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18 Things to Know about Sapa Before you Go | Vietnam

Things to know before you go sapa, things to do sapa vietnam, what to do sapa vietnam, trekking sapa vietnam, sapa travel guide

18 Things to Know Before you Go to Sapa, Vietnam

There will always be places that get under your skin.  Places that you’ll remember and feel like some day you’d like to return. Sapa Valley is one of those places for me.

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 hilltribe 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.

Here’s 18 Things to Know about Sapa Before you Go:

Things to Know About Sapa Before you Go, sapa attractions, travelling sapa, trekking tour sapa

Things to Know about Sapa: Entering Sapa town, you’ll be greeted by a gorgeous lake town

sapa town

Sapa Town is walkable

1. Getting to Sapa

There’s two ways to get to Sapa- by over night 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.

getting to sapa, bus to sapa

Getting to Sapa: Sapa Bus Station

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!

cat cat hotel sapa valley

Three beds for only one person– Me! I took the queen-sized bed;

view from my hotel in Sapa, Sapa hotels, where to stay

view from my hotel in Sapa

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. 

Touts are a problem in Sapa

5. Hire a trekking guide

If you haven’t guessed by reading my Vietnam posts, Sapa Valley is known for its hilltribes and trekking. The hilltribe minorities make up the majority of trekking guides in Sapa. Afterall, they’re showing you their backyard. In this case, it’s best to hire directly through a hilltribe agency group in Sapa versus your hotel or a Vietnamese trekking agency, as the hilltribe 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)

shopping in sapa, hilltribes in sapa, what to do in sapa, sapa attractions

Red Dzao Hill tribespeople shopping in local Sapa markets

6. Trekking to villages 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.

Herbs sold at Sapa market, sapa attractions, things to buy in sapa

Herbs sold at Sapa market

Sapa Market, Sapa attractions, things to do in Sapa, things to know before you go to sapa

Things to Know about Sapa:  Sapa Market

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 Dzao. There, they sell bags and apparel of genuine quality and pride. The style and outfits that the Hmong wear are stylish for a hilltribe. 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

D Phan Si Road Sapa Vietnam, what to do in sapa, things to know before you go Sapa

D Phan Si Road

shopping in sapa, what to do in sapa, things to know before you go sapa

Co-op shop run by hilltribes people

Sapa Market

Sapa Market

Leh. I bought a belt from her and a vest like the one she’s wearing.

9. Shopping at Sapa Square

hilltribes sapa, shopping in sapa, things to know before you go sapa,

Sapa town’s Main Square: A 5 minute walk to the Main Square, you’ll find hill tribe vendors with crafts ranging from bags, wallets and pillow covers.

things to do in sapa, sapa square, hilltribes in sapa, things to know before you go, sapa

hilltribes sapa vietnam

10. Beware, the dye on the crafts run

You might notice how many older Hmong women have blue-stained hands.  It’s from the indigo dye they use in their fabric work.  Although the Hmong make beautifully-colored crafts; the dye in them is not quite set and must be cured before wearing or using.

Tip:  If you buy these products, you must:   1)   keep them separate from your clothes and   2)   set the dye before you wear/use any of them (usually several washes with vinegar and salt should help, but it will take time for the dye to seal itself in the fabric)

black hmong tribespeople, hilltribes sapa vietnam, sapa shopping, hmong dye fabrics, travel tips sapa

Black Hmong elders in their traditional clothes

The elder woman in the middle shows me the hemp string they use to stitch their crafts with. Notice how her fingertips are stained blue?

Why? The moment it gets wet, the ink will stain whatever it touches. Take warning from my travel friend, David (below), a Parisian with a great sense of humor. He wore one of the Hmong belts as a bandana on our trek and proved that indigo dye theory correct.

David’s bandana mark after several scrubbings.

11. Cat Cat Village trek

The trek to Cat Cat Village is one that requires a permit from the Tourist Information Center before entering the checkin station. It’s a leisurely stroll (about 20-30 minutes) down a sloping hill and follows a cobblestone path through the village and down to a waterfall. If you’re so inclined, you can take a short trek from the base winding back up to the top. The village is picturesque but at instant glance is constructed largely for tourists. The Hmong homes residing there are set up as souvenir shops that tourists peruse. 

