Sapa, Vietnam | Through Traipses and Stitches
After several months of traveling through the sweat-drenching plains of Indochina, the misty town of Sapa finally brought life to the statement, “Good Morning, Vietnam”!
Thin cottons of fog hugging the French villas decked around a still lake, lazy streaks of sunlight creeping from the wings of the Himalayas and the smell of fresh highland coffee are just some of the usual pleasures that greet exhausted travelers into Sapa.
It lies about 380 kilometers northwest of Hanoi and serves as the hub of tourism and a major marketplace in the province of Lào Cai. With its vibrant tourism economics, pristine environment and colorful culture, Sapa is regarded as Vietnam’s northern frontier. Its verdant land is home to the ethnic minorities of Vietnam such as the H’mong, Dao, Giáy, Pho Lu and Tay who thrive to this day by farming, creating wonderful indigenous handicrafts, small scale trading and tourism.
As the town sits about 1,500 above sea level, Sapa enjoys cool sub-tropical summers and occasional winter snows. The French, who made Sapa its sanatorium in the early 1900s up until its withdrawal left impressive and prominent architectural styles that dominate its quaint townscape. But pushed further upland, Sapa has kept its breathtaking vistas of rice terraces, rivers, valleys and waterfalls. Today, it is the playground of the rich Vietnamese and is a popular destination among international tourists.
My journey in Sapa was a happy departure from the scorching summer heat and dizzying aggressiveness of Hanoi. Its laidback ambience amidst the misty mountain breeze, the simplicity of lifestyle and the seamless weaving of its ethnic culture into the modern world just felt like being wonderfully trapped in a time warp.
Discover the sights, sounds and feel of Vietnam’s northern frontier and experience a different yet exciting wonder of this pretty Indochine.
Trekking is the staple activity in Sapa. Guests are led into several ethnic minority villages to see their homes and their ways of life. It takes you on long hours of uphill walk traversing through fantastic terraces of rice paddies, rivers, ethnic villages and waterfalls.
Local women and children who belong to the Black H’mong tribe guide the trek. Don in their usual hand-loomed black dress, they lead tourists into their villages in Cat Cat, Lao Chai and Ta Van on the Moung Hoa Valley and to the communes of their neighbor, the Red Daos in Ta Phin.
|The Black H’mong people dominates the valleys of Sapa.|
|The Red Daos.|
Note: Along the way you will meet more ethnic locals who will persistently sell you souvenirs. They, most of the time join you in the trek in the hope of you buying their stuff in the pit stops. If you are not interested to buy, tell them outright so they will not follow you.
|Cat Cat Waterfalls in Cat Cat Village|
|Silver Waterfall (about 12 kms away from downtown Sapa, best taken on a motorbike)|
Waterfalls abound in Sapa as much as there are rice terraces. The Silver Waterfall in Thác Bac is the most celebrated waterfall in Sapa. Cascading at 100 meters from its crevice, this waterfall glistens like melting silver under the Vietnamese sun. Tien Sa Waterfall in Cat Cat Village, albeit small is the most visited and the most accessible yet never short of charm.
MOTORBIKE RIDE THROUGH TRAM TON PASS
Most tourists in Sapa are missing one of the most beautiful sceneries of Vietnam, the Tram Ton Pass. Rising to about 1,900 meters on a winding road carved on mountainsides, Tram Ton is hailed as the Gates to Heaven.
|The Gates of Heaven, Tram Ton Pass|
|Fan Si Pan Mountain, the highest in Indochina|
Snake your way up and marvel at the breathtaking view of the Hoang Lien Son mountain ranges, the extreme eastern wing of the Himalayas and was once called by the French as the Tonkinese Alps. On this range is the famous Fan Si Pan, the highest mountain in the entire Indochina at 3,143 meters.
Tram Ton Pass is the dividing road between two weather fronts. As you leave the foggy climate of Sapa, the weather changes dramatically into cold wind chills and descending into the hottest region of Vietnam, the Lai Chau province. While on lowland, don’t forget to get down from your bike and traipse on its rivers, it’s all worth the effort.
