This post was last updated on February 21st, 2020 at 10:28 am
Sapa is a destination in Vietnam that you must see as a traveler. Besides the beautiful Ha Long Bay rock formations, it is one of those natural wonders in northern Vietnam. Endless views of majestic rice terraces, the Hmong way of life and their agricultural techniques are the main attractions of this area.
Isn’t Sapa extremely touristy? Yes, there are indeed hordes of tourists and the pushy sellers in town are not always pleasant. Do you have to be concerned about this? No, absolutely not. Those who want to deviate from the beaten track have plenty of choice in the valleys around the city.
There are plenty of hiking options where you meet few other travelers. And if you are looking for a unique stay in an attractive homestay, this is the place for you.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Sapa is from March to May and from September to November. In those months the weather is relatively stable with sunny days and cool nights. The first period is the fall. At this time of the year the weather is very good for tourism. It is dry, with a lot of sunshine. In the months of December to February it can cool down considerably in the evening (even to the freezing point!).
The view of the rice terraces is the best between September and October. The cool and dry weather with the stable temperature makes it the perfect time for the treks and photos.
In the summer, Sapa is a popular destination for the Vietnamese themselves, which can hamper the authentic and original experience of the city. The high season often falls between June and August. It can get quite hot in the summer but because of Sapa’s location in the mountains it will be cooler in the evening.
September is the harvest season in the north, so you should be in the north just before this month. The rice terraces are lush and green in the months of June to August, but you also have more chance of rain.
The Harvest Season
The rice fields turn beautifully golden yellow during the harvest season. This is the most special time to visit Sapa. It is difficult to plan well, but usually the harvest season is from mid-September to mid-October.
Location in North Vietnam
Sapa is located at an altitude of 1500 meters in northwestern Vietnam, almost on the border with China. The town is surrounded by beautiful valleys such as Ta Van, Lao Chai, Ban Ho and Giang Ta Chai. All perfect for a long trek and a lot less touristy than the city itself. Slightly west of the city is Vietnam’s highest point in the shape of Mount Fansipan with a height of 3143 meters.
As can be expected from such a mountainous area, the weather is very difficult to predict.
We left our scooters in Hanoi to go to Sapa using the night train. This would save us a lot of time and in addition, various locals advised against driving there ourselves. The train ride to Lao Cai, where you can catch the bus to Sapa, was already beautiful. We woke up the next day with a view of the mist-covered rice fields. We really felt like we were in paradise.
Beautiful or Too Crowded?
Sapa has become enormously popular in recent years. The locals benefit from the economic boost in the form of electricity and good infrastructure, but the charm that the village once had is declining. The locals such as the Hmong and Yao people have turned into “world-class” traders who try to sell everything.
Don’t worry, even though Sapa may no longer be the romantic village it once was; the surroundings with the impressive rice terraces and dazzling valleys are of unparalleled beauty.
As soon as you drive around Sapa with your scooter, you will immediately see why this region is so crowded! This region of Vietnam is considered the most beautiful in the entire country. The rice fields, the gently flowing river, the locals in the mountains, it leaves an amazing impression.
Best Things to Do
The area around Sapa is the main reason that travelers come here. Most travelers do a trek here or rent a scooter to explore the area. There are several mountain tours you can do where you stay with the real mountain tribes and walk through this beautiful area for days. So there is a lot to do. Because many people do not stay in the area for weeks, it is important to know what you want to see in Sapa. We will list some of the best-known and beautiful sights of Sapa and activities in the region.
1. Climb (or visit) Mount Fansipan
In Sapa, you will find beautiful and high mountains. A spectacular tour is one to the top of Mount Fansipan. With 3,143 meters it is the highest mountain in Vietnam. The mountain can be climbed all year round. The summit is 19 kilometers from Sapa. Climbing to the summit is not recommended in bad weather.
Fansipan Mountain is also known as the roof of Indochina and is almost always the first choice of travelers for a trek. In addition, it offers a spectacular view of the mountains, waterfalls, and rice fields.
