Sa Pa is perhaps my favourite place in Vietnam. The views, the local tribes, unique food… I definitely enojyed it more than the craziness of Saigon or Hanoi. The place has a very mystical vibe.
Day 1: Arrival in Sa Pa
First stage of my journey to Sa Pa was an overnight train from Hanoi. In order to keep costs under control, I opted for a soft-seater (as opposed to a sleeping train). Beware that the buses and trains to Sa Pa tend to sell out, so don’t leave buying tickets for last minute.
The train arrived at Lao Cai at around 4 am and, from there, I took a small van to Sa Pa, which took an hour. There were plenty of minibuses waiting outside of the Lao Cai station, so getting into one of those was not a problem. One thing I would note were the curvy and bumpy roads, which made some of the passengers motion sick (remember to take your medicine!).
Interesting things about Sa Pa:
- The town is very close to the Chinese boarder (zoom out the map below)
- It is home to many ethnic minorities with H’mong being the most popular one. Many minorities are actually not recognized as Vietnam citizens, which puts them in an awful situation.
- The mountain scenery of rice terraces is absolutely amazing. You will get best views if you visit in August (just before the harvest season), but it might rain a lot more!
- Sa Pa reminds me of Melbourne in one thing: the famous “4 seasons in one day” saying applies to both cities… that being said, a hoodie or a windbreaker might come in handy!
Day 2: Bac Ha market
My second day in Sa Pa happened to be a Sunday, which meant I had a chance to visit the Bac Ha market. In order to get to Bac Ha, my friend and I got a $12 tour by a van from Sa Pa (around 3h ride one way).
Bac Ha is a small town famous for attracting local hill-tribe people, who sell their goods, produce and handicraft every Sunday on a local market. Some of the people walk for hours to get to the market. It is not only a shoppers’ paradise, but also a fantastic opportunity to observe the style of locals. Just look at the colorful and beautifully-made clothing of local women and girls. Note that each tribe has its own set of patterns and colors. Try to guess who is H’mong!
Day 3: Rice terraces!
What hit us on a Monday morning was the significantly lower number of tourists in Sa Pa. The weekend tourists (mostly Vietnamese) disappeared and we had a chance to enjoy the town in a MUCH calmer setting.
On our third day in Sa Pa, we rented a motorbike and decided to drive around the rice terraces. We visited the nearby villages of Ta Van and Lao Chai. One thing to note is that rice harvest happens in September, which meant that terraces were not blooming with great greenery. The views were still pretty amazing.
We tried Sa Pa’s specialty: ox and porcupine meat at one of the very busy local restaurants.
Day 4: Love Waterfall
One attraction left for our last day in Sa Pa was the Love Waterfall. We explored it by a motorbike (40-60 min ride away from the city). It was a really pleasant nature walk.
We caught an afternoon bus to Hanoi – the ride was around 6-7 hours.
I will sum up the major hints I have for anyone heading to Sa Pa:
- Book bus/train tickets in advance. They sell out.
- Pack a hoodie and/or a windbreaker.
- Be careful with the motorbikes and driving in rain/mud, it’s quite risky.
- Avoid going to Sa Pa on weekends – the town will be very crowded with Vietnamese weekend tourists (on top of a few international ones).
- Try the local specialties: ox and porcupine in local restaurants.
- Don’t give candy to kids (most of them have poor teeth).
- Avoid buying stuff from kids (this keeps them away from school), buy from adults instead.
- Try to visit in August, before the harvest season, for the most green views of Sa Pa rice terraces