Visiting Sapa has been a dream of mine since seeing breathtaking shots of terraced rice fields so green that they’re practically glowing. This mountainous city nestled in the Lào Cai province of Northwestern Vietnam is quickly becoming one of Vietnam’s most popular destinations for eco travel.
After years of anticipation, during my recent trip to Vietnam, I finally made it to Sapa. Getting there was a bit of an adventure (involving one large, pink Doraemon love bus), but well worth the bumpy ride from Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport.
Click below to discover some of the best things to do in Sapa:
Ethnic Minorities in Sapa
Sapa is unlike any other city in Vietnam. When visiting, you’ll find that the food is totally different to anywhere else in the country. This is because the region is home to tons of ethnic minorities, including the Black Hmong, Red Dao, Tày, Giáy, and Xá Phó people.
In Vietnam, ethnically Vietnamese people are known as the Kinh people (người Kinh). Kinh people make up nearly 90% of the population in Vietnam. In Sapa, Kinh people are just 15% of the population.
Each minority group has their own traditional attire, and language—you won’t find any áo dài in Sapa! Traditional clothing is actually how locals easily identify who belongs to each hill tribe, as our guide explained. Each hill tribe used to keep more to themselves, but now, they share traditional clothing with each other, and are allowed to marry people from other hill tribes. Some locals actually speak some of the languages of the groups they don’t belong to.
What is Visiting Sapa Like in Real Life?
The terraced rice fields are every bit as beautiful as they are in photos. The scenery is just jaw dropping and unlike anywhere else I’ve every been. The rice fields go on for miles—covering just about every mountain in view from Sapa.
However, I was so surprised by how touristy Sapa is. It’s not the quiet, peaceful village it’s portrayed as in photos. It’s a built up city, with tons of cheesy statues for tourist photo ops and large, corporate, Vegas-style hotels.
Sapa is also way more expensive than anywhere else I visited in Vietnam (even other popular tourist destinations like Hoi An and Halong Bay).
We chose to stay at a locally-owned ecolodge next to Lao Chải village about 15-20 minutes away from the city center, and I’m really glad we did. The experience was more local, and a lot closer to what I was expecting. While this made it a lot less convenient to explore the town area, I was okay with that, as I didn’t have a ton of interest in it (after all, we were there for the local culture and landscape, not another urban city).
While these things didn’t detract from the overall experience, I think they’re worth mentioning so you know what to expect.
How to Get to Sapa
Figuring out how to get to Sapa sounds like more of a challenge than it is. Even though Lào Cai is in a remote area of rural Vietnam, there’s several options for transportation to Sapa from Hanoi as the region has become so popular in recent years.
Of course, you could just rent a car or motorbike and drive yourself, but the road conditions between Sapa and Hanoi are not very good. Traffic in Vietnam is chaotic, and I don’t recommend you drive if you’re not familiar with driving in the country.
Popular ways to get to Sapa from Hanoi include taking the bus, overnight train, shared limousine transfer, and private transfer.
We took the bus on the way there, and shared limousine transfer on the way back.
The bus is the most budget-friendly transportation to Sapa. There’s two major bus lines that run between Sapa and Hanoi: Sapa Express, and Inter Bus Lines. You can book buses in advance online through the Sapa Express or Inter Bus Lines websites, or to make it easier, through online booking platforms. Buses to Sapa from Hanoi can also be booked at the airport, which is a much easier option. Expect to pay $18-21 USD for a one-way bus ticket. We paid 450,000 VND per person at the airport ($19.13 USD). Buses typically have lay flat beds—make sure you try to get the top bunk.
Shared transfers to Sapa are operated by two major companies: Amazing Uncles, and Ecosapa Limousine. As there’s only two major companies with a very limited number of shuttles, seats sell out fast. Expect to pay $25-45 per seat, depending on which seat you choose and when you’re going. The middle seats in the limousines are the best and go first—I ended up squished in the backseat for six hours and it was…less than pleasant. The front seats in the limousine transfer aren’t actually a row on their own, they’re the seats next to the driver.
