Backpacking Vietnam : Sapa and the Highlands

November 10, 2015

After the bustling cities of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, Sapa felt incredibly different from the big boys. Probably it was caused by the mountainous terrains. the foggy hills, cold temperature, and the hillside villages. The close proximity to the border of China gave Sapa an interesting mix between cultures and people too. Hill tribe minorities such as the Black Hmongs and the Red Dzaos lined the street with their striking outfits. The very moment I stepped foot in Sapa, it felt like a different country altogether.

How was this still Vietnam?

Yet, Sapa felt remotely magical. My days here were spent exploring the hillside terrains, making my way around the villages and enjoying the usual cup of hot Vietnamese coffee, with the occasional servings of instant noodles for breakfast.

It was snowing the week before I arrived, hence the weather was notably chilly*. Despite the cold weather, the locals went around with their daily lives decked in thick fleece. I especially adore the little children and women in their traditional outfits. Young kids would approach you with perfect English with hope in striking good conversation. I had one cheeky little lady who asked why am I traveling alone – and where’s my boyfriend haha (in which I gave her a cheeky answer too; he’s hiding ;p ).

*Note that I traveled here back in February 2014.

HOW TO GET TO SAPA

I traveled to Sapa via the sleeper bus (USD 15) from Hanoi, shortly after my trip to Halong Bay. The 9 hour bus ride was unbelievably bumpy, with long winding roads through the mountains. You can find a lot of sleeper buses via tour agencies in Hanoi, I booked mine straight from the hostel.

If you’re uncomfortable with the long distance travel, I would suggest you to take the train instead. For USD 40 it’s the safer option, not necessarily faster but far more comfortable. The train stops at Lao Cai (instead of Sapa) and you will need to get on a separate bus to Sapa right after. You can book for trains easily from the Hanoi train station or from various travel agencies around Hanoi. Shared minivan from Lao Cai to Sapa cost USD 5, while public buses runs at USD 2.50 and the journey takes one hour.

 

WHERE TO STAY IN SAPA

Choices of accommodations in Sapa are abundant, ranging from cute boutique hotels to five star resorts. I opted to stay with Sapa Hope Center, a non profit organization in Sapa that provides free English lesson to minority children. The center also doubles up as a hostel, with basic dorms starting from USD 3 per night and that was the cheapest I’ve ever paid throughout my South East Asia jaunt. Facilities were basic, but they have hot showers and fleece blankets for the cold nights which is more than enough.

Alternatively you may try Sapa Eden Hotel here and Fansipan Sapa Hotel here.

I came with the intention to teach and volunteer but it was the Tet holidays so the kids went home to their families. Yet my stay was extremely memorable thanks to the hospitality of the owners.

Ta Van Thuong (Peter) and his wife were very accommodating, and my stay was very pleasant. Every profit made by the organization goes back to the community – either for education funds or to provide shelters for orphaned and neglected children. If you’re thinking of volunteering during your travels, the Sapa Hope Center is one option to consider.

WHAT TO DO IN SAPA

Sapa in general can be small, yet this bustling little town has so much to offer. There is definitely something for everyone, ranging from quaint little cafes to Fansipan Mountain for the adventure seekers.

I didn’t had the time to do Fansipan Mountain (highest mountain in Indochina!) but I heard it’s quite an easy trek and doable for a day hike. Other notable attractions in Sapa like the Stone Church and Quang Truong Square is worth a visit. And of course the Sapa Market is a place not to miss. Bun Cha is the local dish you should try, along with other delicacies and grilled street food by the street.

Also, if you had the chance, take some local goods home! Sapa is the hub for tribal crafts, so if you’ve been eyeing that tribal handbag for ages get them in Sapa! Plus you get to support the local communities too!

TREKKING THE HILLSIDE AND MOUNTAIN VILLAGES

The real gem of Sapa however, lies few kilometers away from the town center. The mountainous scene. The rice terraces. The paddy field. The colourful tribes. And a trip to Sapa wouldn’t be complete without trekking its wondrous nature.

While there were many tours operated by Hanoi-based agencies around Sapa, I had no problems in finding a good guide. Just talk to one of the ladies by the street. Chances are a lot of them would have approached you the very moment you stepped foot in Sapa, so choose the one you’re most comfortable with. Also be sure to agree with the price before making your hike. Standard prices are USD 10-USD 12 for a day trek.

Another option to consider is Sapa’s own trekking community, the Sapa Sisters. They have a pretty good reputation among travelers, and most of the profit goes back to the community so it’s a win-win situation.

