High in Vietnam’s northwest lies the beautiful mountain town of Sapa. In the shadow of Mt Fansipan and 1,600 meters above sea level, Sapa started out as a retreat for French colonialists desperate to find respite from the heat and humidity of Hanoi and the plains of Vietnam.
Why go to Sapa
Surrounded by emerald mountain peaks, and thousands of carefully sculpted and glittering rice terraces, Sapa is known for being one of the most stunning locations in Vietnam, attracting a plethora of tourists all hoping to get a good look at the area’s panoramic views.
If you want to meet and interact with the ethnic minorities of Vietnam, Sapa is the one place where minorities readily make their presence known to foreigners. A mostly hidden population, ethnic minorities are prevalent in Sapa and its surrounding territories. The two most visible minority groups consist of the Black Hmong and Red Dao. The women of these tribes each day trek or hitch a ride on motorbikes up into Sapa town, lining the streets to sell their local trinkets.
Beyond town, tourists can hike, bike, or motor their way into the surrounding local villages, see the beauty of the region up close, and gather a better sense of what daily life is like for these ethnic minorities – with the option of spending a night or two with a local family.
When to go to Sapa
Like with Halong Bay, traveling to Sapa from about September to mid-December is ideal. Around this time the air is generally cool, dry, and clear – it’s really the best time to go if you want to take lots of pictures of the area. The only downside is that these months do get a fair amount of rain – however, it’ll just pour down for a few minutes at a time before clearing up.
Between March and May is also a pretty good time to go. The weather is perfect for trekking during these months as it will predominantly be warm and dry, but you’ll get a bit of haze and fog in the air at times. However, the air does clear up every few days to make for some great photo ops.
The winter months of late-December through February can be quite harsh. Indoor heating is not prevalent, and the temperature can get quite low in this mountainous region. On the plus side, there are few tourists in Sapa around these months, giving you a bit of peace and quiet.
The typical tourist months of June through August should really be avoided entirely. Being at the beginning of the rainy season, the weather can be quite poor. This is also the time when Vietnamese tourists flock to the territory, pushing up hotel costs and generally making an already crowded city very, very uncomfortable.
Getting To and From Sapa
With the nearest major airport to Sapa over 300 kilometers away in Hanoi, the options to getting into town are quite limited. To get there, a tourist has one of three options: hire a private car, take a sleeper bus, or take a train.
We’ll talk about the different travel options of Vietnam in another post, but it is typically the best option to stay off the road as much as possible and take the train. Private cars can be incredibly expensive for these longer distance journeys, and taking a sleeper bus can often involve subjecting yourself to several games of chicken between buses. A new freeway however has recently opened between Hanoi and Lao Cai, 40 kilometers from Sapa, sharply decreasing travel times. The journey previously took up to ten hours, these days you can get there in about four.
On trains, depending on your budget, you can either take a hard seat, soft seat, hard sleeper, or soft sleeper for the trip. Hard seats are definitely not recommended for the eight hour journey unless you have a death wish or enjoy being trapped in rigid seats, squeezed in on all sides. Soft seats on the other hand are still very budget friendly, costing about US$10. Though much better than hard seats, these are not the greatest. When we stepped on board the soft seat car on our way up to Sapa we were welcomed “to Hell” by 2 Polish men who were incredibly unhappy with the arrangement.
To be fair, soft seaters are a wonderful option for shorter train rides and those during the day, but when you’re trying to sleep on an overnight train, being squashed into a seat with no leg room and nowhere to safely stow your bags is hardly the best way to go.
Soft seats are however, preferable to hard sleepers. In a hard sleeper, you are squeezed into a cabin with five other people, three bunk beds on either side of the cabin. They are so tightly compacted that you are unable to sit up straight in any of the beds.