Find buses and transfers to Sapa by clicking below:
How to Get Around Sapa
Grab is Southeast Asia’s answer to Uber (Grab actually bought out Uber’s operations in Southeast Asia). You’ll find Grab all over the major cities in Vietnam such as Saigon and Hanoi, but unfortunately, you won’t find it in Sapa.
The best way to get around Sapa is by walking, taking a xe ôm (motorbike taxi), or getting into a taxi. Unfortunately, Vietnam has struggled with taxi scams for years, and Sapa is no exception.
If you do take a taxi, request that they turn on their meter. If they don’t, be careful to negotiate your fare upfront.
Taxis in Sapa tend to follow buses in as they reach the city, and swarm around the bus station. Try to avoid going with any taxi driver being pushy with you at the bus station, or trying to force you into their car.
The Best Things to Do in Sapa
Trekking in Sapa
Every trek is different, based on the guide you have and what you want to see. Make sure to communicate clearly what you want out of your trek, including duration and any villages or landmarks, so your guide knows where to take you.
Your guide will of course take you trekking to stunning views and through Sapa’s famous terraced rice fields. You’ll likely also explore local villages, and walk through attractions like the bamboo forests and farms, and some of Sapa’s many waterfalls.
Trekking will take you out of Sapa’s city and into local villages, where you’ll be able to see the ins-and-outs of maintaining the terraced rice fields. We got to see the process of how Hmong textiles are woven and dyed, witnessed Hmong artisans making traditional crafts, and saw some of the machinery used to process rice. It’s is truly the best way to see the culture of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities in Sapa.
Click below to find trekking tours in Sapa:
Try Cơm Lam (Bamboo Cooked Sticky Rice)
Cơm lam is a local way of cooking rice in Sapa. Sticky rice is stuffed into a skinny bamboo stalk, then cooked over fire. The result is a warm, smoky rod of sticky rice. Cơm lam is usually served with crushed peanuts or salted roasted sesame. It often accompanies grilled pork or chicken skewers (Sapa is known for its barbecue).
You won’t find cơm lam outside of Northwestern Vietnam, which makes it a must-try food in Sapa.
Try Rượu Táo Mèo (Sapa Apple Wine)
I arrived in Sapa around 8 pm, tired after a long, bumpy bus ride and ready for dinner and some relaxation. As we settled in for dinner, I quickly noticed that local apple wine was on the drink list.
Sapa has a local apple wine called rượu táo mèo (“cat apple wine” in English). The spirit is made from the apples it’s named after—táo mèo. You may see these apples being sold around Sapa during the harvest season, but they’re mostly only used for making wine, not eating.
Rượu táo mèo is served hot or cold (try it hot on cool nights in Sapa). It’s surprisingly strong, and in my opinion, definitely leans more towards a liqueur than wine.
A Hmong rice liquor, very similar to rượu đế in Southern Vietnam, is also really popular in local villages. In my opinion, rượu táo mèo is more unique and much more difficult to find outside of Northwestern Vietnam, as the apples are grown in Sapa.
Visit Ta Van Village (Giáy Village)
Ta Van (also known as Muong Va) is a popular trekking stop in Sapa. The village is home mainly to the Giáy, who have lived in the village for generations.
If you’re looking for a village that’s more local and less touristy than Cat Cat Village, trekking through Ta Van might be a good option for you. You’ll be able to see what life in a local village is really like. To visit Ta Van, you may need to pay an entrance fee of 75,000 VND ($3.19 USD). This varies by time of day and weather, so you may not need to pay an entrance fee at all.
If you’re craving to stay at a local homestay in Sapa rather than a touristy hotel in town, Ta Van is home to several.
Drive Ô Quy Hồ Pass (Đèo Ô Quý Hồ)
Ô Quy Hồ Pass is one of the highest mountain passes in Vietnam. It’s a winding road around Fanispan Mountain with views of Sapa’s mountains and valleys. Along the road are several viewpoints and areas to stop. If you drive all the way up to the top, clouds will be at your feet.
I found out about Ô Quy Hồ Pass when on a food tour in Saigon. A guide for another group was from Sapa, and heard we were going. He was insistent that of the best things to do in Sapa, driving Ô Quy Hồ Pass was a must.
The road is windy and craggy, so I highly, highly recommend having a local driver rather than trying to drive it yourself.
