Up North: 3 days in Sapa, Vietnam

Vietnam is a vast, beautiful and diverse country. Located in northwestern Vietnam is Sapa, known for its landscape of terraced rice fields that look like from the pages of a fairy tale book. The town’s scenery is awe-inspiring that once you set foot in its lands, you will feel you have traveled to a completely different world. Whether this is your first trip to Vietnam or you’ve been here a few times before, a 3-day adventure in Sapa opens up tons of new and interesting things to do. The sequence of activities and attractions below are just a guide and you can definitely change it to suit your interests.

Things to consider before traveling to Sapa, Vietnam:

Language – Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam. About 10% of the people can speak fluent English, mostly for business purposes. Most people in the town of Sapa can understand and speak a decent level of English, so you can absolutely get by without speaking Vietnamese language. However, not all people can speak English so learning a few basic Vietnamese words and phrases is recommended. Just like in other countries, speaking at least some Vietnamese phrases or attempting to learn is greatly appreciated by the locals.

Currency exchange – The official currency used in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong (VND). ATMs can be found in Airport, most tourist centers and shopping malls across the country. Exchanging money in Sapa is easy and follows the same standard to elsewhere in Southeast Asia. International credit cards are widely accepted in upscale establishments but keep in mind that most small businesses, especially stores and restaurants may not accept them. If you plan to withdraw cash in Sapa, please note that there are currently 4 ATMs along Cau May Street; other ATMs are located at the lakeside.

Vietnamese currency
The đồng (/ˈdɒŋ/; Vietnamese pronunciation: [ɗôŋm]) (sign: ₫; code: VND) has been the currency of Vietnam since May 3, 1978 (mediavn / Bigstockphoto.com)
Safety – Sapa is a safe town to travel in. Scam is the most common problem in tourists’ areas and remains the number one source of complaints from foreign visitors. Although scam is not as common as the incidence in major cities, you will encounter many touts on the streets that will force you to buy something in an aggressive or bold manner. You have to say no to them if you don’t plan to buy, otherwise they will follow you until you purchase something. If you ever find yourself in Sapa or other major Vietnamese cities, you have to remember that not every Vietnamese person you meet is out to scam you. Do your research, keep all your wits about you and always ask for personal recommendations from other travelers.

Getting around – Getting around in Sapa is fairly easy. The town is quite small so you can easily explore by walking or renting a motorbike. Public transportation is easy to get used to and is budget friendly. Xe Om (motorcycle taxi) is one of the most famous ways to get around Sapa. Make sure to negotiate the fare before hopping on the motorcycle. Also, always carry a map (paper maps or digital maps on your smartphone), the name of your destination written down in Vietnamese and small bills for payment. If you prefer this mode of transport, make sure to ask your hotel receptionist for estimates. If you want to learn more about getting around in Sapa, try to use Couchsurfing and seek other travelers’ suggestions. There are also plenty of expats living in Sala and the northern Vietnam, so they can probably show you around when you arrive.

Trekking the villages – Sapa Town is the most famous jumping-off point for trekking the Muong Hoa Valley, Phang Xi Pang peak and and other tiny hill-tribe villages. For first time visitors, it is recommended to hire a Vietnamese trekking guide from a reputable travel agency. Also, trekking permits are required and can be obtained directly from the Tourist Information Center in downtown. If you avail a trekking tour, the permit is most likely included in the tour package. Although Sala Mountain Trek can be done DIY-style, you can also join a Small Group Hiking Tour to help boost Vietnam’s tourism industry.

Where to stay – There are many types of holiday accommodation in northwestern Vietnam. Most luxury hotels to cheaper accommodation like youth hostels and bed and breakfast are located in the downtown area of Sapa. This area provides easy access to most attractions, hotel options, restaurants, shops and travel agencies. If you’ve been to Vietnam once before, and would like to experience authentic local life, then we suggest staying in one of the local-run home-stays and guest houses. Not only that home-stays are great value for money, it’s also the best way to learn the local cultures and customs.

Hotels to consider in Sapa:

Sapa Dragon Hotel

Sapa Freesia Hotel

Sapa Legend Hotel & Spa

Sapa Clay House – Mountain Retreat

Cat Cat Garden Hotel

Eco Palms House

Detailed itinerary: Up North: 3 days in Sapa, Vietnam

Day 0

Assuming you have taken an evening train to Sapa from Hanoi, then you won’t be able to explore yet on Day 0. Travel time is approximately 9 hours. From Lao Cai Station, take a shuttle bus or taxi to Sapa Town. It takes about 1 hour to get to Sapa from the station.  Please note, most people experiences motion sickness on the way to Sapa due to winding roads, so make sure to pack some anti-motion sickness medication. Alternatively, you can book a sleeper bus from Hanoi going directly to Sapa Station.

Sapa town, Vietnam
View of Sapa (melis / Shutterstock.com)

Day 1

Your adventure in Sapa starts today. Wake up to a delicious breakfast in your private room. You may also try local Vietnamese restaurants that serve local rice noodles. After breakfast, you may proceed with your tour. There’s no better way to get acquainted with the town than visiting the Bac Ha Market, which is held every Sunday and is one of the biggest minority peoples market in Vietnam. You’ll witness the local people trade their livestock and sell their wide variety of goods. This market is a relevant and educational stop to create basic understanding of Sapa’s history and cultural heritage.

North Vietnamese woman in colorful native clothing sells similar clothes at Bac Ha market (MindStorm / Shutterstock.com)

After you market tour, hire or rent a motorbike, or join a group to Thac Bac, known as the Silver Waterfalls. The ascent to the base of the waterfalls is about 2 kilometers, which will allow you to view stunning landscapes. Thac Bac, the highest waterfall in Vietnam, features a 300 meter drop. From the waterfalls, continue your trek to the starting point of your descent to Love Waterfall and Golden Stream.

Thac Bac Waterfall (paikong / Shutterstock.com)

Day 2 and 3

Start your second day early at the Cat Cat Village, famous for its sunrise and sunset views of the Muong Hoa Valley and the other mountains near Sapa. Located just 1 kilometer from downtown Sapa, the village looks exquisite with the natural landscape of the mountains with morning rays and fog. It’s best to book a motorcycle in advance. If you would like to take time marveling at the views then you can opt to walk down back to town. You may also check out the Cat Cat Waterfall if you still have time before your 2-day trek through Lao Chai and Y Linh Ho Villages.

Cat Cat Villgae, Sapa, Vietnam
View of Cat Cat Village (melis / Shutterstock.com)

In 2 days, you would be able access the stunning viewpoints of the Sapa mountains, visit local villages, pass through forests and see the famous peaks. The trek does not really require a local guide. If you are a first time visitor, joining a small group tour is recommended. You may also enjoy a private trek by hiring a local guide at the Tourist Information Office. Before you sign up for this, make sure to assess yourself because this activity is physically demanding. Make sure to wear sturdy pair of sandals. Bring a head lamp, waterproof bag for your gadgets, waterproof gear, some snacks and water.

This is the end of our 3-day suggested itinerary. The sequence of activities and attractions above are just a guide and you can definitely change it to suit your interests. Travel to Vietnam when you are ready because it is definitely not for everyone. Go with your eyes open and experience the charm of this country.

Have you been to Sapa or anywhere else in Vietnam? Do you have any tips or suggestions to share? If so, you can leave your comments below.

Featured image: Rice fields near Sapa, Vietnam (melis / Shutterstock.com)

Indochina, Vietnam

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