Sapa. A town of luscious rice fields and diverse ethnic groups in Vietnam’s far north. Most popular for its trekking, the town itself also has a great number of interesting activities for visitors. Unfortunately, many take a flying trip to Sapa and don’t spend any time there before or after their trek. And in our opinion, they are definitely missing out! If you do have plans to visit the region, then spend a few days in Sapa itself. Here we’ve compiled a list of what to do in Sapa! Happy Reading!
Ham Rong Mountain
Ham Rong Mountain is a fantastic climb for anyone who enjoys nature and good views. Located almost in the center of the city, the mountain is surrounded by a type of botanical garden called Ham Rong Garden. It includes cafes, a Scooby Doo statue, some great rock formations and tens of paths leading to various lookouts and points of interest on the mountain.
A climb straight to the top of the mountain will take about 40 minutes and is not physically challenging. However, if you spend time exploring each pathway then you could easily end up spending hours in the park. Some of the pathways look unsused and overgrown but fear not – they do lead to interesting places and you might even bump into some local women collecting herbs in the area.
Feeling thirsty? You can also have a quick coffee at the peak which is also possible as little coffee houses are scattered all around the place. Entrance to the park costs 70,000 dong for adults and 20,000 dong for children.
Cat Cat Village
Cat Cat Village sits about 20 minutes from the centre of Sapa by foot. It is a picturesque village where residents still live a fairly conventional way of life and have even created cultural exhibitions displaying their traditional houses, handicrafts and tools to tourists.
Cat Cat IS touristy and as you walk down the stone steps and admire the rice paddies you will also pass by stall after stall of (beautiful) souvenirs and food like in any major Vietnamese city.
Despite this, Cat Cat’s beauty really struck us and the relaxed atmosphere is a huge plus. We would definitely recommend going.
How To Get There
As you walk into the centre of town with the church and square on your left, keep walking past the train station (right) and follow this road downhill for about 20 minutes.
You buy a ticket at a small booth on the right-hand side of the road for 40,000 Dong and enter the village a little further down the road on the left. There is a stone staircase that twists and turns through souvenir stalls and traditional houses, interspersed with views of buffalo, rice fields and various other crops and livestock.
After descending the steps, you will reach a river where some nice waterfalls flow. You can take selfies to your heart’s content in the giant water mills that turn peacefully in the middle of the river. Traditional dancing performances in a small hall beside the waterfall viewing point are also a nice way to pass the time. There are quite a few restaurants and cafes here so you can sit down, order a coffee and enjoy the serenity.
To head back to Sapa you can either retrace your steps or follow the “Come Back”signs that will lead you via a different route (and a rather high red suspension bridge) back to Sapa. Be mindful, the walk back to Sapa is all uphill. But the good news is that taxi drivers are normally waiting at the village exit to rescue puffing and panting tourists who want a ride back to the town.
Surrounding Sapa are several stunning villages that can be reached via a trek or via motorbike. Among the most popular are Sin Chai, Ta Van, Ta Phin and Ho Villages. Don’t be under any false illusions though. Villagers are well and truly used to tourists. Don’t expect them to be fascinated by your presence. More than likely they will see you as a potential customer and will try to sell you some of their handmade goods. While still immensely beautiful, this will not be the pure cultural immersion that you might be hoping for.
Trekking in Sapa
This one speaks for itself. Sapa is as scenic as scenic gets and its reputation as a must-do trekking experience in Vietnam is well earned. For detailed information on how to choose and book your trek and to read about our experience trekking, check out THIS POST.
For those who are too lazy to trek or just have the need for speed, many tourist and trekking agencies in Sapa offer motorbike tours. You can kick off your hiking boots and cruise along the bitumen road admiring the rice fields and villages from afar. This is a much more time-efficient way to see everything Sapa has to offer including Love Waterfall (70,000 dong entrance fee, 1 hour by motorbike), Thac Bac Waterfall (20,000 dong entrance fee, 20 minutes by motorbike) and so much more!
When you arrive in Sapa, you will find lots of companies offering motorbike tours. Decide the length and structure of your tour and negotiate the price! A popular route is the Dinh Deo Pass that leads to Heaven’s Gate. But do be careful. Sapa is full of windy, slippery roads with minimal visibility. If you are not a confident, experienced rider, then don’t attempt to ride here alone. Instead, be the passenger and let someone more capable show you the beautiful sights.
The Stone Church
Right in the heart of Sapa stands a quaint stone church, the Holy Rosary Church. It’s often half-covered by mist, as is most of Sapa. Local women in their beautiful traditional dress often congregate near this church making it a great place to soak up some culture. It often serves as the venue for local weddings. It’s not uncommon to be strolling through past the church and find yourself in the middle of a photo session.