Try Local Food in Sapa
Food in Sapa is completely different than anywhere else in Vietnam. You’ll find dishes here that you can’t find anywhere else in the country. Some of the best local food to try in Sapa includes:
- Cơm lam
- Mầm đá (rock sprouts) – a green vegetable local to Sapa that is commonly boiled or steamed and served on their own or with pork or beef. These sprouts only grow from September to February each year
- Gà đến – black chicken
- Sour salmon hotpot
- Thịt trâu gác bếp – Dried buffalo
Visit Lao Chai Village (Black Hmong Village)
Lao Chải is one of the best known Hmong villages in Sapa. The village is home to the Black Hmong, who have lived there for decades. Like Ta Van, Lao Chải is located between the Hoàng Liên Sơn mountain range and Hàm Rồng mountain in the Mường Hoa valley.
While Lao Chải is a lot quieter than Sapa’s city center, it still remains busy during the day as it’s one of the most popular villages for tourists to visit in Sapa, and is easily accessible from the main highway. You’ll find a lot of small artisan shops and craftsmen here. Our guide, who was from Lao Chải, explained that because Lao Chải is one of the largest villages for ethnic minorities near Sapa, many people from neighboring villages send their children to Lao Chải for school.
Visiting Lao Chải doesn’t require trekking. The village is just a 10-15 minute walk from the main highway. The dirt path to the village from the road is wide, and well-maintained. It may be a little steep for some, but is nowhere near as steep as a trek.
Shopping in Sapa
Sapa is full of unique souvenirs that showcase the distinct handcraft of each ethnic group in the region. You can find intricately woven and embroidered bags, bracelets, traditional dress, stuffed animals, jackets, and quilts. This embroidery is vibrant and heavy, almost like patchwork.
Fruit is a surprising souvenir, but a common one. Due to the cool climate and mountainous landscape, Sapa is home to tons of unique fruit that you won’t find anywhere else in Vietnam. Try to find Quả Mắc Cọp, a pear-like fruit popular in Lào Cai. Plums are also prominent in the region—look out for crisp greengage plums and sweet Ta Van red plums. Remember that most countries don’t allow foreign produce to be brought in. You’ll need to consume these before leaving Vietnam!
As you walk around Sapa, you’ll probably notice that many guides and locals are wearing intricate silver jewelry. It’s not difficult to buy this jewelry, but keep in mind that the silver in Sapa is low grade.
If you’re looking for the best souvenir stores in Sapa town, try Indigo Cat or Hemp & Embroidery. Though you can shop in town, I strongly urge you to shop from smaller stores and craftspeople in local villages such as Lao Chải and Ta Van, so you know the money is going directly to them! If you’re trekking, it’s not difficult at all to find small souvenir stores along popular trekking routes. Lao Chải is where I found an incredibly impressive stone carver selling his decor—I still wish I would’ve purchased something from him.
Visit Waterfalls in Sapa
Lào Cai is filled with waterfalls. I honestly didn’t realize this until I was there! Just about any guide on the best things to do in Sapa will mention visiting specific waterfalls, so here’s what I’ll say about it:
There’s tons of waterfalls near Sapa. I visited two during our nearly seven hour long trek, and that was enough for me. From what I’ve seen, the waterfalls in Sapa overall aren’t necessarily super unique or mind-blowing. I would prioritize visiting local villages or participating in local workshops over visiting the waterfalls in the region.
That being said, if you are looking to visit waterfalls in Sapa, Thác Bạc (Silver Waterfall) and Thác Tình Yêu (Love Waterfall) are popular choices. Know before you go that visitors have reported them being touristy. If you’re looking for a waterfall near Sapa that’s a less touristy, try Tác Tình Waterfall (I believe I visited this one).
I really wish we would have visited Thác Ong Chúa (Ong Chua Waterfall). It looks like the most unique waterfall in Lào Cai. It’s off the radar for most tourists to Sapa, however is also the furthest from the city.
More Things to Do in Sapa
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to experience these things to do in Sapa myself, but I wish I did! They’re definitely on my list for my next trip.
