Sapa (known locally as Sa Pa) is one of Vietnam’s most famous and most northern trekking destinations. Nearby Fan Si Pan Mountain rises 3,143 meters above sea level, making it the tallest point in Vietnam. Sapa’s cooler weather (and occasional light winter snowfall) was responsible for drawing the French to establish the area as a popular hill station in the early 1920’s. The French were of course alongside local H’Mong and Dao tribes who have lived off the land for centuries.
Sapa travel is a journey through time and space compared to the rest of Vietnam: stunning rice terraces appearing on what would otherwise be described as cliffs, comparatively frigid winter temperatures, the distinct dialect of the hill tribes, traditional batik handicrafts and a magical overnight train to get there. The list of what makes Sapa travel unique is almost endless. If it weren’t for the hotel construction boom and growing number of tourist buses you might not even know you’re in Vietnam.
Though many say the best part of Sapa is getting out of Sapa town and exploring the region’s valleys and trekking routes (agreed), The Hill Station Boutique Hotel serves as an enviable central point from which travelers to Sapa may start or finish their adventures. Invariably, over five days in the area some of my best memories were connected to The Hill Station and its growing roster of restaurants, cooking classes and accommodation.
To ensure others can take their travel to new heights, I’m sharing the six best things from my Sapa travel experience, as well as some simple tips to reduce stress during your trip. You’ll soon discover there is more than just trekking on offer in this memorable destination.
Sapa Travel: Top 6 List
1. Trek With The Best
Sapa travel centers around trekking the gorgeous mountainous landscape. Several tour operators in the region offer a range of one day to week long trekking adventures, with your choice of hotel or local homestay accommodation. If you’re not a planner, it is possible to simply show up and informally arrange a hike with a local unlicensed guide the morning of. Local women congregate by the bus stop and walk the streets in the early morning pretty much accosting tourists for this very purpose. However, for those who favor planning, and the certainty of a larger organization, Sapa Sisters Trekking Adventures and Ethos are the two leading tour operators in town. Both have unique stories behind them as ethical social enterprises.
Sapa Sisters is entirely run and owned by local women, who have developed quite the business empire. Each trip is private and the itinerary is developed in consultation with the guests at the start of the tour. Single day hikes are $41 USD/pp, while two day/one night inclusive of all meals and homestay is just $90 USD/pp for solo travelers. Notable discounts are applied as the number of people in your group increases, so consider making friends on the train ride up from Hanoi. Beyond treks, Sapa Sisters also book market tours, transport into and out of Sapa and accommodation for customers. Their easy to use online booking system has no added fees.
I booked my trek with Sapa Sisters and had a wonderful experience with Mai Giang, my spirited nearly 18 year old guide. Despite measuring less than five feet tall, she could surpass me by leaps and bounds along the trekking route. She also knew more about world geography and Australian politics than any other traveller I’ve ever met in Vietnam – including the Aussies.
Your trekking experience, like mine, may commonly entail a route down the valley, across the river, through the bamboo forest and visits to nearby villages. The combination is sure to be your own unique adventure. The weather will have a considerable impact on your journey, with possible fog and rain, so be prepared and stay positive. You may be able to capture brilliant rice terrace photos such as the one above. Or you may be stuck in a literal cloud for days. Planning the right time of year for your Sapa travel, as well as having a bit of luck will make the difference. For more on considering the seasons and timing of your trip, check out Departful’s Vietnam Travel Guide.
While trekking it’s also important to note that local women will often follow your group and offer assistance crossing rivers or carrying belongings in an effort to sell you souvenirs (most often purses and bracelets) or earn a tip. If you are not interested in buying, it’s best to be firm at the start and basically send them away instead of doing so after 6km of hiking together. The tribal women who are such hard working sellers are also pretty good hustlers when it comes to tourists. If you want to take a photo of their impressive traditional outfits expect to be asked for $1. For a few dollars more they will happily dress you in a traditional outfit to take a few group shots. Ultimately, you will be approached several times in Sapa and even on your trek to buy goods. However, you can also tell your guide if you really prefer to be left alone and they can help to manage the situation respectfully.