The church was built in the early 20th century by the French. It has been an important part of local life since then, despite some interferences to its functioning connected with the presence of Japanese troops in the city. You are most welcome to attend one of the masses or take a walk through the church.
The Main Square (Quang Truong Square)
The main square in Sapa is right beside the church and could be described as a stone amphitheater. The structure itself is relatively uninteresting. What makes the place remarkable is the way it exhibits the diverse melting pot of ethnicities that is Sapa. It’s not uncommon to see youths there playing football, local Hmong, Red Dao and Zhia women selling handmade goods and teenagers gathering together and taking selfies.
There is information online about a ‘Love Market’ and traditional performances occurring on the square every Saturday. The Love Market is an informal arrangement whereby young men and women who live in remote villages and don’t often visit the town get to meet and chat with their contemporaries and potentially find love!
However, when we were there, this did not happen.
Lao Cai is a border town in Vietnam through which travellers enter China. But this isn’t the only thing worth doing here. Lao Cai is home to Coc San Cave, a network of caves and waterfalls that is described as a masterpiece of nature. You can hire a motorbike and reach these caves on your own or go with a guided tour.
Markets in Sapa
The Sapa region has some truly phenomenal markets considered some of the best in the country. Think bright traditional costumes, lots of fresh produce and all on a backdrop of green rice fields and towering mountains. While these markets aren’t in Sapa itself, they are definitely worth checking out via motorbike or car. See THIS PAGE for more information.
There is one market in Sapa proper that is also worth a visit although its much smaller and less colourful than its previously mentioned counterparts. Sapa Market is located just outside of Sapa’s centre in a multi-purpose building near the bus station. Here you can find clothes, trinkets, a host of cutting instruments (machetes, knives etc.) beautifully crafted stuffed animals, fruit and veg and, of course, some delicious snacks.
The market is half inside the building and half outside and the modest food court is in a separate room inside the building. While not much in the way of size, the market is a nice place to spend a weekend morning sipping coffee and munching on fried pastries.
Fansipan (Phan Xi Păng)
Aaah, Fansipan. The highest mountain in IndoChina. A whopping 3,143 metres high. The peak of this monster can be reached either by foot or by cable car and is considered a must-do in Sapa.
Climbing the mountain is only recommended for people of moderate fitness. It can be done both with and without a guide and can take 1-2 days. Depending on your pace, you might need to stay a night at base camp. For a detailed guide to climbing Fansipan on your own, check out this GREAT POST.
If you wish to cable car your way up to the top, you can catch a train to the base of the mountain from the center of Sapa. The cable car costs $30 one way and takes about 20 minutes. Do remember that Sapa is a misty place so your views may be hindered by this. Try to plan your trip for a day when there is good visibility.
At the summit there are cafes, restaurants and a giant Buddha presiding over things. Some say that it’s a bit tacky and has turned into a tourist trap but it’s nevertheless a truly magnificent view!
How To Get To Sapa
Sapa can be reached from Hanoi by bus and train. For more detailed information, check out our post on Trekking in Sapa HERE.
Where To Stay In Sapa
We stayed in two different places in Sapa. One before our trek and one after. The first homestay, Sapa Tatu Homestay, we can recommend thoroughly. It was clean and spacious with a beautiful view of the mountains. Although the hot water was rationed out in 2-minute bursts, we really enjoyed our stay there. It is located a 10 minute (downhill) walk from the center of Sapa and very budget-friendly.
After our trek, we decided to try a new homestay for good balance. Big mistake. We found ourselves in the worst hotel room we’ve ever been in in Asia. The place had mixed reviews and we gave them the benefit of the doubt. Fools. The room was filthy. Our bed sheets had holes burnt through them from cigarettes. The owner overcharged us (our booking was not in local currency) in Dong. There was one plus – they washed our dirty laundry (shoes included) for a great price. We do not recommend staying in Minh Anh Guesthouse.
Where To Next
From Sapa, you can head back to Hanoi to continue your journey through Vietnam. You can also continue on to Laos via Dien Bien Phu or even make your way north into China via Lao Cai. For more detailed instructions on how to enter Laos via Dien Bien Phu, check out our upcoming post! If you’re planning to head to China from Sapa, THESE GUYS have some great info.
All in all, Sapa is worth a good four or five days of your time. There are a range of things to see and experience including some of the best views in Vietnam. So, don’t limit yourself to a quick trek through the mountains. And if you’re stuck with what to do in Sapa, use this article as a gudie to get the most out of your time there.