The Queen of the Mountains, Sapa sits regally overlooking a beautiful valley, lofty mountains towering over the town on all sides. Welcome to the destination in northwest Vietnam, gateway to another world of mysterious minority cultures and luscious landscapes. The spectacular scenery that surrounds Sapa includes cascading rice terraces that spill down the mountains like a patchwork quilt. The mountains are often shrouded in mist that rolls back and forth along the peaks, offering tantalising glimpses of what lies in wait on a clear day. The valleys and villages around Sapa are home to a host of hill-tribe people who wander in to town to buy, sell and trade.
In a beautiful valley close to the Chinese border, Sapa is a former hill station built in 1922. History has not always been kind to Sapa, and the series of conflicts that swept over Vietnam nearly saw it wiped off the map. From WWII, successive wars against the French and the USA, not forgetting the more recent border skirmish with China in 1979, took their toll. The old hotels built by the French were allowed to fall into disrepair and Sapa was forgotten by all but a handful of residents
How to get to Sapa
Bus, minibus & motorbike
Sapa’s proximity to the border region makes it a possible first or last stop for travellers crossing between Vietnam and China.
The gateway to Sapa is Lao Cai, 38km away on the Chinese border. Buses to points west such as Lai Chau and Dien Bien Phu pass through a few times a day from Lao Cai, the main transport hub. Sapa’s bus station (for minibuses in this case) is in the north of town.
Minibuses make the trip from Lao Cai regularly between 5am and 5pm (35, 000d, 1½ hours). In Sapa, minibuses wait in front of the church but do not run to any particular schedule. However, in Lao Cai minibuses wait for the train that arrives from Hanoi. If you are arriving from China, you can pick one up at Lao Cai bus station.
The advertised rate of hotel minibus services to Bac Ha (110km) for the Sunday market is around US$10 per person; departure from Sapa is at 6am and from Bac Ha at 1pm. It’s cheaper to go to Bac Ha by public minibus, changing buses in Lao Cai.
Driving a motorbike from Hanoi to Sapa is feasible, but it’s a very long trip, so start early. The total distance between Hanoi and Sapa is 380km. The last 38km are straight uphill – unless you’ve been training for the Olympics, it’s hell on a bicycle.
The train trip between Lao Cai (gateway station to Sapa) and Hanoi has become much more comfortable with the advent of a soft-sleeper class and private rail carriages hitching a ride on the main train. Currently, a sleeper ticket between Hanoi and Sapa can be booked only through hotels and agencies in Sapa, but in Hanoi you can book at First Choice
Ticket prices start at 79, 000d for a hard seat (bad choice!) to 280,000d for an air-conditioned soft sleeper, and rise by about 10% at weekends. There are also several companies operating special private carriages with comfortable sleepers, including the affordable ET Pumpkin , Fansipan Express, Livitrans Express, and the more luxurious and expensive Victoria Express.
The day train leaves Lao Cai at 10.20am, while two night trains depart 8.35pm and 9.15pm, with the later express service including the private carriages. The journey takes about 10 hours. From Hanoi the all-stations day train departs at 6.15am and the night trains depart at 9.20pm and 10pm respectively
Restaurants in Sapa Vietnam
Baguette & Chocolat Café
Address: Ð Thac Bac, town centre
On a cold and wet day, this place is a welcome retreat for a warm cocoa and delectable gateaux. The menu keeps growing and now includes some Asian greatest hits. Or indulge in comfort food from home, with pizzas, salads and baguettes. Takeaway picnics are a smart option for trekkers.
Address: Pho Cau May, town centre
Tel: 3871 799
The taste of Italy in Sapa, Delta turns out the most authentic pizzas in town. Pastas and home-cooking complete the picture
Address: Ð Ham Rong, Park Area
Tel: 3871 504
The original French restaurant in Sapa, not counting the 1920s of course, this is authentically housed in an old colonial-era property. The set menus are good value. Or try a banquet of Vietnamese cuisine. The bar is a possible retreat on a cold night
Set just a staircase above the main drag, this restaurant has an unending menu of Vietnamese favourites. From the upstairs panorama room, there are some great views over town and the mountains beyond.
Pho Cau May, town centre
Ly Ly Restaurant
Address: 36 Pho Cau May
It may not be obvious from the name, but this little eatery has morphed into the town's first and only Indian restaurant. Curries, dahl, nan and lassies, it's possible to indulge in a Mumbai master class here
Nature Bar & Grill
Address: Pho Cau May
It's easy to sink into the comfy furnishings here and while away an afternoon or evening. The extensive menu includes some authentic Vietnamese cuisine and a few Western exiles for good measure. Speaking of measures, they also shake up a good cocktail.
Villages in Sapa Area
Cat Cat Village | Lao Chai Village | Ta Van Village |Ta Phin Village | Y Ling Ho Village | Ban Ho Village | Sin Chai Village
Markets in Sapa Area
Bac Ha Market | Pha Long Market | Muong Khuong Market | Coc Ly Market | Can Cau Market | Sapa Market