Read Trekking a Touristy Cat Cat Village

Cat Cat Village Trek review, Cat Cat Village Trek

Cat Cat Village Trek

12.  Massages are cheap

Thailand isn’t the only country to hold copyright on cheap massages. You can find them in Vietnam too and Sapa has a few salon and massage parlors for you to try.  Foot and body massages can be gotten for around $6 /hour and the Vietnamese are experts at making your feet and body feel like it has wings! It’s easy to get addicted.

cheap massages Vietnam, Sapa massage, Sapa trekking tour

Sapa town has massage parlors for those tired feet

 

13.  P.Cau May road is the main drag

As main road that runs through the heart of town, P Cau May houses international restaurants, cafes, clothes, massage and souvenir shops.

sapa town, things to know before you go sapa

Sapa town

14. Sapa Radio Tower : the best view in town

It’s said to be the easiest hike in Sapa. Getting to the Sapa Radio Tower has a 360 degree view, which is said to be priceless.

15. Bring or buy poncho

It rains and around winter time (November to February) it can get very cold.  If you don’t have one, you can always buy them at a local trekking shop in Sapa.

trekking in Sapa

I bought a poncho from my local trekking shop in Sapa

16. Bring trekking shoes or rent rubber boots

During winter time, it can rain a lot and the paths are muddy. If you’re trekking, you’ll want good shoes. Some paths can be narrow and with the mud, very slippery. Good trekking shoots will give you traction.

More Trekking Tips for Sapa.

17. Trekking clothes shops, no problem!

There’s a good handful of shops which sell trekking clothes from shoes to ponchos, backpacks and apparel. Some will be knock-off shops selling counterfeit brands such as NorthFace.

Recommended Essentials for Vietnam .  Click to Shop.

18. 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!

A triple decker cucumber and cheese sandwich.Yum!

Next up… Cat Cat Village & Sapa Market

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58 Comments

  1. Maggie says:

    Just for further info there is a local red and yellow bus from the Lao Cai bus station to Sapa. Mini busses and taxis are expensive but the local bus is just 30.000. if you arrive by sleeping bus this fare should be included in your ticket from Hanoi or Halong but if there is confusion just pay it as it’s cheap anyway.

    Also you can walk from sapa to the cable car it is less than 3km but is uphill. If you have a medium level of fitness you’ll be fine. No guide or taxi required.

  2. Paul C. says:

    Great info here, thanks!

    Question: Is motorbiking up and down the Sapa mountainside in April/May too dangerous (I’ve done it, but minimally)? The Lonely Planet tour book seems to think it is kind of ominous. I rented a motorbike in Hoi An last Spring and was perfectly comfortable. Then again, that was a pretty flat place.

    I don’t mind hiring a guide, but if I’d like to consider a mix of guided tours and solo exploration.

    Thoughts?

    • Maggie says:

      I’m here at the moment, lots of Westerners getting around on bikes but the roads are really bad and potholed from what I’ve seen so far. Make up your mind when you get here, there are plenty of willing bike owners to take you around and they are used to the road conditions.

  3. Gail T. says:

    hi.. thanks so much for this helpful information.. Question: I have a month total (january) and ‘m flying in and out of Hanoi..Do you have any tip as to whether I do Sapa Tour at beginning or end of my visit..? The far end of my journey will be Angkor Watt in Cambodia… was thinking I’d fly down there and work my way back South to North. Thanks!!

  4. Jeffrey says:

    Great post! I will be visiting Sa Pa this weekend, so thanks for the advise. Just wanna comment on the post, you should have put a picture from Sapa radio tower. You mentioned about it having “the best view”, but it is like the only thing that has no picture. heh.

  5. StephanieA says:

    Sapa is wonderful. A trekking is definitely a must! But i agree, the locals harrassing you to buy from them and their children was very very annoying. It made me not walk through town too much.
    x

  6. Backpacker Luke says:

    Tour guides get ripped off if you do it through an agency in Hanoi. Ours was paid 80,000 VND for one day, which equates to 1% of the total amount our group paid!

    The best way of ensuring that the locals get the money is to book directly with them where possible. I know one woman called Xuthao Xuthao (she’s on Facebook) who is looking to set up her own homestay business, if people try to contact her she’ll be able to advise the best options 🙂

  7. Morgan says:

    Very informative and useful postings indeed.

  8. chaulongsapa says:

    it a great information, thanks for your post !

  9. Cheng.KW says:

    Great posto. ThanKS for the helpful info.

  10. ashleigh says:

    hi Christine, thanks for the post!
    would like to ask if most of the villagers at Sapa understand a little English?
    I am thinking of doing a photojournal project, but I can’t converse in Vietnamese…

  11. aircon says:

    awesome post! 🙂

  12. quintvietnam says:

    Cat Cat Village is so beautiful.

  13. Thanks for sharing your experience in Sapa. We will be travelling with our 10yo son this March. Hope we can cope with the trek 🙂

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Karen: Try to book your trek on a non-rainy day. What may make the trek with a child difficult is if it gets muddy.

  14. I only scrolled the pics, I didn’t read the articles, but what caught my eye (and I could be wrong), some of the clothing reminded me of Mongolia.

  15. Ken Norris says:

    I am going to Vietnam in May for a month can you give me any suggestions? I am not going to Sapa, but from the pictures I should make a trip?

  16. Dals says:

    Really helpful review! I plan to go to Sapa in mid-May as a solo female traveler and you’ve given me a lot of things to think about. I plan to only stay overnight since Sapa will only be a side trip before I fly back home and I’m suddenly unsure if that’s enough time. Thanks!

  17. estanley1 says:

    Just want to say that this is an amazing post and very much appreciated. Very well written and has left me feeling even more excited for my trip next week 🙂 My partner and I will be travelling to Sapa from Hanoi. Would you advise taking the train and then a taxi to Sapa? or is there a better option in your view?

  18. Mika says:

    Thanks ! Great article. I am planning my Solo Sapa trip for Mid October. I am currently in Thailand. In terms of hiking gear, how is it priced? Should I wait till I get there, or hunt around Bangkok for trekking items? Love your Blog!

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Mika: I’m not sure Bangkok has easy to find trekking shops, because its urban. I don’t remember the prices in Sapa and not a good judge because Southeast Asia is much cheaper than the U.S. all around (esp hiking gear), but obviously trekking is the thing to do in Sapa, so their trekking shops are more equipped for their weather conditions.

    • Rasa says:

      Here is many shops that sell hiking equipment and it’s really cheap! Winter jackets 12-20 USD and trekking shoes/joggers 15USD. Most of the hiking shops are located on Cầu Mây (main shopping/restaurants street of Sapa). Many shops/hostels/guesthouses even offer hiring shoes/backpacks ect.

  19. Rich says:

    Great tips. I myself made the mistake of saying “maybe” and being followed endlessly. Very good to warn others about this. Here was my experience in Sapa and the Black Hmong

  20. transient20s says:

    Sadly, I didn’t get to read this before I came to Sapa, and I am currently in Sapa. But, this is such a great guide for the Sapa- newbie! I agree with you that Sapa is truly special, and a place that will stay with me forever. I love this because it really prepares you for all the good, and shows you a glance into the ‘uncomfortable side’ of traveling in Sapa.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Phoebe: I like that you mentioned ‘uncomfortable side’. It’s not a dramatic negative and it certainly doesn’t take away from how special Sapa is. Enjoy Sapa! How long?

      • transient20s says:

        Christine,

        I was supposed to stay for three days, but am on day 6! I absolutely love this place now that the sun is shining. It truly is an amazing place that digs deep under your skin! <3 Love your stuff.

        Phoebe

  21. Judy says:

    Hi! Thank you for the informative blog! Is it hard for a solo traveler to go to Sapa in terms of financial aspect? I’m planning my solo trip but I’m a bit scared of ripping off my wallet. haha! 😀 It will also be my first time to ride an overnight train? How was it?

  22. Vanessa Low says:

    Very informative article! I’ll be going to Sapa in April, just wondering if you booked the home stay at the Sapa Valley or through your hotel? Thank you!

  23. aussie277777 says:

    Thanks so much for the post! Great things to keep in mind. I’ll be going in feb (winter) and was wondering if its still worth it over the freezing cold, and fog.
    But if i was, I would love to do home stay tours, and treks out of the touristy sapa cat cat villages, but I’m not sure how.
    A question about the markets, how much can i expect to pay for small ethnic made hmong bags, clothes, or medium, and tribal silver jewellery? I think the hmong bags, clothes can be bought outside sapa, bac ha – is that correct? – is it much more expensive have you noticed?
    Love your blog, its really helping me plan my trip.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      Hi @Alice! Glad this post was helpful to you, please share it! There’s tons tour agents willing to sell you trekking tours when you get into Vietnam- read my post on finding good budget tours in Vietnam for who I went with. As for hmong items- there’s *so* many hmong and Dao sellers trying to sell things, you can haggle. Vietnam is pretty inexpensive; they’re pennies compared to a western store. With the clothing or material though, it’s best to cure the cloth first due and not wash it with anything else. Some of the dye will come off.

  24. Awesome tips, Christine! This comprehensive list has basically all the advice I need when I make it to Sapa someday. Thanks!

  25. I thought that was so cool

  26. Dana Carmel says:

    Vietnam is one of the countries that’s at the top of my Asia wishlist. I’ve never read anything about the Sapa region, so your post is definitely inspiring a visit. And lol at your friend’s blue head – poor guy!

  27. Elaine says:

    19. It can actually snow in Vietnam in Sapa … not every year, but it did last year. Bring warm clothes in the winter!

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      Thanks for sharing @Elaine. I knew it got cold, especially at night. But didn’t know about the snow! =)

  28. Ryan says:

    Wonderful post, Christine! I’ve been hearing so much negative press about Vietnam lately, it’s becoming less of a priority to visit—Sapa really does seem lovely though! How bad would you say the touts and scams are there (compared to other countries or to the bigger cities)? Do you think they are really as much of an annoyance as many people make it out to seem?

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Ryan: Imagine a minority group, whose sole source of income are tourists and that town is a corner, with only one way in and one way out. They wait for travelers coming out of their hotels and if you’re soft-hearted, forget it. You need to use a strong NO with them. Sapa was huge on touts, but I avoided them and the backdrop/trekking is one of my favorite travel memories. With the bigger cities in Vietnam, I’d be cautious of scams and small thefts. The counterfeiting of agencies is a Vietnamese thing. But it was still worth seeing the main attractions, taking budget (budget like *less* than a DIY trip) tours and those crazy Vietnamese motorcyclists who pack their bikes with stuff. Vietnam has its own distinct features and while Sapa was the only place which really drew me, I’m glad to experience it all the rest of it.

  29. All good pointers and all experiences I had when I was in Sapa. Funny thing is, Sapa is one of the only places in the world that I never want to go back too. I didn’t like the atmosphere, or the restrictive permits for walking, I’m also not fond of shopping and felt harassed mostly, and the sleeper bus was awful haha!

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Charlie: Oooh, I haven’t tried that sleeper bus but I remember reading some not-so-tempting things. I can see how there may be aspects which turn you off… the tout action can be a huge turnoff.

  30. kow says:

    Got lots of great info from your blog. It’s great. Am thinking of traveling there this Nov with my 9-year old. Appreciate if you can comment if it is safe. Thks. Kitty.

    • @Kitty: Thanks- glad you got something out of it.=-) Vietnam seems to be a well-traveled country, much like Thailand, but in friendliness, more like NYC. I saw some families there and lots of couples. Unless you go way off the beaten path, you can’t avoid crossing the path of other tourists and this was probably, for me, one of the more disappointing aspects. But hence, why there are also a LOT of budget tours. Vietnam on the whole, seemed pretty safe ; as a solo female traveler, I had no problem going around by myself, even at night. But they do have a theft problem, which I’ll eventually touch upon in my upcoming blogs. No physical violence but you HAVE to pay attention to your belongings and “be street smart”. Stuff like money & cameras held out in plain sight or loosely may tempt a snatching if you’re not paying attention. When I was there, I came across at least 4 incidences of theft or purse/wallet snatching. I wouldn’t let that stop you from going with your son or for that to kill the fun. Just know that’s a vulnerability of Vietnam and be proactive about it. I’ll eventually try to list some tips that got me through fine.

      • @Kitty: BTW– Just realized you posted this on my Sapa blog. Sapa was actually my highlight of Vietnam and I definitely would recommend it to others! It’s smaller, so the theft wasn’t high like it was in the larger cities. The minority tribes will cluster around you to get you to buy something, but they’re pretty safe.

  31. Laura in Cancun says:

    Sapa is GORGEOUS!!

    I really love the Cat Cat and its view 🙂

  32. Poor Dave and his stained head. Blue is the worst too. It never comes out of anything. You are funny, Grrrl.

    • @Chance: He had a good sense of humor; he said if nothing else, he’d give the village people a good laugh for the day! Fellow travelers can be such a hoot– you never know what they’ll say or do. One thing you can expect, someone’s bound to stumble, fumble or add to your travel story! ha ha…

  33. Papa says:

    Your pictures are great. They tell the whole story with little need for captions. It looks like postcards. P.S. you need Mommy to look at these.

    • @ Papa: Thanks. Glad you got my postcards, cause I’ve been horrible about sending them now that we have internet and all. I’m glad you can share part of my journey!
      @Laura: Sapa was the highlight of my trip. Fresh air, mountains, mellow vibe… It was very calming and simply wonderful.

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