Ah! I’m in love. I’ve stepped off the bus to a dozen local tribe women shouting questions at me before I could respond to any. “Shopping?” “Where you from?” “Where you go?” “Stay with me?”
We call them mamas and they are everywhere.
Sapa is a mountain-side town surrounded by terraced rice paddies, tiny local villages, and tribes. There are 6 ethnic minority tribes, all of which fill Sa Pa town by day. They try to sell their handicrafts, with vibrant colors and beautiful embroidery, and will follow you for a mile or so until they give up and say, “Later you shop. You buy from me.” The restaurants in town offer delicious mulled wine and most have cozy fireplaces for when it gets cold at night. It’s a beautiful place that reminds me of a ski-resort town, warming your soul and spirit.
Cat Cat Village
On your free day, take a wall down to Cat Cat Village and see how locals live. The village is set up for tourists with a modest entrance fee (most villages have entrance fees, about $50,000 Dong or $2.22), and you follow one path in a big circle through the village. On the way, you’ll pass women knitting and embroidering, local homes, a waterfall, and lots of pigs, dogs, and chickens running across your path.
Hamrong Mountain Park
Just behind the church, you can find a set of cobblestone steps, leading you to the top of Hamrong Mountain. With an entrance fee of only 70,000 Dong ($3.12), the park offers beautiful gardens, a nice hike, and stunning views overlooking Sa Pa and the surrounding mountains.
Just a bit north of town is the beautiful Silver Waterfall. It’s definitely worth a trip, either by motorbike or taxi.
The largest peak in IndoChina is Fansipan at 3,143 meters. From Sapa, you can arrange a one-day shortened hike to the top or 2-day or 3-day trek to the top with camping along the way.
And then the trekking. Everyone goes to Sa Pa for the incredible trekking and home stay experiences. Local tribeswomen take you 10-30 km to their villages, descending terraced rice paddies and farms. I can’t put into words how stunning Sa Pa is: the mountains and rice-paddies are incredible.
Depending on how you book, your home stay experience will differ. I’d recommend either Sapa O’Chau, a cafe and office in town that offer responsible tours, or doing research online. Many travel bloggers have inside contact information on local tribe women that offer private tours, meaning no large groups, no “tourist” version, and no middle-man: everything you pay goes straight to your guide and not an agency.
Where to Stay
Vietnam Backpacker’s Hostel, Mountain View
This hostel group knows how to do it right. They’ve got a mix of local Vietnamese and Westerners as staff, all very knowledgeable and friendly. They have a bar and restaurant with a large common area where you can snuggle up next to a fireplace. They run great tours but can be quite expensive. $6.50/night for a dorm. Breakfast included.
Green Valley Hotel
It’s a bit out of town, but a great value for accommodation. A friendly staff welcomes you right away for $5/night dorms. Rooms are clean with great queen-sized, heated beds! And there is a nice bar area with a fireplace and pool table to hang out at in the evening.
* Sapa is a MUST if you’re in Vietnam. However, plan your trip around the weather. If it’s raining, trekking will be nearly impossible as the mountains will be muddy and slippery. Get a good pair of rain boots; they’ve got the best traction and the local women all wear them. Also, because it’s in the mountains, clouds are common and can block any view of the surrounding views.