Things to know about Sapa before you travel

Published:  03:40 Thursday - December 01, 2016

Sapa is a lovely hill station town in Northern Vietnam near the Chinese border. The region as also known as “the Tonkinese Alps” and it’s culturally rich with different hill tribe minorities, lush mountain ranges, rice fields and an overall, breathtaking views! Once there, you’ll easily understand what the hype is all about. Shops selling tobacco, trekking clothes and souvenir crafts from the hill tribes will help you burn your dong, but nothing beats a good massage! The town is completely walkable but if you want to explore outside of town, it’s best to do it by motorbike if you can.

1. Getting to Sapa 

There is two ways to get to Sapa by overnight train or bus. The train from Hanoi to Lao Cai station takes around 9 hours. After arriving into Lao Cai station, you’ll need to hire a shuttle bus or taxi to Sapa town.

There are sleeper buses that you can book through your hotel from Hanoi to Sapa station. (more information on wikipedia )

2. Roads to Sapa are winding, minibus drivers can be reckless

It takes about one hour to get from Lao Cai to Sapa and the roads wind. Both coming and leaving, there was at least one passenger who got sick.  It happens. Cost for this shuttle bus is anywhere from around $2.50-$3.00.

Tip: Bring a plastic bag for emergencies.

3. A room for one can be spacious

So the thing people say about being a solo traveler and having to deal with single supplement fees?..  I finally had to deal with it. All of $3 more. On D Phan Si/Fansipan Road, I was put in the Cat Cat Hotel.  My room had a shared outdoor deck, an awesome view and I had three beds all to myself. At night, it was especially romantic with the misty mountains outlined against the night skies and… stars! Check out hotels in Sapa. 

My room was clean, I had hot water and after, my horrible hotel in HCMC, it was a definite luxury!

4. Sapa has a problem with touts

“You Buy” and “Buy from me”,  you’ll hear on the streets.  The Black Hmong women and children are everywhere, stalking tourist hotels to doggedly selling their wares. If you buy from one child, beware… you’ll tempt more children, who want you to patron their products as well.  It’s a real problem- the kids come all the way from their villages to sell souvenirs to help support their families and sometimes they sleep in the market or don’t attend school.

Tip: Never answer a tribes person with a “Maybe”, unless you mean it. They’ll follow you until you purchase something. Also, try to be socially responsible with your purchases or gifts. Gifting children with pens can encourage future begging, while giving them sweets is often bad for their teeth. 

5. Hide a trekking guide

If you haven’t guessed by reading my Vietnam posts, Sapa Valley is known for its hill tribes and trekking. The hill tribe minorities make up the majority of trekking guides in Sapa. After all, they’re showing you their backyard. In this case, it’s best to hire directly through a hill tribe agency group in Sapa versus your hotel or a Vietnamese trekking agency, as the hill tribe will only get a small fraction of that money.

However, because I didn’t know you could do this, I booked an all-inclusive tour to Sapa in Hanoi.  Read my post on How to book a budget tour in Vietnam without getting ripped off!  (more on the tours I took in Vietnam).

6. Trekking to villages to requires permits

Some villages will have pay stations at the entrance. You will need to show a permit, which is bought in advance at the tourist information center in town. If you don’t have it upon arrival, you’ll need to go back to town to buy one. If you’re with a trekking tour, it’s likely this is already covered in the fee.

7. Sapa market can be intense

A walk along D Phan Si Road, merges you with Sapa Market, a small fresh market for locals. It  isn’t any different from other local markets, selling produce, herbal remedies and meats. The part about this market that gets intense is their meat department. Freshly-killed you’ll find anything from chickens feet, horse legs, even dog. It was enough to give me culture shock with their food.

8. Shopping for Hill Tribe crafts and fabrics

The crafts of the Hmong and Red Dzao tribes are interesting souvenirs to bring back.  The Hmong have a certain flair for fashion, while the Dzao lends better to jewelry. There are two main places you can shop for their products

Above Sapa Market are a couple of co-op shops run by the Black Hmong & Red DzaoThere, they sell bags and apparel of genuine quality and pride. The style and outfits that the Hmong wear are stylish for a hill tribe. The casual Hmong wardrobe has layers such as tux-like vests and wrap-around belts, all designed with a folksy flair .  I decided to buy a Hmong vest and belt.

9. Variety of food

Sapa has a good selection of international restaurants, cafes and street food to choose from. P Cau May road  houses many international food joints, while the street perpendicular and aligning with Sapa Square strings a walkway of Vietnamese street food, where you can sit in the open on plastic chairs on the sidewalk to eat.

The food in Sapa bats eye-to-eye with Hanoi. So far, it’s the best food I’ve had my entire trip! The food was fresh, made with care and well-flavored.  Below is my lunch at a cafe. Fresh tomato soup made from scratch. Delicious!

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