- Since 2016 there is a cable car to the top of Fansipan. Instead of walking for 2 days you can get there in 15 minutes.
- Since 2018 you can take the Muong Hoa mountain train from Sapa to the Fansipan cable car. The train runs through different tunnels, crosses a viaduct and offers a view of the beautiful nature of the Muong Hoa valley and the villages.
Book a Tour
Book a tour between October and March and you will make the journey of a lifetime, together with a guide. With a three to six day excursion (you can also do less) you will walk through small villages and dense forest paths full of beautiful mountain passes.
2. Admire the Most Beautiful Rice Terraces
Sapa is famous for its unspoiled, impressive rice terraces that are scattered on the hills. It’s not surprising that it is considered one of the most beautiful landscapes in Vietnam. Locals grow their rice here and settle around the rice fields, at the foot of the mountains. The rice terraces seem to come straight from a travel brochure and we are sure that you will be standing there with your mouth open for the first 5 minutes looking at all the beauty that you see.
They are not considered rice fields, but rice terraces as you will find in Banaue in the Philippines. The terraces are located in beautiful valleys with a local house here and there, a Vietnamese person who does his/her work and the occasional stream to supply the terraces with water.
Which rice terraces are the best?
The most beautiful rice terraces can be found in the Muong Hoa Valley, which is seen as one of the most beautiful and impressive places in Asia. But you don’t necessarily have to go to this valley. It is best to rent a scooter, book a hiking trip, go for a homestay, or just walk around. Everywhere you go you will see beautiful rice terraces. One even more beautiful than the other.
Rent a Scooter
The best way to explore the area is by renting a scooter. You will have much more freedom than with an organized tour. Renting a scooter will cost between $9 and $11 a day.
TIP – The best time to visit the rice terraces is between June and August. This is the rainy season so expect a lot of rain. However, the rice terraces will be at their greenest.
3. Drive Through the Tram Ton Pass
The rice fields are beautiful, but the Tram Ton Pass is perhaps even more beautiful. It is one of our favorite places in Vietnam. The Tram Ton Pass is easy to reach by scooter or car. The view here is phenomenal!
It is 15 kilometers from Sapa and at 1,500 meters it is the highest mountain pass in Vietnam, higher than the Hai Van Pass. A ride on the scooter on the Tram Ton Pass is without a doubt the most beautiful moped ride in Vietnam Along the way you also come across the Thac Bac waterfall!
This mountain pass is also called the Heaven’s Gate, and we can see where they’re coming from. The impressive landscape that you encounter here is really beautiful. The Tram Ton Pass is located on the road between Sapa and Lai Chau. From the high points, you have an unobstructed view of the beautiful Fansipan on one side of the valley and huge forests on the other side of the valley.
TIP – The mountain pass is not hard to find. Just follow the signs Lai Chau and you will drive right through it! Renting a scooter will cost between $9 and $11 a day.
4. Hiking Through the Region
Hiking tours can be booked anywhere in Sapa ranging from a few hours to a few days. The most famous route here is the six-day North West Loop. We recommend booking a hiking trip with local guides because they know a lot about the mountain villages and region. In addition, try picking a hiking trip of at least a few days.
If you book a trip, ask where you are going. There are several places you can visit and although most tours do the same places you can also walk alternative routes that are less crowded. If you do not have enough time for a multi-day hike, try at least a day tour!
TIP – Well-known day tours are the Nam Cang Trek or Sapa Off the Beaten Track. Expect around $65 per person per day.
5. Book a Homestay
A homestay is THE way to discover Sapa and everything that Sapa has to offer. If you are looking for a fantastic experience and discover the customs, traditions, and practices of some ethnic minorities in Sapa, this is the way to go.
It is the ultimate cultural experience where you will stay with a local family. You eat and sleep in their home and learn about their lifestyles in this rural, picturesque environment. Of course, there is a guide that can tell you more and often serves as an interpreter.