2. Join A Local Cooking Class
Participating in a cooking class is a great way to get a local taste of wherever you venture. This certainly holds true for Sapa travel as well. The Hill Station Signature Restaurant offers cooking classes that are just as informative as they are mouthwatering. The half-day experience starts with a morning tour of the local market which includes purchasing a few ingredients for the dishes. Everything is lead by the Signature Restaurant’s H’Mong head chef who is full of local insight and stories. The $29 USD/pp class offers an impressive 5+ dishes including smoked buffalo with pickled vegetables, ash baked trout wrapped in banana leaf, homemade tofu, and banana leaf salad. My personal favourite, the fried chicken with ginger, could easily be life changing for fellow foodies. Top it all off with a complimentary flight of local rice wine plus great views and you’re set. The dishes were unlike anything I had eaten in my previous five months around Vietnam. Preparing the ingredients is done in a very clean, yet relaxed social atmosphere. Overall the cooking class certainly lived up to the high expectations I had, and was a nice break from trekking.
Note, while the menu can be modified for various diets and preferences, I don’t think a vegetarian would enjoy the class and dishes nearly as much as I did.
3. Eat Well
Sapa is a tourist town. As such it’s got a surprising range of food on offer ranging from French inspired high-end dining to some downright exceptional local cuisine. While I always try my hand (or tongue) at the local specialties, I admittedly fell in love with a not-so-Vietnamese bistro that serves amazing wine, craft beer, charcuterie and burgers. Hill Station Deli & Boutique has a 2-for-1 happy hour from 4 to 6pm that includes great French house wine and Pasture Street Craft Beer for 120k and 90k VND respectively. Bargain! The Station Burger is a crowd pleaser, as is the wide range of meats and cheeses that are served in generous platters alongside bread, nuts, preserves and candle lighting. Everything that makes me happy when I have a spell of missing home. They also serve the healthiest granola breakfast and best cappuccinos I’ve come across in all of my Vietnamese travels.
The sister property and host of the aforementioned cooking class, Hill Station Signature Restaurant, leads high-end dinner options in town. A locally inspired tapas menu and remarkable views over the adjacent valley are well worth the elevated price. House specialties include local trout wrapped in bamboo leaf, traditional H’Mong pork confit and stir fried susu with garlic. My fave, the house smoked buffalo with Muong Khuong chili and lime is like beef jerky on steroids. They also sell a range of flavoured rice wines, a staple souvenir item when it comes to Sapa travel.
If you’re in the mood for local, and don’t mind a wait, Little Sapa Restaurant is a winner. Located in the heart of the town, popularity (thanks to coverage in Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor) means there is often a queue for dinner. The generous portions of the Vietnamese hot pot, grilled venison, spring rolls, roast duck and honey, and basically anything else on the menu are definitely worth the wait.
If you’re looking for happy hour bliss as opposed to food, walking to the southwest edge of town along Fansipan Road is a great idea. In addition to coming upon the Hill Station Signature Restaurant (which also has the same 2-for-1 specials on wine and craft beer that the Deli & Bistro offers) you’ll also reach Color Bar and Cafe In The Clouds. The former offers casual bamboo and wooden surroundings to enjoy 2-for-1 mixed drinks and cheap beer from 4 to 6pm. I’m a fan of the modest but comfy patio for people watching as groups return from treks and local women hustle the streets peddling their wares. Less than 100 meters further down the road is Cafe In The Clouds, along with one of the most stunning views you’ll find in Sapa and managed by a lively woman who has a penchant for Canadians (as her daughter hopes to study there). Grab a beer and a seat on the rooftop patio. It’s simple. It’s cheap. It’s home to jaw dropping views. It’s a winner.
