VIETNAM TRAVEL

 

Northwest Vietnam

Hoa Binh - Song Da Reservoir - Mai Chau - Moc Chau - Yen Chau - Son La - Tuan Giao - Pa Khoang Lake - Dien Bien Phu - Muong Lay - Muong Te - Sin Ho - Lai Chau - Sa Pa - Lao Cai - Bac Ha - Ha Giang Province

SAPA

IDD Code: (+84) 020
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 spec-tacular 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. With the advent of tourism, Sapa has experienced a renaissance. Bad roads have been upgraded, many streets have been given names, countless new hotels have popped up, the electricity supply is reliable and the food has improved immeasurably. Inherent in all of this prosperity is cultural change for the Montagnards, many of whom are now well versed in the ways of the cash economy and are reaping the financial rewards of the tourism influx. The downside is a building boom that has seen one hotel after another raise the roof in a continual quest for better views. Height restrictions are rarely enforced and the Sapa skyline is changing for the worse. Another inconvenience that will not change is the weather. If you visit off-season, don't forget your winter woollies. Not only is it cold (like 0°C), but winter brings fog and drizzle. Quite why the French alighted on this spot is difficult to comprehend: it must have been one of those rare clear days when the views are to die for. The chilly climate does have its ad vantages, however. The area boasts temperate zone fruit trees bearing peaches and plums, and gardens for raising medicinal herbs. The dry season in Sapa lasts from around January to June. January and February arc the coldest (and foggiest) months. From March to May the weather is often excellent, and the summer is warm despite the rains between June and August. The window from September to mid-December is a rewarding time to be in Sapa, though there is a bit of lingering rain at the start and the temperature dips by December. Sapa would be of considerably less interest without the H’mong and Dzao people, the largest ethnic groups in the region. The billowing red headdresses of the Red Dzao are visible all over town, a surreal sight amid the accelerating development. The H'mong are more numerous and canny traders. Their villages may look medieval but most ,will have a mobile phone and an email address to stay in touch. Traditionally, they were the poorest of the poor, hut have rapidly learnt the spirit of free enterprise. Most of the Montagnards have had little formal education and are illiterate, yet all the youngsters have a good command of English, French and a handful of other languages. If possible, try to visit during the week, when Sapa is less crowded and more intimate. Crowds flock to Sapa for the Saturday market, but a smaller market is held every day There is plenty to see on weekdays, and there are lots of interesting villages within walking distance of the centre.
Orientation
There is some contusion regarding Pho Cau May and Đ Muong Hoa. Note that places on the western side use Pho Cau May as their address while locations on the eastern side use Đ Muong Hoa.
MAPS: The Sapa Tourist Map is an excellent 1:60,000 scale map of the walking trails and attractions around Sapa, plus an inset of the town. The Sapa Trekking Map is a nice little hand-drawn map showing trekking routes and the town, produced by Covit. Both cost 20,000d.
Information
INTERNET ACCESS: Internet access is available in countless hotels and travel offices around town, usually from 5000d per hour.
MONEY: The banking situation has improved considerably in Sapa, with a real bank complete with an ATM. Most hotels accept US dollars, but expect a worse exchange rate than in Hanoi. BIDV (tell: 872 569; Đ Ngu Chi Son; 7-11.30 & 1.30 4.30pm) Currently the best all-rounder in town, with an ATM, plus exchange of travellers cheques and cash. It is by the fake in the new part of town.
POST: Main post office (Đ Ham Rong) International phone calls can be made here, but for postal services it's better to hang on and consign things from Hanoi, as it is much faster. Internet access is also available.
TRAVEL AGENCIES: There are several reliable travel companies in Sapa for trekking, mountain hiking and other adventure activities, as well as those recom-mended under below. Handspan Travel ( 8 Pho Cau May) A popular outfit for trekking and mountain biking, it offers overnight tours to nearby villages and markets, with a combination of trekking and biking. Topas Travel (24 Muong Hoa) A Sapa-based ecotourist operator offering trekking, hiking and village encounters it employs many of its guides from the minority groups in the region. It also operates the Topas Eco Lodge.
