Located 1500m above sea level, Sapa is a former French hill station nestled in the rugged Tonkinese Alps on the slopes of a spectacular lush valley of cascading rice paddy fields. Here, farmers in conical hats plough the fields with water buffalo and local ethnic minority groups (such as H'mong and Dzao) maintain their age-old traditions, including their own languages and intricately embroidered traditional clothing. Sapa is full of colour thanks to these local tribes people who head into town each day to trade at the local markets with their bright clothing and wonderful range of handicrafts. For shopping Sapa is a delight with a multitude of minority groups producing beautiful jewellery, clothing, accessories and souvenirs.Read More
Tourism has had an inevitable impact on this charming little town and the local tribes people have become savvy traders accompanying trekkers on their hikes in the hope of selling a few handmade wares. The tourism boom in Sapa has brought with it new restaurants and boutique accommodation springing up across the hillside, all vying for the best views of the valley, which means more choice for visitors using the town as a base for trekking.
Sapa is an overnight train journey north west from Hanoi into the mountains near the Chinese border. Cooler than the city, Sapa is ideal for hiking in pristine scenery and visiting the ethnic minority villages. Depending on your fitness level you can arrange anything from gentle walks to challenging hikes. Popular excursions from Sapa include treks to picturesque local villages such as Cat Cat, Red Dhoa and Ta Phin. Spectacular scenery is guaranteed on any trek in the area.
Best sites to visit in Sapa
Sapa Radio TowerView on map
There's no shortage of impressive views in Sapa but the panoramic vistas from the Sapa Radio Tower win hands down for those after an easy trek. On a clear day you'll be blessed with views of the town and the surrounding valley while at other times you'll witness dramatic skies as the heavy clouds roll across Sapa. The Radio Tower can be reached by following the designated steps leading from town. Admission fees apply (approximately USD $1).
Sapa Stone ChurchView on map
Located downtown with the Ham Rong mountain providing an attractive backdrop, the Stone Church in Sapa is worthy of a visit. The architecture of the church, also referred to as the Holy Rosary Church, is Roman Gothic in style with a distinctive triangular rooftop and narrow arches. Built by the French in the 20th century, the church also features a 20m-tall belfry which contains a large bell measuring 1.5 metres.
Sapa Culture MuseumView on map
This small museum in Sapa town provides an interesting insight into the culture and traditions of the local ethnic minorities with displays of handicrafts and historical artifacts including photos of Sapa back when it was a French hill station. Located behind the Tourist Centre on the first floor of an old building, entry to the museum is free and the exhibits can be covered in under an hour.
Fansipan MountainView on map
With a height of 3,143 metres, Fansipan is Vietnam's highest peak and impossible to ignore when in Sapa. Forming part of the Hoang Lien Mountains that enclose Sapa, the summit is accessible throughout the year but it's far from an easy hike - the changeable weather means clouds obscure the peak at any moment and bring rains that make the trails treacherously wet. The round-trip trek takes 3 days and requires the services of porters and a guide as there are no facilities along the trail.
Recommended things to do in and around Sapa
Trekking to Local VillagesView on map
Sapa is primarily a trekking destination with plenty of opportunities to visit local minority villages on day hikes or longer 2-3 day treks with nights spent in local homestays. One of the closest options is the village of Cat Cat, which is a 3km scenic hike from Sapa with a steep descent offering beautiful views. The 10km trek to the Red Dzao village of Ta Phin Village is equally as impressive, passing a number of other villages on the way. Overnight options include the H'mong village of Sin Chai and the Giay community of Ta Van.
Tram Ton PassView on map
Situated between Sapa and Lai Chau on the northern side of Fansipan peak, the Tram Ton Pass is the highest mountain pass in Vietnam and as a result offers some of the best views in the area - on a clear day that is. However, rainy weather does not necessarily mean a lack of views as the pass sits where two weather fronts meet, which often brings fog and rain on the Sapa side and sunnier, warmer conditions further down on the Lai Chau side. It's a particular good spot for sunset as the waning light dips below the forested ridge.
Love WaterfallView on map
The mountainous region of northern Vietnam is home to numerous waterfalls and one of the most popular is the Love Waterfall, located in in San Sa Ho Commune 4km northwest of Sapa. Deriving its name from a local legend that tells of a forbidden love between a forest fairy and young villager, water pores over a 100m-high rocky wall into a stream below. It's an easy walk to the waterfall along a paved track with lovely surrounding scenery.