You can walk from Sapa to a local village where the Hmong people live. The trip there is already impressive because you leave the tourist Sapa and really pull into the mountains where you cross rivers, see people at work, and walk through green valleys and rice terraces.
6. Watch the Sunset
Sapa is not only famous for the beauty of large mountains, green forests, waterfalls or the green rice terraces, but also for the beautiful sunrise or sunset that you can see here. Especially in the morning, when the rice terraces are still under a thick layer of fog, it is very impressive. It is one of the most beautiful moments in Sapa that you should not miss.
It doesn’t really matter where you are when the sun sets or rises, but the most beautiful place is, of course, on or around a rice terrace. Check with your hotel for the best place to watch the sun go down or to see it rise. Getting up early will be rewarded!
7. Visit One of the Local Villages
In Sapa, you will find many villages that you can visit. It is interesting to see how the locals live and work. There are a few but the two best known are Cat Cat and Ta Phin Village. Both can be visited on your own.
Cat Cat Village
The closest village is Cat Cat Village, a 30-minute walk from Sapa. Because it is so close, it is also the most crowded with tourists. Yet in Cat Cat Village you can still see how the locals live and work and what their lifestyle is. It is a typical Hmong village.
Ta Phin Village
Ta Phin Village is approximately 17 kilometers from Sapa. Ta Phin is home to Red Dao locals who still have a rich culture that has not been affected by modern life. They live on things they make themselves like weaving. The Ta Phin Cave is also nearby.
TIP – You can easily walk to Cat Cat Village. We recommend renting a scooter to go to Ta Phin Village.
8. Souvenir Shops in Sapa’s Markets
If you go to Sapa, you cannot miss the markets. It is a place that you must see. There are a few markets such as Coc Ly, Bac Ha, and Can Cau. Various products are sold such as food, jewelry, rugs, clothes, etc. Many of the traditional tribes come here to sell their self-made things. You will immediately recognize the locals by their colorful traditional clothes.
Muong Khuong Sunday Market
Muong Khuong is a village about 90 km from Sapa. The Muong Khuong Sunday Market is the largest market in the area. Visiting the market is a great opportunity to experience the traditional culture and lifestyle of ethnic minorities. In addition, the market is much less busy than the one in Sapa.
TIP – The Sapa market is no longer held in the center but in a new building at the bus stop. Not that atmospheric, but still fun. Saturday is the busiest day.
9. Visit the Thac Bac Waterfall (Silver Falls)
The Thac Bac Waterfall a.k.a. the Silver Falls is fairly easy to visit because it is located next to the National Highway. Not to be missed. It is approximately 12 kilometers from the center of Sapa. It is best to visit the Silver Falls with a scooter. It lies on the route to Lao Cai, on the famous Tram Ton Pass. It is approximately a 30-minute drive.
The breathtaking scenery of the 100-meter high waterfall is beautiful to see. The waterfall is in a beautiful area with where you will also find stalls where you can buy souvenirs from locals, such as rings, hats, purses, embroidered towels, wine, medicinal plants, and herbal teas.
10. Sapa Trekking; Explore the Muong Hoa Valley
About 8 kilometers from Sapa, you can find the famous and eye-catching Muong Hoa Valley. It is the best place to spot rice terraces and the trek to it or through the valley is a must-see during your trip through Sapa. The Muong Hoa Valley has everything you can expect from a valley. Flowing streams, green mountains, grazing bison, large forests, rice terraces, and here and there a lost house.
The Muong Hoa Valley is a beautiful region with the most rice terraces in the Sapa region. There are many hikes to book in the valley. It is about a 3 to 5-hour walk down to see the first panoramic view of the rice terraces that are made by the Muong Hoa River. This is one of the most popular treks in Sapa. We highly recommend it!
Visit Sapa on Your Own
You can also easily visit the valley yourself. It is not to be missed, also because you are probably not the only one who wants to visit this valley. The easiest way is to rent a scooter and drive to the valley. There you will find a place to park and on foot, you can explore parts of the valley. You can, of course, also book a tour in Sapa.
