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. So is the far north mountain resort of Sapa still worth visiting?

Let me answer by sharing my very honest impressions of the town and several places around Sapa.

Sapa town

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 and the provided services usually the same; massages and especially trekkings come to me through signs and people who offer them in the town centre.

I s sapa worth visiting?

The centre 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 a quick stop at the 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.

Catcat Village

Next, I head my way to Catcat Village, the sight that’s closest to Sapa. 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 so bad.

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 here, with the only highlight being 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 commercial side of Sapa 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. There’s hardly a living soul around at  Thac Bac – or Silver Waterfall – and it’s amazing to see the stream tumbling down on many levels.

Different is the Love Waterfall, where a more touristy vibe revolves around a less impressive waterfall. Also, the shops and eateries at the start of the trail have taken away some of the original charm.

If you’re biking you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to steer your bike 2 kilometres west, to Tram Ton Pass. The deep gorge, sharp peaks, and winding roads in the distance are striking. 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.

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 having already rented a motorbike, I opted to hit the road instead.

This can be considerably easier on the wallet. Treks 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.

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 (or 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. 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, which is like a candy shop for nature lovers.

Apart from being briefly stalked by a woman in traditional clothes on a motorbike, 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 visiting?

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.

Editor’s Note: you can still visit Sapa and avoid a lot of the commercialism, though I recommend booking a homestay away well from the main town for a more immersive experience. Multi-day treks will also get you closer to the landscapes and away from the crowds.

Finally, there are a number of alternatives to Sapa to consider in northern Vietnam.

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