Visit Cat Cat Village
Cat Cat Village is the most well-known village near Sapa. It’s so built up, that the village has large statues built for the perfect touristy photo-op. The village is so popular that it charges an entrance fee of 70,000 VND ($2.98 USD) for adults, and 30,000 ($1.28) VND for children. Travelers have reported paying an entrance fee of just 20,000 VND ($0.85 USD) when traveling by motorbike, instead of on-foot.
In Cat Cat Village, you can explore Thác Tiên Sa (Tiên Sa Waterfall), one of the largest waterfalls near Sapa.
If you’re like me, and not typically into really touristy attractions, Cat Cat Village probably isn’t for you (in which case, you should definitely try some of the other villages mentioned in this guide). However, if you want to hit all of the most popular things to do in Sapa, tell your guide that you want to trek to Cat Cat Village.
Try Local Hmong Indigo Dyeing and Embroidery
Okay, I’m still sad I didn’t get to try this! Indigo Snail, a boutique Hmong homestay in Ta Van, offers Airbnb experiences in addition to their bungalows and trekking tours. Although most of their experiences are trekking, they additionally offer workshops for traditional Hmong indigo batik dyeing and embroidery.
During the class, you’ll be able to dye and embroider your own piece of fabric using Hmong batik dyeing techniques, which you can take with you as a souvenir.
Indigo grows everywhere in Sapa. It’s commonly used in traditional Hmong clothing and home textiles. It’s fascinating how the Hmong treat their indigo textiles. After dyeing flax fabric with indigo, for special occasion pieces, the fabric is quickly rubbed against a rock to make the textile shiny. No special chemicals or fabric finisher necessary!
I went back and forth with Sue (the host), about doing this, but unfortunately didn’t hear back in time to do it (totally my fault for trying to set something up last-minute). As a fashion designer, I would have loved to learn this technique.
Try a Red Dao Herbal Bath
One of my favorite things to do when visiting a new destination is to experience local spa treatments. I’ve found that it gives a glimpse into local culture, and also is a great way to destress mid-trip (because let’s be honest, travel can be overwhelming, and who doesn’t love a day at the spa?).
In Sapa, Red Dao herbal baths are a popular spa treatment. Each family has their own herbal bath recipe, which is passed down from mothers to daughters. Herbs and leaves such as elderberry, may chang, Vietnamese balm, chùa dù (elsholtzia penduliflora), fig leaves, wild pepper leaves, clematis uncinata, and cinnamon are cut and dried. The leaves are then boiled in hot water, until the water turns red like wine.
You’ll soak in a tub made of pơ mu (cypress wood). The tub will likely in a small room that helps enclose the steam and fragrances of the bath. Red Dao believe that herbal baths have healing remedies, such as reducing muscle pain, and eliminating stress. It’s common for Red Dao women to soak in an herbal bath after giving birth, as they believe it helps with blood circulation and recovery.
Popular choices for Red Dao herbal baths in Sapa include Dao’s Center, Topas Ecolodge Sapa, and Sapanapro in Ta Phin village.
Where to Stay in Sapa
If you’re looking for the hotel with the best view in Sapa, don’t stay in the city center where the large hotels are. Instead, stay outside of the city, towards the local villages. The further you get from town, the better your view will likely be.
We chose to stay somewhere in-between: an ecolodge at the entrance to Lao Chải village that is owned and operated by a local family. It offered some of the luxuries of staying at a hotel, but still incorporated local culture.
Discover some of the best places to stay in Sapa by clicking below:
Eco Palms House
Eco Palms House is where I stayed in Sapa, and I cannot speak highly enough about it! This local resort is owned by Khanh and his wife, Hien. Khanh has been living in Sapa for over 20 years, and has found ways to integrate the local culture into the property. Each bungalow is named after one of the ethnic groups in the region. The property features traditional embroidery and art throughout it, down to the staff uniforms.
The staff at Eco Palms House is amazing. The resort’s manager was beyond friendly and helpful, frequently checking in to make sure things were going well. Other staff was always friendly and attentive. We loved seeing that the staff ate together family-style for meals.
This is one of the best hotels in Sapa for the views! Eco Palms House is located in the terraced rice fields, not just near the terraced rice fields, so you’re sure to have an incredible view. The property also has a beautiful infinity pool overlooking the mountains, and beautifully maintained gardens throughout.