Sights & Activities: The easiest trek in town is to follow the step’s up to the Sapa radio tower (admission 15,000d) for killer views of the valley. Montagnards from surrounding villages don their best clothes and go to the Sapa market most days. Saturday is the busiest day, and the town is choking with tourists as the evening "love market" is a big magnet for organised tour groups from Hanoi. If you'd rather enjoy Sapa at a more sedate pace, avoid the Saturday market. The love market is speed dating minority style. Tribal teenagers trek into town to find a mate. It's all very coy, but unlike many of the more remote love markets in the region, it has become very commercial in recent years, These days there are more camera-toting tourists than love-sick Montagnards, as well as a smattering of opportunist prostitutes on the scene.
TREKKING TO LOCAL VILLAGES: It is quite easy to undertake day hikes through the valleys around Sapa without the assistance of a guide. However, for overnight stays in villages and longer treks into the mountains, it is advisable to hook up with a local guide. Where possible we suggest the use of minority guides, as this offers a means of making a living. There are endless options for trekking. Pick up a decent map and plot your course. The villages and the surrounding landscape are now part of Hoang Lien National Park. The nearest village within walking distance is Cat Cat (admission 5000d), 3km south of Sapa. Like everywhere in this area, it's a steep and very beautiful hike down; if you're too exhausted or unfit to hike back up, there are plenty of xe om ready and willing to car you back to your hotel. Another popular hike is to Ta Phin village (admission 5000d), home to Red Dzao and about 10km from Sapa. Most people take a xe om to a starting point about 8km from Sapa and then make a 14km loop through the area, passing through Black H'mong and Red Dzao villages. Most hotels offer guided day and half-day treks; depending on the number of people and what, if any, vehicles are needed, expect to pay somewhere between US$10 and US$30.
There are also community-based tours to the nearby H'mong village of Sin Chai with an overnight in the village to learn about textiles or music and dance. Other popular communities to visit include the Giay village of TaVan and the Black H'mong village of Matra. Long-standing (and still recommended) places to ask about guided treks include Au-berge Hotel (tell: 871243), CatCatView Hotel (tell: 871 946) and Mountain View Hotel (tell: 871334). There are also several tour-booking offices on the main street.
FANSIPAN
Surrounding Sapa are the Hoang Lien Mountains, nicknamed the Tonkinese Alps by the French. These mountains include Fansipan, which at 3143m is Vietnam's highest peak. The summit towers above Sapa, although it is often obscured by clouds and is occasionally dusted with snow. The peak is accessible all year to those in good shape and properly equipped, but don't underestimate the chal-lenge. It is very wet, and can be perilously slippery and generally cold, so you must be prepared. Do not attempt an ascent if the weather is terrible in Sapa, as limited visibility on Fansipan could be treacherous. The summit of Fansipan is 19km from Sapa and can be reached only on foot. The terrain is rough and adverse weather is frequent. Despite the short distance, the round trip usually takes three days; some very fit and experienced hikers do it in two days, but this is rare. After the first morning you won't see any villages: just the forest, striking mountain vistas and perhaps some local wildlife such as monkeys, mountain goats and birds. No ropes or technical climbing skills are needed, just endurance. There are no mountain huts or other facilities along the way (yet), so you need to be self-sufficient. This means taking a sleeping bag, waterproof lent, food, stove, raincoat or poncho, compass and other miscellaneous survival gear. Hiring a reputable guide is vital and, unless you arc a seriously experienced mountaineer, find ing porters who will carry your gear is also strongly recommended. For recommendations on trekking guides see the earlier sections on Trekking to Local villages (opposite) and Travel Agencies (opposite). If you organise the climb through a local operator, you'll find yourself paying an all-inclusive rate of around US$90 per person for a couple, US$80 per person for a group of four and US$70 per person for the sensible maximum group size of six. Weather-wise the best time for making the ascent is from mid-October to mid-December, and again in March, when wildflowers are in bloom.