TIP – Trekking with a tour from Sapa will cost you around US$55 per person.
11. Visit the Notre Dame
A great landmark in the heart of the city. The church was built by the French and still attracts many visitors every Sunday. In terms of architectural style, there are more beautiful churches in Vietnam, but nevertheless it certainly adds something to the appearance of the city.
12. Take a Look at the Sapa Museum
At the museum there’s a nice exebition of the history and local minorities (tribes) of the area around Sapa, including the colonial era of the French.
13. The Bac Ha market
The town of Bac Ha is the scene every weekend for an authentic market where the minorities come to sell their wares. Due to its location about 100 kilometers from Sapa, you will not find many other tourists here, which could benefit the experience. If you want to spend the night here, expect very simple accommodations without any luxury.
The town itself is very nicely situated between the mountains and also offers some possibilities for a trek in the area.
14. Ham Rong (Dragon Mouth) Mountain
Ham Rong mountain lies directly against Sapa and you can easily walk there from the city. The mountain has beautiful flower and orchard gardens in the right season and offers a great view of the surroundings.
15. Visit the Love waterfall
The Love waterfall is a beautiful waterfall 12 kilometers outside of Sapa. The drive to the waterfall is perhaps the most beautiful, with great views of the rice fields.
16. Sapa Church
The stone church of Sapa is located in the center of the city and was built by the French. It’s not possible to miss this iconic landmark, you will definitely spot it.
A large number of ethnic minorities live in and around Sapa. Seeing how these groups live here with your own eyes is very interesting and produces beautiful photos. In addition to the Vietnamese you will find groups such as H’mong, Dao, Tay, Giay, Muong, Thai, Hoa and Xa Pho.
A small number of them live in the city itself, but the majority live in the valleys and mountains in the area. With agriculture as the largest source of income. In addition to agriculture, traditional handicraft is an important sector. The women make beautiful traditional clothes, blankets and rugs to sell mainly to tourists.
Poverty is a problem among minorities. Many children have to help maintain their families and you regularly see children who want to sell souvenirs to tourists. The government advises against buying from children. The other side of the story is that the schools often lack the most important facilities, which does not really improve the chances of a better life.
How to Get to Sapa
From Hanoi, you can go to Sapa by bus or train. Real adventurers can also ride a motorbike/scooter to this beautiful place.
From Hanoi to Sapa by Scooter/Motorbike
The distance from Hanoi to Sapa is around 380 kilometers. Make no mistake, it’s a tough road. Most people put their scooter on the train to Lao Cai and cover the last part through the mountains on the scooter.
From Hanoi to Sapa by Train
There are no direct trains to Sapa. The train runs to Lao Cai. Book the train on time or reserve places because it can get quite busy, especially in the high season. You can buy tickets at the Railway Booking Office. Trains run from Hanoi to Lao Cai between 6:10 am and 10 pm (night train). Prices range from 110,000 Dong (US$4.75) for a hard seat to 290,000 Dong (US$12.50) for a soft sleeper. We recommend the soft sleeper because it is a long journey!
From Hanoi to Sapa by Bus
The bus is a widely used option. There are nine buses a day that make the nine-hour journey. A bus ticket costs around 155,000 Dong (US$6.60) and buses depart from the long-distance bus station.
Book Bus or Train Tickets Online
Nowadays, it is possible to buy your bus or train ticket online via the website 12GoAsia. Book them in advance if you travel in the high season because it can get quite busy. Making a reservation doesn’t hurt.
Hotel, Hostel & Homestay Guide
Sapa is a popular tourist city in Vietnam, so you don’t have to worry about accommodations. In general, there is always availability, even on public holidays and with flexible prices, depending on the quality level.
To help you pick the right area for your stay we’ve made an overview of all the best hotspots in Sapa.
Firstly, the area near the lake. If you want to save money, you should stay here. The roads around the lake are called Xuan Vien, Le Hong Phong, Ngu Chi Son and Pham Kim Dong.