The resort can get noisy early in the morning with roosters, motorbikes on the nearby street, and music. To be honest, this seems to be typical in Sapa overall. Sapa is not for the light sleeper—bring earplugs.
We were hesitating about where to stay in Sapa due to all the options out there, but I’m SO glad we chose Eco Palms House. It’s one of the best places I’ve stayed in my travels so far. The resort is a great value for the price. I would choose Eco Palms House time and time again.
Sapa Jade Hill Resort & Spa
Sapa Jade Hill Resort & Spa was my top choice for hotels in Sapa, if I was going to stay at a larger, more established hotel in town. We had a really tough time deciding between Eco Palms House, and this luxury hotel.
This resort offers bungalows with beautiful views, and an aesthetic, dreamy pool.
Sapa Jade Hill offers much better views of the mountains and rice fields that other hotels nearby. It’s not directly in town—instead, it’s less than 2km away—much closer than Eco Palms House, but far enough out of the city to have superior views.
Stay at a Local Homestay in Sapa
If you truly want the local experience, consider a local homestay. There’s several homestays in villages around Sapa that offer guests simple rooms at affordable prices, in less-touristy areas.
If you are considering staying at a homestay in Sapa, do your research. Several “homestays” have built up into boutique properties or resorts that still have a much more local approach than hotels in Sapa, but aren’t really a true homestay. At these properties, you might not meet the owner of the homestay at all, whereas at a true homestay, you likely would.
When searching for a homestay, look into how many rooms are available at the same property. If one property has many rooms rather than just a few, it’s probably a little more built up.
Safety in Sapa
Overall, Sapa is very safe for tourists. The biggest danger in Sapa is going on a trek you’re not physically capable to do and falling, getting in a motorcycle accident, or overspending at a tourist trap.
Sapa is relatively calm, especially when compared to major cities in Vietnam such as Hanoi.
Visiting Sapa FAQ
Sapa is located in Northwest Vietnam on the border of China, just east of Laos.
The temperature in Sapa ranges from 10-35°C (50-95°F) based on the time of year. Overall, Sapa gets cooler in the winter than in other areas of Vietnam, due to its high altitude and northern location. Summer months are the hottest, with high temperatures consistently around 30-35°C (86-95°F).
The best time to visit Sapa is in the fall, from September to early December, and the spring, from March to May. During this time, Sapa experiences lower rainfall, and more temperate weather. Late August to early September is Sapa’s “Golden Season,” when the rice is ready for harvest and takes on a gold glow.
2 full days/4 nights is an ideal amount of time to visit Sapa. Transfers to Sapa from Hanoi typically arrive in the evening. Return transfers leave very early in the morning. This makes it difficult to explore the region on travel days. Two full days will give you enough time to go trekking, and visit some of Sapa’s most popular things to do such as seeing Fanispan Mountain, or experiencing local culture through a Hmong indigo dyeing class.
There’s lots of things to do in Sapa that aren’t trekking. Non-trekking activities include driving Ô Quy Hồ Pass, trying local food in Sapa, taking a Red Dao herbal bath, walking around Lao Chải village, shopping for local handicrafts, and hiring a xe ôm (motorbike taxi) to drive you to Cat Cat Village. Some of Sapa’s most popular waterfalls, such as Silver Waterfall and Love Waterfall, can be accessed by motorbike instead of trekking. Motorbike tours are a great option for doing most of the things to do that aren’t trekking in Sapa.
Yes and no. Sapa is a tourist trap in the sense that the town is now very built up and overpriced. However, the stunning terraced rice fields of Sapa are 100% real. They’re just as stunning (or more) as they are in photos. Sapa is still full of authentic local culture, especially in smaller villages. The destination really is what you make of it, and whether or not the experience is a tourist trap depends on how you like to travel.
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Eva Phan is the founder of Eva Darling, a travel and style website aiming to empower women to see the world solo while sharing on-trend, luxury feminine style inspiration. Featured in publications including Forbes, Thrillist, and Yahoo News, Eva has combined her education from Parsons School of Design with her incurable case of the travel bug to create a global destination that encourages others to romanticize their everyday.