Soft sleepers, if you can afford them, are far and away the nicest way to travel by train. With four people per cabin, you’re allotted much more room to move, and excellent leg and head space. Cabins however can really range in terms of quality and price. The various soft sleeper cars on the Hanoi-Sapa route are actually owned by individuals and companies, meaning that the quality of each car varies based on how much effort the owner has put into it. They also charge more than the basic sleeper car rate, which makes sense given that they’re providing an improved service.
The car owned by the Victoria Sapa Resort & Spa is easily considered the best one on the line, but you can only reserve that car if you’re staying with their hotel in Sapa. To get other cars of quality, you really have to get lucky or be great at your research and book with an agent with access to tickets to the right car, or buy from the owner directly. For our journey back to Hanoi, we were lucky enough to be recommended to the owner of a restaurant, Peter Chef in Lao Cai, who also owns the Chapa Express, considered to be the second best car on the train line. Our tickets were not cheap – we spent a collective US$150 on the entire four bed cabin, but it was definitely worth it. The cabin was spotless, wood paneled, comfortable, and packed with all the amenities you could hope for – better than flying business class.
Unfortunately, the downside with taking the train is that it does not actually run all the way to Sapa. The nearest train station is in Lao Cai. After arriving at the train station, you’ll be inundated with offers to take you up to Sapa by bus. Remember to ask for the price before you start following a driver to his bus. You should not be expected to pay more than about 50,000 VND per person (locals go cheaper, but consider the extra price your “tourist tax”). Not having agreed on the price before following a driver to his bus he asked us for 200,000 VND per person, and once we walked away and told him that we wouldn’t be using his services he threatened a member of our group with a brick.
Don’t worry if a local threatens you in a similar fashion – the penalties for harming foreigners are quite high and they all know it. They’re really just trying to scare you into submission. Please don’t let that work – we don’t want to encourage such behavior.
We eventually did manage to get a lift for 50,000 VND, which was a massive relief.
Sapa Town – An Abyss within a Remarkably Beautiful Landscape
As beautiful as Sapa and the surrounding areas are, the place comes with plenty of negatives that I wish I had been forewarned of. The views alone are spectacular and worth the trip, but the more time you can spend outside of the actual town, the better.
Sapa is one of the most heavily touristed areas of Vietnam, and the town therefore operates as such. Restaurants are generally of pretty poor quality for their price – Rich at one point, we believe, thanks to some troubling remarks from the owner of our hotel about there not being any deer in Vietnam (as we had suspected), ate dog meat instead of the venison that the restaurant advertised.
Local businesses are predominantly run by the Viet Kinh (Vietnam’s ethnic majority), forcing the ethnic minorities who come into town looking for a better life for themselves and their families to resort to panhandling or selling ethnic goods on the streets.
Desperate to get your attention, it is not uncommon for these minority women (the men generally stay at home to work on the farms and/or drink and smoke) to grasp you buy the arm and ask you to go shopping with them (the idea is that they’ll bring you to their friends’ shops and they get a cut of whatever you spend) or press bracelets into your hands hoping that you’ll buy them. If you tell them that you’re not in the mood to go shopping today, they’ll ask you if tomorrow would be better. Often people make the mistake of saying “yes” in the hopes that the women will just go away, but be warned, if you answer in the affirmative they will come and track you down tomorrow.
These women are all smiles and giggles when they think they have a chance of getting money from you, but as soon as you turn to escape, their demeanors change and they speak as such that you think they’re probably placing a curse on you.
With an overwhelming ratio of minority women to tourists out on the streets of Sapa, to say that it’s fun or interesting to get chased down the street by these minority women who will often try to double or triple team you would be a flat out lie. Don’t get me wrong, it can be very interesting what you can learn from them, but after a fair amount of requests to go shopping, it gets old fast.
Why Do a Homestay
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to learn more about what life is like for minority families, doing a homestay can be an amazing adventure. To preface however, doing a homestay is not for everyone. I certainly would not subject certain members of my friends and family to one.