TRAM TON PASS
The incredible road between Sapa and Lai Chau crosses the Tram Ton Pass on the northern side of Fansipan, 15km from Sapa. At 1900m this is the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. Even if you are not planning to carry on around the northwest, it is well worth coming up here to experience the incredible views from the top of this pass. Descend by mountain bike before returning by truck or rent a motorbike to make the short hop to the new Tam Duong (Binh Lu). This is a seriously spectacular ride. On the Sapa side of the mountain the weather is often cold. foggy and generally miserable. Drop down a few hundred metres below the pass on the Lai Chau side and it will often be sunny and warm. Ferocious winds come ripping over the pass, which is not surprising given the temperature differ ences - Sapa is the coldest place in Vietnam while Lai Chau is the warmest. Tram Ton Pass is the dividing line between two great weather fronts - who says you can't see air? Alongside the road, about 5km towards Sapa. is Thac Bac (the. Silver Waterfall). With a height of 100m, it's a big one, and the loop track (admission 3000d) is steep and scenic.
Sleeping
Hotels are popping up like mushrooms around Sapa. Luckily the mushroom man tra of 'keep them in the dark and feed them shit' that applies to the attitude of so many budget hotels in Hanoi is not common here. However, prices can fluctuate wildly according to the volume of tourist traffic and they often double on busy weekends. Look around and negotiate. Needless to say, it's wise to avoid the weekend rush. Accommodation is pie-arranged for travellers on tours hooked in Hanoi, although it is worth checking the standard of the hotel in advance so you don't get any unpleasant surprises. There are now dozens of accommodation options, from a solid string of cheap guesthouses to a luxury resort. The hotels named here generally offer rooms and/or balconies with views - the scenery is, after all, one of the main reasons for visiting Sapa. However, be aware that the building boom can wipe out a view overnight: always check the view before you rent the room. It is a real shame the local government hasn't done more to enforce height restrictions on the valley edge. New hotels can be better value than the older ones, so it is worth taking a look if you hear of somewhere that's just opened. Almost no hotels have air-conditioning as it is never hot enough to warrant it. This is not an exhaustive list of places to sleep: there are plenty of other hotels in town that are also good value, especially in the newer part of town, but they lack the scenic setting. Beware of hotels using old-style charcoal burners for heat, as the fumes can cause severe breathing problems if the room's not well ventilated. These caused a number of deaths in the early years of tourism, but most hotels have switched over to electric heaters or open fireplaces for the winter.
BUDGET
Lotus Hotel (tell: 871308; 5 Đ Muong Hoa; r US$4-10) Occupying a strategic corner in the centre of town, this place is enticingly good value. Staff are friendly, the rooms are pretty spacious and many include balconies with views across to the valley. All rooms have hot water, TV and a fireplace.
Pinodlio Hotel (tell: 871876; 15 Đ Muong Hoa; r US$4-8) This is a real labyrinth of a place that winds its way up the hillside. Make the effort to climb the stairs to the top, as the rooms here have balconies, views and easy access to the rooftop restaurant.
Queen Hotel (ĐT: 871 301; fax 871 783; Đ Muong Hoa;r US$5-10) One of the old-timers in town, this place remains popular thanks to the fun and friendly staff. Size matters when it comes to price, but all rooms have hot water and TV Aim high for views.
Hoi An Hotel ( tell: 872220; Đ PhanSi.-r US$10) One of the newer hotels in town, at least at the time of writing, this is consequently great value. The rooms are desirably decorated with sparkling bathrooms and the views should remain uninterrupted for some time.