The view during the trek was absolutely breathtaking. For the adventure lovers it was definitely my cup of tea. We encountered several wildlife along the way, ranging from wild horses to mountain goats. There were locals trekking the hillside on their way back to the town, yet most would walk with you for a conversation or two (and somehow ending up with them trying to sell you stuffs).

Be sure to pack light as it gets pretty intense throughout the afternoon. Small snacks, water bottles and light clothing are more than enough. Wear sturdy shoes while you’re at it too.

THE HOMESTAY

Our guide invited us to stay at her place for the night, and we couldn’t say no to the opportunity. While the trek provided us with amazing view, the home stay however was the main icing to the cake – and it was a really nice change. As we approached her humble home, neighbours would popped out their heads to say hi, dogs would wag its tail to get a pat or two, and children would rushed to ogle at the newcomers.

Somehow it felt like home. My host family didn’t had much, but they received us with welcome arms. They fed us vegetables and smoked meat, with fire burned from charcoal pit. They served us rice wine in conjunction with the new year celebration, and wrapped us in fleece blankets for the cold night. Even with the social barrier and language differences, for a short time it felt as if I’m back home. I was floored.

I pretty much spent my whole time in Sapa doing the trek, homestay and wandering around the town of Sapa – and it was more than enough. Some went and did the tour to Cat Cat Village, some went and summit Mount Fansipan. For me it was a slow five days trip as I ventured around town and chill at cafes sipping hot Vietnamese coffees, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

HOW MUCH DID I SPENT IN SAPA?

AccommodationSapa Hope Center (USD 3 x 2 nights)USD 6
TransportationSleepers Bus (return)USD 30
ActivitiesTrek + HomestayUSD 30
Food & DrinksAssortedUSD 15
MiscellanousSouvenirs (bag)USD 10
TOTALUSD 94

I spent USD 94 for 5 days and it’s really not that bad, considering that I was on a USD 30 budget per day. I saved a lot from the trek and homestay (our host graciously cooked for us) and my hostel serves really cheap instant noodles. This was one of my cheapest excursion in Vietnam given how expensive Halong Bay and Hanoi was for me.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Leaving was the hardest part. I spent 5 short days in Sapa, and wished I’d spent more. I think the best part about Sapa was discovering the people, and if I were given a chance to return – I would definitely like to do it all over again.

Shortly after this I made my way back to Hanoi, with hopes that I could catch a bus to Laos. Unfortunately I had problems with my card that forces me to fly back to Thailand (as it was the nearest country with my banking chain), and eventually back to Malaysia. Had things turned out differently, I would have made my way to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Chiang Mai – but I did managed to spend a couple days extra in Bangkok, and a quick getaway to Koh Chang while sorting out my banking card fiasco (lessons learnt – always have a spare credit card, or emergency cash stash!)

But hey shit happens and new adventure awaits, plus the more reason for me to come back on and explore this region in the near future. Till next time! Curious on the rest of Vietnam? Read on my adventures here!

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By Alyssa J

Alyssa J is an aspiring traveller and a wanderlust writer, aiming to inspire and to share the little joys of the world. Follow on her journeys on The Jaren Wanders.

9 Comments

  1. Reply

    Cali

    Your post made me super nostalgic! I visited Sapa, also in February (but 2016) for some trekking. The weather was crap and the views were foggy, but I loved my trekking guide and meeting the local hardworking women. I distinctly recall my guide telling me the men stay home and drink rice wine all day!

  2. Reply

    Ana Sofia

    Your photos are breathtaking. The babies omgoodness. Thank you for the inspiration!

  3. Reply

    JC

    Loving the composition of your photos! But this story in it’s entirety almost made me feel as though I was there. Vietnam is definitely on my must-get-to list.

  4. Reply

    tessajuliette

    wow! Backpacking to Sapa is now on my list!!

    xo
    Tessa
    http://travelwheretonext.com

  5. Reply

    alexisrae13

    Sapa looks beautiful! I’ll be in Vietnam the middle of next year sometime, and I’m adding this to the list!

  6. Reply

    Thewanderingdarlings

    Your photographs are amazing!! I really like the tone of them. This place looks like a great place to explore. I like how you put how much you spent at the end. Really useful

  7. Reply

    Jo

    Beautiful photos. I haven’t thought about visiting Vietnam. Thanks for the inspiration.

  8. Reply

    Sue Reddel

    I’ve only been to the larger cities in Viet Nam but I can certainly see why Sapa and the highlands would be worth traveling to. Your photos are absolutely beautiful!

  9. Reply

    Danique

    Your photos are simply stunning! I have been to this area two years ago but with a tour, so I haven’t seen anything you saw. But I loved it as well and I would love to go back there one day to see the rice fields when they are green!

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