For most visitors to this iconic destination in Vietnam, a Sa Pa trip must include a trek. This is indeed the highlight of any Sa Pa travel plan and the natural beauty of the region is best explored that way. I, however, did not trek in Sa Pa nor visit any of the ethnic minority villages and yet, had an awesome time in this beautiful north Vietnam hill station. There’s a lot to do and see here and if you are a big fan of slow travel like me, then this Sa Pa travel guide is for you. Read on to find out how to enjoy Sa Pa without trekking.
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How to reach Sa Pa from Hanoi
Sa Pa is well connected with Hanoi by road and railway. Since there is no airport in Sapa, you can opt for either a train, bus or car ride.
The train is the most popular means of transportation for reaching Sa Pa. It is quite comfortable, moderately priced, and usually requires an overnight journey. It takes about 9 hours to reach Sa Pa from Hanoi and the night train saves a lot of time while enabling you to reach your destination well-rested. There are plenty of ways to buy train tickets in Hanoi. Getting it booked by your hostel/hostel travel desk is the easiest option. One might get an idea of the cost, train timings, and other details from them. Most travelers choose between Sapaly or Fansipan Express to travel to Sa Pa from Hanoi. Please note that this journey is operated by Vietnam Railways as well as eight private railway companies, including Fansipan Express, King Express, Orient Express, Sapaly Express, Chapa Express, Livitrans Express, Violette Trains, and Victoria Express. Book your tickets early in summer months as Sa Pa is a popular hill station. Most experienced travelers suggest buying a return ticket as well since Sa Pa is around an hour’s drive from Lao Cai train station. It is important to be well aware of Lao Cai Sa Pa bus timings and ticket prices beforehand to avoid getting scammed at the railway junction. Most Hanoi tour operators have someone waiting at the train station to guide their travelers to the proper bus. there is also a public bus to Sapa, which runs frequently starting at 5:20 AM and is very cheap. The official bus stop is just across the street from the train station. The public buses are red and yellow, parked in the bus station. Be prepared with a motion sickness pill since the winding one hour drive to Sa Pa from Lao Cai can make you queasy. Check out this website for more information.
If you want to reach Sa Pa more quickly, at the cheapest cost, and without the hassle of changing in Lao Cai (which a train journey requires), then the bus is your best bet. With the opening of the Noi Bai–Lao Cai expressway, the travel time is only 6 hours. The journey, however, is not for those who have motion sickness. Be prepared to feel motion-sick from bumpy, winding roads and reckless driving. Having said this, it is commonly believed that the bus service is both convenient and efficient. There are multiple sleeper bus and van services for Sa Pa available in the morning, afternoon and night, and since the passengers are picked up in central Hanoi and dropped directly at their hotel in Sapa, the entire process is pretty effortless. Once again, it is recommended to buy the bus tickets either at your hotel/hostel travel desk or at any travel agency in the Hanoi Old Quarter. This way you can discuss the quality, services, and price of the ride before buying your ticket. The amenities offered by the bus depends on the price and it may come with wifi, outlets, water and snacks, toilet, etc. Some buses even come with an in-car tour guide. Experienced travelers suggest a day bus since the journey is extremely photogenic. Check here for more information on schedule, prices, and other details.
Other means of transportation
Renting a car with a driver, on a rental motor-bike, or a limousine van are other options of reaching Sa Pa from Hanoi. Biking to Sa Pa is advisable for hard-core riders only and this is an extreme challenge owing to not well-maintained machines, diluted fuel, rash drivers, and lack of proper emergency services in place.
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Getting around Sa Pa
Sa Pa is easily navigable on a rental motorbike. It can come with/without a driver. An experienced guide is a real treasure in Sa Pa and in that regard I got lucky twice. My guides were not only careful drivers but locals who took pride in showing me the lovely villages and rice paddies of Sa Pa.
Best time to visit Sa Pa
The best time to visit Sa Pa is from March to May and from September to November. The weather being quite stable and sunny, the views are priceless. During these times, the days are warm and the nights are cool. It is the perfect trekking weather. Mornings and nights can be quite chilly, so light woolens are advised. Mists can roll in anytime and there can be unexpected rain showers. Keep a cheap plastic rain cover handy at all times in Sa Pa. Spring sees a lot of local tourists and blooming of the hill cherry blossoms. Autumn is the best season since views of the golden ripe terraced rice fields are stunning. The average temperature in Sa Pa is 15 degrees. July and August are the wettest months. Winter in Sa Pa is quite cold and lasts from December to February.
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Accommodations in Sa Pa
Sa Pa being a very popular destination, there are plenty of fancy hotels and eco-lodges to simple hostels and homestays. The accommodations in Sa Pa city offer more amenities and comfort. On the treks, the options get as basic as possible.