4. Treat Your Aching Muscles At The Spa
I’ll admit, I’m a ‘spa’ person. I typically enjoy a good massage in each country I visit. Sapa isn’t necessarily home to five star luxury spa facilities, but it does have a few impressive entries. Once more, after a few days of trekking through the steep valleys and sleeping on the thin mattresses of homestays, you’ve certainly earned a good massage.
Sapa La Belle Spa within the Sapa Legend Hotel ranks #1 on Tripadvisor and though prices are on the high end versus some of the other outfits in town, you get what you pay for, and more. For around 460k VND treat yourself to a private steam bath and 60 minute aromatherapy or Swedish massage. They also offer a range of traditional Vietnamese treatments. It’s always worth paying more for true relaxation. You’ll enjoy clean linens, well trained staff, gentle music and bowls filled with rose pedals below you on the massage table.
Another option for tired trekkers during their Sapa travel is a visit to the Red Dao Village for a traditional herbal bath. 190k VND allows you to soak in a private room overlooking the beautiful mountains (potentially completely covered in fog). Worth the visit if you are trekking through this area, but perhaps a bit too much effort and money if you’re taking the 40 minute 350k VND return taxi ride from Sapa town.
5. Enjoy A Beer Alongside Sapa Lake
It’s simple, cheap and, on a sunny day mid-week, a lovely peaceful way to pass the time. Grab a beer from a local convenience store, or the shed/restaurant located at the western edge of the lake for 20k VND. There are plenty of benches to relax and enjoy a drink or two. During evenings you can even opt for the kitschy, but fun, swan boat rental from the aforementioned establishment. Rest assured the ride is a relaxing one, as the “lake” is no more than 350 meters long by 100 meters wide. The path around the lake also makes for a great 1km long running track if you are so inclined.
6. Sleep Well
There is quite a range of accommodation options in Sapa, from traditional hotels to pretty rustic homestays. Keep in mind that many do not have heating so things can be quite chilly December through February, with some hotels resorting to electric blankets during this period. Weekends are also very busy periods, attracting local Vietnamese travelers. Accommodation during this time can sell out. I don’t recommend risking a night in the cold, so be sure to book ahead as you plan your Sapa travel versus showing up in town looking for a place to stay, particularly during Vietnamese holidays.
If staying true to a local experience is your goal, and your budget is tight, consider staying 1km outside of town at Black H’Mong View Hotel. Standard double rooms are $15-20 USD and views are lovely. The hotel is able to arrange transport to and from town if you’re not a fan of making the journey on foot, particularly at night.
A comfy mattress is one of the things that I’m always willing to ‘splurge’ on. The Hill Station Boutique Hotel, comprised of just three rooms situated above the Hill Station Signature Restaurant is just that. For $79 USD/night, you’re treated to one of the most splendid beds in Sapa, a rain shower water head, along with unobstructed views of the valley and tasty breakfast served at the Hill Station Bistro & Deli. For great food, overall value and feeling ‘luxe’ without breaking the bank, it’s a hands down winner. Its location near the edge of Sapa’s main town is also great for proximity to various other dining, shopping and bar options.
If you have a larger group of travelers who wish to stay together, the Aira Boutique Sapa Hotel & Spa is highly rated. Expect to pay $80-110 USD/night for standard rooms and $110-165USD/night for suites. At those prices it’s a bit difficult to justify the costs, no matter how lovely the amenities. For those really in the mood to splurge and get out of Sapa, the Topas Ecolodge, located 18km from town is a stunning option. 25 mountain bungalows, a restaurant, newly opened spa and complimentary mountain bike rental await you. Two night / three day packages start at $273 USD/pp. Your camera will thank you. Your wallet may not.
Disclosure, while I was a guest of The Hill Station Signature Boutique Hotel, the opinions expressed are entirely my own.
More Vietnam Travel Articles
Has the idea of Sapa travel inspired you to visit Vietnam? Be sure to check out more of Departful’s helpful articles on the region before you go: