18 Things to Know about Sapa Before you Go

Last Updated on January 8, 2024 by Christine Kaaloa

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18 Things to Know Before you Go to Sapa, Vietnam | Sapa Travel Guide


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 is rich with hill tribe minorities, lush mountain ranges, rice fields and 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.

18 Things to Know about Sapa Before you Go

Sapa is a unique hill station town and feels like worlds away from standard Vietnamese lifestyles. So I created a Sapa travel guide for you to plan your Sapa trip.

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

How to get to Sapa from Hanoi? You have two options traveling to Sapa ~  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. Alternatively, you can book a 2 day Sapa hill tribe trekfrom Hanoi.  I took option but for independent travelers, you

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

How to book train tickets to Sapa

In many regards I might recommend going through a travel agent to get your tickets and there are many in every city! But just be street smart. Vietnam travel tip: One of the trickiest aspects of Vietnam is that there’s an abundance of counterfeit travel agencies.  Usually it’s just agencies trying to skim customers from more reputable agencies. Read more here.

Or you can easily book your Vietnam travel in advance here. I’ve used 12GoAsia for my Thailand trip.

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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 to Sapa are winding. 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 hotel room in Sapa can be spacious

So the thing people say about the challenges of 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.

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 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. Read more tips for dealing with scams & touts here.


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5. Hire a Sapa trekking guide

If you haven’t guessed by reading my Vietnam posts, Sapa Valley is known for its hilltribes and trekking. The hilltribe minorities- Red Dzao, D’zay, Tay and Hmong hilltribe communities- make up the majority of trekking guides in Sapa. They’re showing you their backyard and inside their homes. Sapa trekking trip jobs help employ them.

Unfortunately, these regions don’t have child labor laws and most minority tribespeople stay in the hills vs the cities.  Often, it’s the youth who know English best, so you might get a rather young guide. Mine was 15 years old. It’s ideal to hire directly through a responsible tour companies in Sapa, as the hilltribe will only get a small fraction of that money.

I did not know there were hilltribe tour agencies, so I booked an all-inclusive tour to Sapa through a Vietnamese tour agency in  Ho Chi Minh.

Here’s tour examples:

Muong Hoa Valley 2-Day Group Trek with Homestay- Muong Hoa Valley trek and stay with a Giay minority family. Forest treks in Hoang Lien National Park

Sapa Waterfalls, Trekking and Villages (Half Day Tour)– Sapa Town to visit the Silver Waterfall, Love Waterfall and Tram Ton Pass. Explore the traditional village of Ban Khoan. 4 hour trek.

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Red Dzao Hill tribespeople shopping in local Sapa markets

6. Trekking to villages requires a permit

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 Sapa trekking tour, it’s likely this is already included in your Sapa trip costs.

7.  Sapa Market is other-worldly with ethnic tribes

A walk along D Phan Si Road, merges you with Sapa Market, a small fresh market of Sapa, where Vietnamese and ethnic tribe locals sell their stock from produce, herbal remedies and meats. The part about Sapa 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
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Things to Know about Sapa:  Sapa Market

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

9. Shopping at Sapa Square

Sapa Square is a giant market where hill tribe groups turn out to sell their craft work. You’ll find culturally rich objects, clothing and jewelry.  You’ll need to wield your rockstar haggling skills, as these women are serious bargainers. But don’t haggle too much. Generally, the cost is never too high.

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

shopng 9 178

10. Beware the dye on tribe crafts and clothing

You might notice older Hmong women have blue-stained hands.  This is from the indigo dye they use in their fabric work.   Hmong crafts are beautifully colored, but the dye in them is not set and can stain your clothes or skin.

Tip:  If you buy these products:   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
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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.

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David’s bandana mark after several scrubbings.

11. Trekking Cat Cat Village

The trek to Cat Cat Village requires a permit from the Tourist Information Center. It’s a leisurely stroll (about 20-30 minutes) down a hill, lined with a cobblestone path going through the village and ending at a waterfall. The village appears idyllic, but also constructed largely for tourists. The Hmong homes residing there are set up as souvenir shops that tourists peruse. 

If you have additional energy, you can take a short trek from the base winding back up to the top.

Cat Cat Village Trek review, Cat Cat Village Trek
Cat Cat Village Trek

12.  Massages are cheap in Sapa

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 street

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 has the best view

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, Sapa rains a lot creating muddy hiking paths. 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. Buy trekking clothes knock-offs in Sapa.

Sapa houses a many shops, selling trekking clothes from shoes to ponchos, backpacks and apparel. Be aware: many items are counterfeit brands like NorthFace.

Recommended Essentials for Vietnam .  Click to Shop.
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18. Variety of Food

Sapa has a wide selection of international restaurants, cafes and street food. P Cau May road  houses many international food joints and the street perpendicular with Sapa Square houses a string of Vietnamese street food, where you sit on plastic chairs, eating on the sidewalk.

The food in Sapa bats eye-to-eye with Hanoi. The food was fresh, made with care and well-flavored.  Below is my lunch at a cafe. Fresh tomato soup made from scratch. Delicious!

SAM 0219A triple decker cucumber and cheese sandwich.Yum!

How to get Sapa bus and train tickets

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Sapa trekking tours

Check out these tour options I’ve curated from GetYourGuide:

Muong Hoa Valley 2-Day Group Trek with Homestay $38– Muong Hoa Valley trek and stay with a Giay minority family. Forest treks in Hoang Lien National Park

Sapa Waterfalls, Trekking and Villages (Half Day Tour)$60- Sapa Town to visit the Silver Waterfall, Love Waterfall and Tram Ton Pass. Explore the traditional village of Ban Khoan. 4 hour trek.

2-day Sapa town, Cat Cat village and Fansipan peak -Ideal for the traveler who is not into trekking but still wants to explore the wealth and hill tribe influence of Sapa.

2-Day Sapa Trek, Homestay, Sleeper Bus  -Best for cultural and active travelers. From Hanoi to La Cai you’ll trek along the Muong Hoa Stream and see H’mong, Dzao and Tay ethnic people. Stay at Tavan village with Dzay people in a basic home and trek through rice paddies, bamboo forest to Giang Ta Chai village. Return to Hanoi. 9km hike

To/From Hanoi: 2-Day Spectacular Sapa Town, Trekking and Bus Tour -A bit of rugged for urban travelers.  Pickup/drop off Hanoi. Visit Sapa town and stay overnight where you can explore food and sights on your own. Treks: Cat Cat Village and Y Linh Ho. 9km hike overall.

3-Day Trek Mu Cang Chai Tour  -Perfect for adventure travelers looking to extend their trek of this epic, active and panoramic region.


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