Sapa in the northwest of Vietnam is another world altogether compared with the hubbub of the cities, the thick jungle of the central regions, the dusty arid east coast and the marshy, steamy southern Mekong Delta.
Picture ethereal wisps of fog clinging to the eaves of houses and shop fronts, chilly, lung cleansing fresh air, and winding mountain roads that look over terraced rice fields, cascading waterfalls and stark mountains. Sapa is a small town and can easily be seen in a day, while the surrounding countryside is a must see too. That makes 48 hours in Sapa just about right for a visit. We’ve curated a comprehensive, easy to do guide for things to do in Sapa, but first, let’s deal with an oft-asked question:
How to Get to Sapa?
If you’re making your own way through Vietnam by motorcycle this should be self explanatory, but do approach the ride to Sapa with great caution -- the roads to Sapa are not of great quality and are often busy with trucks careering around blind corners. If you’re certain that you want to see Sapa by motorbike, consider transporting your bike their separately on the Fanxipan express to nearby Lao Cai.
Given that there is no nearby airport in Sapa (a rarity in Vietnam), the train is our favourite way to travel to Sapa from Hanoi, rattling through beautiful countryside up to the mountains. A seat on the 8 hour journey is around 8 USD, while a bunk in a carriage usually goes for around 20 USD, but do make sure to book in advance.
The cheapest and easiest way to get to Sapa is to take the bus from Hanoi. Depending on the operator, you’ll go by day or overnight on the sleeper bus. Tickets start at a very cheap 9USD, but the journey can be an uncomfortable one if you’re a little too big for the sleeping bunks, or averse to swooping at speed around mountain passes.
We’ll leave that up to you to decide, but word of advice -- working with the right tour guides will help solve a lot of that stress!
48 hours in Sapa
Unlike most of our other 48 hours in… guides, we’ll leave the order of events up to you here. Sapa is a place for equal parts relaxation and milling around town, and adventuring around the surrounding area. Make sure and bring some decent footwear and a waterproof jacket though -- the hiking trails are not suitable for sandals and the weather is prone to mood swings!
Scale the peak of Mount Fansipan
Until recently, the only way to get to the peak of Vietnam’s tallest mountain was by foot, and that’s still an adventurous option, but please don’t go without the help of a guide. This isn’t just for the sake of local tour businesses, but for your own safety. The trails up the 3,143m goliath can be misleading and as mentioned above, the weather can change at any moment.
If you’re not keen on a taxing hike, there’s now a much easier way to get to the top - by cable car! It opened in 2016 and now transports hundreds, even thousands, of visitors to the top every day in a matter of minutes for around just 10USD.
From the top and indeed on the way up, you’ll be wowed by the views of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range, and even more by the scenic Muong Hoa valley below. As well as enjoying the views, there are a number of temples and religious and spiritual points of interest to see and visit too.
Expect your visit to Mount Fansipan to take around half a day, including time travelling to and from the base.
Hike to the H’Mong Villages
You’ll notice the colorfully dressed H’Mong people as soon as you set foot in Sapa. Vietnam is in fact home to 54 different ethnic groups, though over 90% of the population in of the Kinh ethnic group. This makes most of the rest ethnic minorities in need of protection and support. The best way to experience H’Mong life is to take a hike with a H’Mong guide into their villages, which rest in the valleys away from central Sapa. It’s a stunning walk, listening to the H’Mong converse in their ethnic tongue as you hike through lush valleys and encounter water buffalo on the way. You might want to share dinner and stay overnight with the H‘Mong, but you can also come back to town inside one day.
Sapa Market and Museum
While wandering around the town, make sure and visit the colorful Sapa market, where again you’ll see the H’Mong dealing in food, snacks and beautifully crafted gifts, clothing accessories, bags and other and trinkets. Head over to Sapa museum after and spend some time learning about this former French hill station and its fascinating population.
Take a motorbike tour to heaven’s gate
We’ve posted before about the dangers of riding a motorbike around here, but a trusted tour operator will see to it that you safely enjoy the breathtaking land around sapa. There’s no getting away from the fact that the best way to see things around here is from the back of a bike though, so get in touch to book a motorbike tour.
Around 15 km from Sapa is the fabled Tram Ton Pass, known in English as Heaven’s Gate. It’s a thrilling ride their through green and gold valleys and with a view of Fansipan, but the humbling views from Heaven’s Gate are something you’ll never, ever forget.