Cau May – Muong Hoa Street
The most popular area for hotels is on Cau May – Muong Hoa Street. Here you will find hostels, hotels and resorts. The area has great views of the mountains in the area (Fansipan & Hoang Lien Son) which makes the hotels here a bit more expensive.
Center of Sapa
The third choice is to stay in the center of Sapa, right at the park and the square, with many options of quality hotels. This area has everything from cheap to expensive hotels. If you are looking for a hotel in this area, you can search for these street names: Thach Son, Xuan Vien, Hoang Dieu, Thac Bac and Ham Rong.
Homestays are a great experience for those who like to learn more about the culture of the local hill tribes.
Best Homestays in Sapa
- La Beauté Sa Pa – US$12 a night
- Sapa Dao Homestay – US$15 a night
- Sapa Orange Homestay – US$15 a night
- Eco Hills Homestay – US$45 a night
- H’mong Stilt House – US$10 a night
Best Hostels in Sapa
- Tavan Hostel 2 – US$8 a night
- HeLLo Sapa Hostel – US$20 a night
- Lustig Hostel – US$20 a night
- May Nui Sa Pa Hostel – US$10 a night
- Tuong Mai Hostel – US$16 a night
Best Hotels in Sapa
- Heart of Sapa Hotel – US$22 a night
- Phoenix Sapa Hotel – US$30 a night
- Botanic Sapa Hotel – US$30 a night
- Sapa Dragon Hotel – US$40 a night
- Sapa Garden Hotel – US$50 a night
Akisoto’s Hotel Picks
Here are two hotels that we stayed at and where we had a great experience:
- Cat Cat View Hotel – This hotel offers beautiful mountain views and is very affordable!
- Victoria Sapa Resort – If you are looking for luxury you have to stay here. One of the nicest resorts in the area. Also has a great spa.
Sapa has ATMs everywhere. You can exchange dollars or euros at many travel agencies or even hotels.
Food and Drinks
Like most tourist cities, the restaurant scene in Sapa is more quantity than quality. If you eat along the main tourist streets of Phan Xi Phang and Mau Cay, you are likely to pay prices comparable to the more expensive local eateries in downtown Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi for menus of Vietnamese food, pizza, pasta, and burgers.
There are many Vietnamese restaurants along the church towards the lake area. Some of them are very good. Try the specialties of the local hill tribes, often with wild mushrooms, herbs and local fish.
Famous regional dishes are glutinous rice in bamboo, Thang Co (a horse meat based soup) and Tao Meo wine (a strong fruit wine). You can also see whole pigs on a spit in many places. This dish is called thit heo cap nach. The pigs with skin are roasted over a charcoal fire.
This is, of course, why you come here. A trek through the valleys around Sapa is a highlight of any trip through Vietnam. If you are coming from Hanoi, you have probably noticed that every travel agency and hotel offers treks. Making a choice can be difficult.
You can organize a trek yourself. After arrival in Sapa city you will be approached everywhere by local guides who will gladly take you on a trek. They can be intrusive so make sure you have already arranged something if you find this annoying.
If you only have one day, a guide is not really necessary. You can actually trek to the nearby Cat Cat village yourself but know that if you want to get off the beaten track you will really have to go out for several days. Expect around 5 hours of walking time per day.
Some More Tips for Trekking in Sapa
Don’t be a Mule
Your large luggage is usually taken to the homestay/hotel for you, so you don’t have to worry about that. As for a small backpack, we would not take too much. You usually just walk for 5 hours so water and some food is probably the only thing that is really needed.
Wear Good Shoes
You can go off the beaten track during a trek. Sometimes when it rains it is very muddy so shoes with a good profile are necessary. Also bring a pair of slippers for the homestay / hotel.
Protect Yourself Against the Sun
You are high in the mountains and the sun is very strong here. Good sunscreen and a hat are a must. Even on cloudy days you can still get burned.