It is good to know before booking a homestay that in order to legally provide accommodation to foreigners, homestays have to be registered with the local government. In order to be registered, a home must have a flush toilet (not necessarily attached to the house but rather down the road and shared by other families), be clean, have bedding with a mosquito net and be hygienic — hosts are meant to undertake food hygiene training and pass an exam. If you do a homestay it is likely that you won’t be staying with the actual family but rather in a room that has been added alongside a traditional house. Houses are more often than not really just huts, made of wood and bamboo, and woven together or fit like puzzle pieces (nails and bolts are unheard of in this area), there is no natural light to be seen once inside and the only light will come from a lone light bulb or a fire kindling in a corner. They are also unlikely to have separate rooms, so if you’re staying with a group, you could be all living in beds lined out one next to the other. Despite legally needed to be registered, not all homestays are as many families just happen to know the “right people,” so please be wary when you agree to a homestay – otherwise you might end up getting some really nasty diarrhea and having to share a toilet with the family pigs.
Once you’ve found the right host family for you, you’ll start your adventure off with a trek down through to the family’s village, following the various little pathways out of town and into the rice paddies around and over the hills of Sapa. With your local guide you’ll have the opportunity to see the best views that Sapa can offer. Depending on which village you’re heading to, treks can take around three hours one way. You can certainly see the local villages and surroundings with day treks or with a minivan tour – but you’ll never get to see the full extent to the area this way.
Your guide can also show you their favorite spots and take you through to the local market, buying and showing you what they’ll need for your meals. Both dinner and breakfast the next day should all be included in the price of your stay, with the family cooking their local dishes. If you choose to do a homestay with a Red Dao family, you’ll likely get an herbal bath (in a big barrel) included with your stay.
Interacting with your family is pretty remarkable as well. Not everyone you encounter will speak English, but there should always be one English speaker who can describe to you what daily life is like and how their lives have changed since the tourism boom. It is a really fascinating experience, learning firsthand what these people’s lives are like. I wouldn’t say that it is the most comfortable experience, but it’s certainly very interesting. Not to mention, the extra income from your stay also really helps to change the lives of these family’s for the better.
Our Homestay Experience
By the time we made it to the train to Sapa in early March 2015, our group had lost quite a few members. We were now down to Rich, myself, and one friend, making doing a homestay a feasible option for us.
Not knowing how we were going to feel after the train ride up to Sapa, we had not booked anything for the our two nights there. I had assumed that we’d probably spend the first night in a hotel, then do a homestay for a night before catching the train down to Hanoi the following evening. However, somewhere along the train journey north we befriended the two Polish men who had welcomed us to the hell that was the soft seater compartment of the train. Thanks to our new found friendship, the five of us decided to stick together for the duration of their time in Sapa. Sadly, these two were only going to be spending a single night in Sapa and were keen on making sure they spent the time they had doing a homestay. So, without discussing it and unbeknownst to myself, by the time we reached a restaurant where we could eat a rather appalling breakfast, one of them was already out in search of a place for all five of us to stay.
To this day, I have no idea if the homestay our new friend found us was registered or not or even how he found a family to take us in. However, after sneaking out into the street while the rest of us were “enjoying” our morning coffee he came back and proudly announced that he had found us a homestay for US$10 a person. Despite not being fully comfortable with this arrangement, I agreed, knowing that at least if we did this now, there we’d have a good and decent sized group all travelling together. It was certainly cheap enough as well.
I definitely wouldn’t personally recommend finding a homestay this way. Finding recommendations for a good homestay online would have been much safer, but I feel really lucky that it all worked out as well as it did.
After breakfast, the five of us piled out onto the streets and introducing ourselves to our two guides for the day, both Black Hmong women – one of whom we would stay with and the other helping her guide us down to the village – we gathered some supplies we would need for the trek including bottles of water, batteries for Rich’s camera, and some potato chips in case we weren’t too fond of the food we received.
