. Sapa is being stretched to its limits and local minorities seem to be at the wrong end of most development.
* Avoid weekends - the crowds that descend fill the hotels and restaurants. But Sapa is still worth the effort.
* Sapa can now also be a gateway to other less busy mountain wonders such as Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau, and Ha Giang.
* Head 1km out of town to the new market and support the Hmong and Red Dzao women selling their handcrafted textiles. They’re hidden away upstairs - well worth the effort.

Travelling in Sapa

While the town may be showing the strains of breakneck, chaotic tourism development, you don’t have to travel far, for a sense of the breathtaking landscapes and the incredible ethnic diversity that have made Sapa a favourite place for travellers.

Ethnic minorities, mainly Black Hmong, have inhabited this part of Vietnam for centuries. They originate from southern China.

Check out our Sapa videos above.

The Hmong are still the biggest ethnic group in the area, despite a big influx of ethnic Vietnamese (known and Kinh) on the back of the tourism boom.

French colonial forces passed through the area around Sapa in the late nineteenth century, securing control of the far northern frontier of their newly acquired colony. Settlement came decades later in the early twentieth century, and the town became a popular escape from Hanoi’s sticky summer heat. By the 1930s, Sapa was a classic, colonial hillstation, boasting an impressive collection of villas and a hospice.

Despite its remote serenity, Sapa saw plenty of twentieth century conflict. Over assorted wars, most of the original buildings were destroyed by the Viet Minh, the French, or the Chinese. Almost everything still standing when peace descended was cleaned up by hotel developers during the past two decades. The quaint church at the top of town managed to survive as did a handful of other buildings.

Sapa is still easy to get around on foot. Everything is close by. But motorcycles, cars and buses increasingly clog the streets. And concrete-intense hotel developments reach ever deeper into the rice terraced valleys.

Sapa is one of the most popular trekking areas in Vietnam. You can choose your adventure level and duration. There are magnificent walks for all fitness levels, some running over many days. For the less mobile, many spectacular spots can be accessed by car.

If you’re thinking of conquering Fansipan though, the newly opened cable car (2016), might have taken away some of the romance.

Sapa’s weather can be highly unpredictable so pack for all eventualities. It can be bitter cold in winter and recent years have seen hitherto unusual snowfalls in December. Summer days can be very hot with cool nights. Heavy mist and rain have dampened many a stay.

Even in bleak weather though, Sapa is well worth the journey.

Road improvements mean that buses between Sapa and Hanoi usually  only take around 6 hours. The allure of the train remains - but there’s now a very viable alternative. Try and spend two days exploring the surrounding countryside. The mountain walks and fresh air will likely be a refreshing contrast to Vietnam’s other travel offerings.


Sapa weather

Sapa experiences four very distinct seasons and the winters (December to February) are cold and misty with low visibility (top temps around 13 - 15 degrees and lows under 10 degrees). There have even been snow falls in recent years.

The most popular times for travel are spring (March to May) and autumn (September  - November). I also enjoy the wet season months between June and August (highs in mid 20s).

Nights are always cool to cold so definitely bring a jacket.

Sapa can be misty and damp any time of year - that’s part of its beauty.