SHOPPING IN ETHNIC MARKETS
Everyday, the alleys of Sapa is a wonderland of finds as the ethnic people, usually the Black H’mongs and Red Daos show off their best indigenous handicrafts. It’s a dizzying world of kaleidoscopic colors and patterns all meticulously hand stitched into bags, blankets, blouses, pants and what have yous. Minted metals like silver and bronze into unique accessories like anklets, bracelets and necklaces are also one of their upland prides, which, craftsmanship-wise are beyond compare.
LAZINESS AND NOTHINGNESS
Traveling to a new land doesn’t mean scooping all the sights all at once. While Sapa has a lot to offer, the best thing to do still is to enjoy a lazy day of nothingness. You can take a slow walk around the lake and the amphitheater or stay still in their charming cafes. Bringing my feet up on the chair and casting those blank stares on the horizon are just some of my prized pleasures in Sapa.
Far from the usual party zones of Pham Ngu Lao in Saigon, the Old Quarter in Hanoi and the Russian-themed night outs in Nha Trang, Sapa is where everyone takes a step back to relax, to rehydrate the skin from the burning sun and to enjoy that priceless silence.
Soothing, Charming, Quiet, Sapa.
HOW TO GET THERE
- Trains leave from Tran Quy Cap, in the main station in Hanoi and stops in Lào Cai.
- A few blocks away from the train station is the bus station, which you need to change into mini-vans going farther to Sapa.
- The trip takes about 8 hours overnight which starts to leave Hanoi at 8PM, followed by 9PM & 10PM trips.
- It is highly recommended to get the soft sleeper wagons for a more comfortable journey. However, if you are on a tight budget, you may opt to get the hard bunks.
- Sleeper buses leave Hanoi every night at around 7:30PM.
- If you purchase a ticket from any of the travel agencies in Hanoi, whether it is a packaged tour or bus ticket only, they will board you on a bus that goes straight to Sapa.
- If you prefer to do it yourself, your can buy the ticket at Gia Lam Bus Station, approximately 6 kilometers from the Old Quarter, after Chuong Duong Bridge.
- From Lào Cai station, change into mini-vans for your onward trip to Sapa.
WHERE TO STAY
- Quaint French villas, hotels, inns are widely available in downtown Sapa. No need to panic for earlier bookings, unless if you come during peak season (December & Vietnamese New Year).
- Packaged tour saves you from the hassle of going through the streets looking for hotels but make sure you ask your tour operator what type of accommodation they are giving.
- You may also prefer to do the homestay up in the mountains or do a mix of hotel-homestay package.
- It is convenient to have a packaged tour arranged in Hanoi before you leave Sapa. For a 4-night, 3 days tour (inclusive of travel time), it normally costs about $90-$110 USD depending on your tour operator.
- Sinh Café abounds in Hanoi and they are usually co-located in hotels around the Old Quarter. In my personal experience, they can be trusted.
SPECIAL NOTES (MUST-READ)
- There are really no fixed prices for tours of the same kind across all tour operators. It is worthy to look for best prices around town.
- Make sure you discuss thoroughly with your tour operator the inclusions of what you paid for and what type of accommodation you will get. Ask for photos and read related reviews.
- There are no assigned bunks on the sleeper bus but normally they give the first 4 or 5 rows to Vietnamese passengers on an unwritten “reserved beds”. Always fight for your right to sleep wherever you want especially that foreign travelers pay more than the discounted tickets of the locals. Or you may make special arrangements with your tour operator for “reserved beds” but this needs a lot of charm to do. Fighting for your choice of bunk is a nightmare and in my personal experience, I needed to raise my voice a lot of times with the bus operators to get my seat.
- Scams are all around Vietnam, especially in Hanoi and Saigon. Be very careful. Should there be any part of your paid tour that was not delivered, return to your tour operator and demand for a refund.
- During stopover (around 12 midnight), you will take a 30-minute break in a filthy and smelly store managed by extremely rude people. It is better to bring your own food than be shouted at in a language you do not understand.
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