Massage and SpaView on map
If, like most visitors to northern Vietnam, you're planning on spending a few days trekking then there's no better way to end a trek than with a relaxing massage and there's a number of good options in and around Sapa. The most luxurious is the Victoria Spa with state-of-the-art facilities and an extensive massage menu while the Red Dao Spa in Ta Phin village offers a more rustic experience with herbal baths in wooden tubs offering views of the surrounding rice terraces.
Eating out in Sapa
The Hill StationView on map
Located in the heart of Sapa town, the recent addition of The Hill Station has added a touch of the gourmet to the local dining scene. Set across two small floors the Signature Restaurant serves innovative dishes inspired by local flavours and ingredients with a deli that stocks a wide selection of cheeses, charcuterie and wine, inspired by Vietnam's French colonial heritage. The stylish decor provides a welcoming atmosphere with good hillside views.
Nature ViewView on map
With great valley views and a good selection of popular Vietnamese and European dishes, Nature View is a reliable dining option in Sapa. The fruit smoothies are some of the best in town and the tofu dishes are good enough to win over even the most avid of carnivores. The set menus are reasonably priced and the service is friendly and efficient with a log fire that is just perfect on a cold, foggy, wet day in Sapa.
Baguette & ChocolatView on map
Set in an elegant converted villa just a few minutes from the central market and Stone Church, the Baguette & Chocolat cafe is a fabulous place to pick up delicious tartines and baguettes as well as homemade cakes. The coffee comes highly recommended and all meal times are catered for with breakfast, lunch and dinner options available from salads and pasta to more traditional Vietnamese dishes. The cafe is part of the Hoa Sua training school which teaches job skills to disadvantaged youth, making that slice of chocolate tart slightly less guilt-inflicting.
Little Sapa RestaurantView on map
On the main drag is the unassuming Little Sapa restaurant, a great option for those looking for authentic Vietnamese food at reasonable prices. Breakfast dishes include omelettes, baguettes and fresh fruit juice while spring rolls, soups and tasty BBQ pork feature on the lunch and dinner menus. The service is fast and friendly, and you're likely to see local shop owners frequenting the restaurant, testament to how well Little Sapa does the native cuisine without any pretensions.
Shopping in Sapa
Indigo CatView on map
A wide selection of locally made crafts are on sale at Indigo Cat, from colourful pillows to ethnic-inspired bags and clothing. It's owned by a local Hmong family who are more than happy to impart their knowledge of how the textiles are made and take great pride in the quality of items on sale. Prices are fixed with a fair trade ethos. Batik lessons and weaving workshops are often held on the premises, perfect for those interested in learning more about the processes involved in making the handicrafts.
Local MarketsView on map
On any given day of the week there's a market jostling with business somewhere in or around Sapa where visitors can pick up a wide range of local goods. On Saturday the Can Cau ethnic market is a popular choice with H’mong, Black Zao, Tay and Phu La groups coming together to trade wares. Located around 4 hours from Sapa, it's particularly of interest for photographers. For colourful local textiles head to Coc Ly market on a Tuesday while a wider range of handicrafts can be found at the Bac Ha market on a Sunday.
Transport links in Sapa
Railway ServicesView on map
The majority of visitors travel to Sapa on the overnight train from Hanoi to the town of Lao Cai, which serves as the gateway to the northern hills. The journey takes about eight hours with a further 1.5 hour transfer time to Sapa from Lao Cai. Trains do operate during the day but the night trains tend to be quicker and more comfortable with soft sleeper cabins available.
By RoadView on map
Sapa and Lao Cai are connected by a well-maintained highway with regular transfers available throughout the day. There's also a new highway that connects Sapa directly with Hanoi. The average journey time is around 6 hours with a 20 minute break along the way for refreshments.
Best Time to Visit Sapa
As Vietnam experiences distinct monsoon seasons, it's wise to time your visit to Sapa for when the rains have passed. This means the best time to visit Sapa is from March to May when there's plenty of sunshine and clear days ideal for trekking. November and December are another good time to go with moderate temperatures and little rain. The shoulder period around these months can still offer reasonable weather so should not be disregarded but June to August is best avoided with heavy rains washing out hiking trails.