Sapa nestled in the mesmerizing mountains of northern Vietnam is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, vibrant ethnic culture, and captivating trekking trails. As you embark on this adventure, let us pave the way with tips when travelling to Sapa to ensure you have the most remarkable experience possible.
1 – Look for local expertise, preferably an experienced guide from the Hmong or Dao ethnic groups. This will open up greater cultural opportunities and make your time in Sapa more rewarding.
Please bear in mind that all tour guides dealing with international travellers are required have a licence or work with a company who have an Inbound Tour Operator certificate. Without this, your trek will be illegal and almost certainly uninsured. Unfortunately, at this time, most freelancers are working illegally, and this comes with risks to you and your group. Avoid this by asking your guide their licence number.
2 – Choose your trek or motorbike adventure carefully. While villages like Lao Chai, Ta Van and Giang Ta Chai have developed to cater for tourists, they have begun to lose their traditional charm. If you need WiFi, a hot shower and access to bars and a pool table, then these are the villages for you. They have a backpacker feel and are good places to meet other travellers. That said, they do experience a large volume of tour groups every day. As you walk along the road towards your homestay, rice field views are often obscured by buildings constructed to cater for tourism. These are the villages people are talking about whenever they mention that Sapa is too touristic. They are not representative of the wider area and for those wanting to really experience culture, these are not the villages for you.
Likewise, Cat Cat Village is owned by a tour company and is an ideal option if you like the thought of dressing up in tribal clothes and seeing organised dances and routines with hundreds of other paying spectators. Think of this village as a an attraction rife with cultural appropriation. It has many newly built attractions, a theme park feel and is very busy, especially with Vietnamese day trippers. Because it features in many poorly written guidebooks, the village receives many unsuspecting guests hoping for authenticity. Cat Cat has been landscaped to include many sites for taking selfies with designated view points throughout. If you’re interested in nature, culture or authenticity, this place will not suit you.
Do some research and find a trek that suits your own needs. Because almost everyone goes to these few locations, it does mean that the all of the other villages are wonderfully authentic. If you want an off the beaten track adventure, away from tourists, look at organisations such as ETHOS – Spirit of the Community who offer award winning private treks and motorbike trips with experienced local guides to more remote areas. All treks and experiences are tailored to the needs of the traveller. They are heavily involved in the community and have been rated as number one on TripAdvisor for over five years. Their experiences are always in beautiful villages, well off the beaten track. Treks genuinely feel like walking with friends and there is no better way to immerse and experience the culture around Sapa, well away from all the generic tours.
3 – Ask your chosen guide / company where your money goes. In an area where 50% of the population are registered as poor, it is essential that any income from tourism spreads to more than one individual. Have a look at their literature or down their news feed on social media to gauge what they are like as individuals or as an organisation. Are they in tourism purely for profit or are they involved in community development projects like village clean ups or education for instance?
4 – Skip the well recommended but not particularly interesting Silver Waterfall. The Love Waterfall is a far more beautiful option with the added benefit of now having canyoning and abseiling as an activity. The walk to the Love Waterfall is very picturesque and the plunge pool makes a great place for a swim on a warmer day. There are lots of other falls dotted around, but these are only accessible when trekking.
5 – Be prepared for a decent hike. Sturdy walking shoes are essential. That being said, you might not always need hiking boots. Depending on recent weather conditions, paths can be slippery regardless of what you have on your feet. If required, shoe hire is available in the Sapa area. Choose a hike and difficulty level that suit your personal fitness and adventure levels. Walking in a big group will mean your guide will choose a route that the least well prepared can manage. Alternatively, you’ll end up with an unpaid entourage of local ladies hoping to help you over the slippery sections in exchange for you buying their textiles. This can be eliminated by assuring a fair distribution of wages and choosing a private trek. Groups of five or less are recommended. If you’re travelling solo, as a couple, family or with a group of friends, find something tailored for you as opposed to doing the generic.
6 – Do an overnight experience. You can opt for a day trek, and these can be very rewarding, but staying with a local family, in their village, in their home, is incredible. See how they live day to day, meet additional family members and feel like part of the village. Check out the TripAdvisor reviews for the top outdoor activities in Sapa and the homestays are very highly regarded by travellers, with good reason.
7 – Time your visit well. While Sunday plays hosts to the busiest market day, weekends see many more travellers, particularly Vietnamese from the lowlands. A typical weekend sees Sapa’s visitor numbers swell to almost ten times that of a typical week day. Hotel rooms become more expensive and the town feels much more hectic and noisy. Monday to Thursday is far quieter, more relaxed and altogether more pleasant.
8 – Consider an alternative to Mt.
Fansipan if you’re walking. Although the highest mountain in Vietnam, the cable car construction train at the summit takes away from the climb to some degree. Ascending only to find 50 others at the top taking selfies certainly spoils the ambience. Look at climbing other mountains instead. There are plenty that offer challenge, natural beauty, forests and are very rarely climbed. Examples include Bach Moc and Pu Ta Leng.
9 – The cable car is absolutely worth visiting. It used to take travellers two days of hard trekking to reach the summit. Now, you can reach the ‘Roof of Indochina’ in just 15 minutes. Jaw-dropping views of swirling clouds and forested slopes from the top of Fansipan make this adventure a must-do on any Sapa itinerary but only when the weather is clear. On a day with cloud and fog, the entrance fee seems very expensive.
10 – It’s not all about the trekking. There are experiential options for those who can’t or don’t want to trek great distances. Market tours, batik workshops, cultural experiences embroidery classes and culinary trips are also available to those who want to learn without the need to walk a lot.
Finally, it is important to know that Sapa is a huge district with a central town and 94 villages and hamlets. All tour companies offering packages from Hanoi, booked from hotels in Sapa or organised in tourism information office in Sapa offer pretty much the same few treks along the same well trodden routes. This sometimes gives the illusion of over-tourism. They sell these tours to make a profit. Their objective is to minimise costs and maximise profits. It’s copy and paste tourism that can easily be avoided by those seeking authenticity.
The great news is that you can trek almost anywhere else, stay in local homestays or walk in the 30,000 hectares of protected forest and you’ll really see the other side of Sapa. It is a place rich in wildlife and culture and it is very easy to do walks well away from places visited by tourists.
Those who have been to Sapa and say it’s too touristy either visited on a package tour and only spent time in the busy villages or travelled independently and stuck to the few villages recommended in the guide books. The town is a tourism hub akin to a European ski resort. It’s designed to be functional, but also as a place to quickly escape. Just like people base themselves in ski resorts and get out to ski or snowboard, Sapa town is the base from which people get out to trek, do motorbike trips and experience the local culture.
Food wise – don’t miss the freshly made hotpot with local vegetables. Many places also sell rainbow trout spring rolls, seasonal temperate vegetables and offer wild forest apple liquor.
Remember to check the latest travel advisories and guidelines before your trip to ensure a smooth and safe journey. Enjoy your time in Sapa!