Originating as a tribal settlement, Sapa caught the eye of the French colonial rulers as an unwinding retreat to flee from the scorching heat of Vietnam’s lower lands. The collection of French architecture and the mountainous surroundings of Sapa eventually set the tourist wheel in motion.
Vietnam has incredibly scenic parts that receive significantly fewer visitors than Sapa, so is it still worth travelling to this far north mountain resort?
I arrived in Sapa on a misty morning, attempting to keep my eyes open after a bumpy overnight train ride from Hanoi. A first stroll through town tells me the tourist industry is in full bloom. Hotels stand side by side, women in traditional clothes display their handicrafts in the streets, and a couple of Italian restaurants are visible behind the fast-travelling clouds. The hotels are massive, the provided services usually the same; massages and especially trekkings come to me through signs and people who offer them in the town centre.
A centre that doesn’t have much to get excited about: the lake in Sapa’s heart is a sweet spot not to be bothered by salesmen. It’s also the perfect place to take in the almost Swiss-like scenery of the green lake and colourful hotels — yes — with a beer or iced coffee as a companion. Consider heading for Sapa Market as well, where people from the mountain villages sell fruits, herbs, and mushrooms in the outdoor section. Inside, there’s actually hardly anything appealing for sale, but the markets internal architecture is worth checking out.
It’s evident that Sapa town isn’t the main reason for people to spend their holidays here, so I’m walking down to Catcat Village, a sight that’s in closest proximity for independent travellers. Beforehand I read reviews that speak of ‘horrible harassment’ and ‘ultimate tourist trap’, but I wanted to have a look and judge for myself anyway.
After paying the 70.000 dong entrance fee, I follow the shops cascading down along with the stone steps. The wooden shops all offer the same souvenirs, but I’m not noticing any people who desperately attempt to sell something, except for a small girl chasing me with her bracelets. I can’t tell if it’s because I went here on a Wednesday morning or not, but the tourist trap situation doesn’t seem to be that sloppy.
If you look for authenticity, this isn’t the hot spot, though. If you want to show off with Instagrammable shots of flower fields, or the sparse rice terrace, then pay the fee and explore Catcat. I had a feeling of being in a theme park, and the highlight was the Tien Sa waterfall. But here’s Sapa’s secret; more beautiful and thundering waterfalls are to be found elsewhere.
Exploring by bike
Is there a Sapa beyond tour packages and trekkings on demand? Yes, and the best tool to beat the business is a motorbike. Once you leave the packed heart of Sapa, the driving experience is undisturbed, and so are the views of pointy peaks and farmlands. I find myself driving west and stopping for a waterfall that’s pounding from a height of more than 200 meters. The 20.000 dong admission for Thac Bac – or Silver Waterfall – isn’t scaring off, and it’s pretty amazing to see the stream tumbling down on many levels. Also, there’s hardly a living soul around.
Different is the Love Waterfall, where a more touristy vibe revolves around a less impressive waterfall. For some reason I can only guess, the entrance fee is 70.000 dong. Still not a bank-breaking expense, but fairly steep compared to the more majestic Silver Waterfall. Also, the shops and eateries at the start of the trail have taken away some of the original charm.
If you’re biking – which is a must – you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to steer your bike 2 kilometres west, to Tram Ton Pass. I’ve seen a good bit of natural scenery during my travels, but the deep gorge, sharp peaks, and winding roads in the distance still struck me at this viewpoint. The pass is actually not part of Sapa – you even cross the border to the neighbouring province Lai Chau – but it’s a perfect independent travel opportunity, miles away from vendors and tourist offices.
Trekking or biking?
The most praised and advertised trek is the one going from Sapa town to Lao Chai and Ta Van, supposedly thanks to their cultural value, scenery, and a peek into traditional tribal life. My hotel recommends this trekking, and even the independent tourist information centre recommends it. But, a motorbike it is. Trekkings cost about 400.000 to 500.000 dong, while you can rent an automatic or manual bike – suitable for 2 – for 100.000 dong for the entire day.
Immediately after entering the rocky road down to Lao Chai, you’ll pay 75.000 dong per head to be admitted to the communities. The trail offers a grand viewpoint, overlooking rice terraces, and small settlements in the deep. It’s sad to see children and elderly women vending knitted bags and the inevitable bracelets, while most tourists here are solely interested in the views over the edge.
The weather can change rapidly in Sapa, and especially when it’s down-pouring, the trail into Lao Chai is only accessible for experienced drivers and reckless fools. The closer you get to the main street, the more it becomes clear where the guests of Sapa’s countless hotels spend their days.
Although by far not as touristy as Ha Long Bay, there’s a selection of pizza places and pubs with shisha anyway. Expect a more significant amount of locals offering handicrafts and their guiding services, as soon as you park the bike and decide to stroll around. Although the cultural significance is hard to discover – is it business or tradition what you see? – I do appreciate the vistas of the bright green rice fields and waterfalls dropping in the distance.
Ta Van is said to be more untouched, but it’s hard to ignore the bars and ‘pizza’ signs here. Generally, pizza is great – no complaints – but it’s odd to see it in a Vietnamese mountain village that’s branded as ‘authentic and unspoiled’, even by established travel guides.
Lesser known – Ta Phin
The least spoiled village I found was Ta Phin, accessible via an unpaved road just north of Sapa town. As a foreigner you pay a 40.000 dong fee to enter the area – isn’t it funny? – which is like a candy shop for nature lovers. From the entrance gate, I got stalked by a woman in traditional clothes on a motorbike, who stopped where I stopped, asking if I wanted to buy souvenirs’ here and now’ or ‘later in the village’. After getting the message, she eventually speeded off, just like the second aunty minutes later.
Apart from these short intermezzos, I can safely say that the land around Ta Phin is peaceful and blessed with natural features. Rice paddies in circular shapes, dark rock formations and cliffs make for an excellent driving and hiking opportunity. As in similar villages in the region, there’s nothing much to see in Ta Phin itself though. It’s an ordinary town with a few local eateries and buffalos muffling on the dusty roads. The meandering paths surrounding Ta Phin are rock-solid road trip material and should be included on the list of spots you can easily explore by yourself.
Before getting yourself a bike, bear in mind that the word ‘patience’ cannot be found in the Vietnamese dictionary, nor can the term ‘compassion with fellow drivers’. This could result in madly dangerous situations even the most seasoned (local) bikers can’t always escape.
Is Sapa worth it?
Is it worth it to drive up north to see Sapa and its famous landscapes? Yes. If you turn a blind eye to the growing commercialism — that unfortunately always go hand in hand with tourism — the advertised authentic experiences, and the modernized villages, you surely can enjoy the unrivalled beauty of the nature.
Rent a bike, keep your eyes on the road, and stop every time your eyes get distracted by something else. If you wish to avoid anything related to village life or handmade presents, walk or drive down the main road towards Lao Cai. Here, the most well-preserved rice terraces are glued to the steep mountains and a brown river gushes its way through the valley.
Whatever happens to Sapa, the nature will always be there.
How to get to Sapa
Most travellers arrive from Hanoi, the capital that lies about 300 kilometres southeast of Sapa. Many minibuses, coaches and trains cover this route daily. Buses and vans are the most budget-friendly options; expect to pay 250.000 dong for the 6-hour drive. If you’re taller than 1.85 meters, you might want to take the overnight train for a flatbed with more legroom. A ticket sets you back 450.000 dong in sleeper class.
If you’re making a motorbike trip, this route will cost an entire day, cause you a couple of grey hairs, might get you into some nerve-wracking situations, and serves you the best scenery you probably have seen in a very long time.