Sa Pa town orientation
Sa Pa town has a north-south orientation. The chief landmark is the old church sitting just above the town square’. The road along the south of the church is Phan Xuan Huan and it has lots of market stalls selling everything from food to bric a brac. Phan Xuan Huan leads to cheap hotels and guesthouses. Cau May is the main thoroughfare for foreign tourists. It is lined with restaurants serving Western food. There are two ATM’s near the Cau May, which accept foreign cards. The Thac Bac road also has a few restaurants and cafes aiming at foreign tourists. It eventually leads to Lai Chau which is a border town with China. Foreigners are not permitted beyond it. The Fansipan road (also spelled as Fanxipan) leads to Cat Cat village. There is a very lovely waterfall there. In Sa Pa town, you will find plenty of Hmong ladies peddling trinkets, handicrafts, and souvenirs. Though business-oriented, they are friendly folks, speak good English, and can double up as an excellent local guide. They even offer homestays and local village tours. Make sure to find out if the offered homestay is legitimate or not, since ignoring this may lead to considerable problems. In Sa Pa town, there are plenty of motorbike drivers if you prefer not to explore the region on a bike by yourself. It is best to discuss your interests before starting with a tour.
Sa Pa local dishes
For those who love trying out exotic local dishes, then in Sa Pa, they should not miss tasting Lon Cap Nach, Com Lam, and Thang Co. Lon Cap Nach is a traditional grilled pork dish. The name literally translates as “grabbing the pig by the arm.” It is supposedly made from a special variety of pig, which is left to graze in the wild and is only caught for slaughter once it weighs above 10 kgs. The act of catching the pig in the wild renders the name Lon Cap Nach (pig grabbed by the arm). Com Lam is a side dish made of sticky rice that is filled into Neohouzeaua (a local bamboo variety) and cooked over a fire. This gives the rice a wonderful smoky bamboo aroma. Thang Co is a local bone broth which is made from many parts of a horse. Ingredients include bones, meat, blood, and offals. Fragrant and flavourful, this hearty soup is very popular among the Vietnamese. Food lovers should stop by at a local wet market in Sa Pa to experience a wonderful variety of exotic herbs, vegetables, and fruits. It is a very photogenic place.
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Things to do in Sa Pa
There are loads of great things to see and do in Sa Pa. Mentioned below are only a handful of the most popular activities.
1. Trek to the local villages
Trekking to some of the nearby local villages is a very popular activity in Sa Pa. There is a choice of day or a multi-day trek. The day treks, though very pretty are less culturally immersive and does not access to remote villages or areas of Sa Pa. The multi-days treks are physically demanding, have basic accommodation options, and have access to the loveliest and remotest of Sa Pa’s villages. Note it is illegal to stay overnight in villages that are not officially recognized as homestays. Ignoring this may cause significant problems. To avoid this, make sure to ask how legitimate your host is or go through a reputed local agency. The surrounding areas of Sa Pa are now part of Hoang Lien National Park and all the villages that are permitted to be visited have admission fees. Most treks pass through extremely muddy, slippery surfaces, especially after rain. Gumboots are recommended and your guide can suggest stores to buy or rent protective footwear. For someone like me, who gave trekking in Sa Pa amiss, the Cat Cat Village is a nice, but touristy place to visit to see the farming methods of the Hmong farmers and production of their beautiful handmade textiles.
2. Stop by the Sa Pa Ethno-Cultural Museum
This wonderful little museum showcases the different costumes, traditions, and cultures of the various hill tribes.
3. Hike up Fansipan, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia
Fansipan rises to 3,143 meters. It is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. Hiking to the top is challenging, but sweeping views of the beautiful countryside of Sa Pa are simply priceless. Alternatively, you can opt for the cable car up and enjoy the scenic view from its window. Head out on a clear morning for this particular activity since fog often covers the stunning landscape like a thick blanket.
4. Visit the lively Sa Pa Market
Stop by Sa Pa Market to experience a slice of the local life. The wet markets have stalls selling fresh, local produce, many of which may seem quite exotic to a foreigner. You can also purchase local handicrafts from the hill tribe ladies who peddle their wares there.
5. Enjoy the stunning views from Heaven’s Gate
Located near the Thac Bac Waterfall, the Heaven’s Gate viewpoint offers some of the prettiest sights of Sa Pa. The valley plunges in gorgeous green ribbons and the mountains stretch away into the horizon.
What to buy in Sa Pa
For its small size, Sa Pa in Vietnam offers a surprisingly wide variety of things to buy. The most popular things to buy in Sa Pa are a scarf/bag/skirt made with the unique Sa Pa brocade, traditional silver jewelry, and local fruits. One can even try the locally brewed Docynia indicia wine which is made from the fruits of the Docynia indica tree. The best places to shop in Sa Pa are Sa Pa market and Sa Pa Love Market, Bac Ha market in Lao Cai province, and the Muong Hum market.
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