From here we walked down the main road and out into the hills of Sapa, switching out the paved roads for the dirt paths through and around the many rice paddy terraces. As expected, the views were spectacular, and I in particular was so pleased to encounter water buffalos and plenty of piglets at nearly every turn. We trekked for about two hours down through the hills before hitting a local restaurant where we could have lunch (self-paid) and then off through the small paved roads connecting villages, stopping only to collect the necessary food stuffs for our dinner and breakfast from a produce stand while a very pregnant pig tried to steal bits of bamboo.
After another hour, passing through a few more villages, we reached our guide’s home. There were two buildings – one seemingly for the woman’s children and in-laws, and one where our guide and her husband lived. We were to stay in this second house with our guide. There were two beds available to us. Rich and I, being a couple, were allotted one of the beds tucked away behind a dividing wall and next to a smoking fire. The three gents were to share the other bed that was positioned in a loft above the bed that our guide and her husband shared.
There was a communal sitting area in the center of the house and, as we had anticipated, there was minimal natural light, just what came through the cracks in the outer walls. The floor was bumpy and it was hard to find a flat area to sit down or a spot that felt clean enough to place our bags. The toilet was a squatter further down the road and across a slow flowing stream.
While our host prepared dinner, we quickly became acquainted with her family, including her pipe-loving husband, very intoxicated brother-in-law and his wife who seemed to be quite upset to be married to such an overzealous drunk.
Dinner consisted of rice, noodles, vegetables, and fried pork fat. Most everything felt a bit dirty, but I have no doubt that our host was trying her best to make us feel comfortable. It just didn’t help that her brother-in-law, who we began referring to as the crazy uncle, kept trying to put food in our bowls with his used chopsticks. The group of us, feeling wary, kept the family dogs well fed as we kept dropping food touched by crazy uncle on the ground. Occasionally, crazy uncle’s wife would come into the house screaming and try to drag him from the building.
Had it not been for the kindness of our host, I might have tried to make a run for it. This woman, who had taught herself English, was almost entirely responsible for her family’s livelihood – making money either through selling goods on the street, or by hosting foreigners like ourselves. She seemed quite happy doing this, because it meant that they had power in their home and that they could afford to buy her children shoes and clothing, and have them go to school without enduring financial strain. Between herself and her husband, outside of tourism, they had some bamboo plants and just enough of a rice field to support the family. There was nothing leftover that they could sell.
Once crazy uncle had been chased out of the house by his furious wife, over some cups of homemade rice wine we were able to spend the rest of the evening listening to our guide’s stories about growing up and living in the village.
Rich’s and my bed was surprisingly comfortable and the combined power of the mosquito net and the smoky fire meant that we weren’t at all troubled by bugs. The only thing that stirred us was the sound of one of the guys snoring on the other side of the house.
To no one’s delight, in the morning we were awoken by a pair of dueling roosters, each apparently trying to outdo the other in regards to being as loud as possible. A fire was roaring inside the room, smoke signaling the cooking of our breakfast wafting in over the bed.
Breakfast consisted primarily of noodles wrapped up and disguised as spring rolls. It had been oversalted and was not particularly tasty, but given that we had a three hour uphill climb back to Sapa town we relented and ate our fill.
Meeting up with the daughters of our guide’s friend, we made our way out of the village. Today, instead of walking back through the valley, we headed straight for the main road and climbed the concrete path back – a bit of a relief. Along the walk we passed by several registered homestays, made notable by the signage outside their front gates and felt a quiver of envy – some of them looked really quite nice.
By the time we got back it was 1PM and after saying farewell to our host, and later our new friends, we found the nearest hotel that promised a hot water shower and from where Rich, our friend, and I would spend the next day and a half wandering through the overcrowded town. The homestay was certainly a hell of an experience, and we learned a lot. I’m so glad that we did it and had a really great group to do it with, but I’m not certain that I’d do it again.