Ourpick Mountain View Hotel (tell: 871334; fax 871 690; Đ Cau May; r US$8-18) Location, location, location. This hotel has just that, sitting in the centre of town, but offering 180° views of the valley below. The owner was one of the first female trekking guides in Sapa and has reinvested wisely. Invest the US$18 for doubly dramatic views from corner rooms. All rooms come with hot water and TV. Other good possibilities that are located a short stroll down the valley:
Green Valley Hostel (tell: 871449; 45 Đ Muong Hoa; r US$4-8) The Hostelling International choice in town, this place has cheap, comfortable rooms and unobstructed views.
Luong Thuy Guesthouse (tell: 872 310; 28 0 Muong Hoa; r US$4-8) A little closer to town, this is another bar-gain with small rooms, but big views from the balconies.
MIDRANGE
Ourpick Cat Cat View Hotel (tell: 871 946;  Đ Phan Si Pang; r US$ 10-30; Deservedly popular for its friendly and honest service, this is a sprawling complex draped over the hillside. The smalt wing across the road has cheaper rooms, while those way above recep¬tion, with all the trimmings, are a few dollars more. It's worth the trek, as the views are breathtaking. Sapa Summit Hotel (ĐT: 872 967; 10 Đ Thac Bac; r USS10-30;) A new hotel on the road to Thac Bac, this is currently the best deal in town. Rooms include wooden floors, real satellite TV, central heating and sharp bathrooms. The gardens are lovingly laid out and include day facilities for those awaiting the night train. Baguette & Chocolat ( Đ Thac Bac; r US$18) Run by the popular Hoa Sua group helping disadvantaged youth, this is a tiny four-bedroom guesthouse above the excellent bakery. The elegant little rooms are thoughtfully decorated, but it's essential to book ahead. Rates include a great breakfast downstairs. Auberge Hotel ( 7 Đ Muong Hoa; r US$15-28; Akin to a Sapa institution, tills place has been around as long as the mist over the valley. As usual, it pays to wind your way up through the bonsai garden for clear views. The more expensive upper-floor rooms have fireplaces and fine furnishings. It's a good place for travel and trekking information, plus credit cards are accepted. Topas Eco lodge With a striking setting over-looking the voluptuous valley below, Topas Eco Lodge is located in Tan Kim village, about 18km from Sapa and much lower in altitude, so It can be warmer and clearer in the winter months. Featuring solar power, waste-water management and minority staff, let's hope this is first of many such ventures. The Lodge can provide transfers at extra cost for arrival and departure. Bamboo Sapa Hotel ( Đ Muong Hoa; s/d USS29-39; One of the first serious midrange hotels to open in town, it is still going strong. Standards are three star with large, airy rooms and breezy balconies with extensive views. Royal View Sapa (16PhoCauMay;rUS$30-65;Brazenly breaching all the height restrictions in town, this consequently has top views of the valley. Smart touches include a well-stocked minibar and ample bathtubs. There is also a lift and a ter-race cafe for dining with a view. Other places that are worth checking out: Royal Hotel (Pho Cau May; r US$12-20; A well-established hotel that sees a lot of tour business. Sapa Goldsea Hotel ( Đ Phan Si; r US$17-45) Creature comforts on the road to Cat Cat is what you get at this modern hotel.

TOP END: Chau Long Hotel (24 Đ Dong Loi; r USS32-180) The Chau Long was long a smart midrange hotel that famously resem¬bled a castle. When the neighbours started obscuring the views, the owner bought them out and built a smart new four-star hotel. It has big valley views and all the amenities you might expect. If the new wing prices are as steep as the valley walls from US$115, then opt for the old wing, where iust US$32 buys a piece of the action. Victoria Sapa Hotel ( rfrom US$165; This is the place where Sapa becomes Switzerland: a delightful mountain lodge with stylish service and smart rooms. This hotel has it all: sweeping views from the restaurant, two bars, a heated indoor swimming pool, a fitness centre and a tennis court. Visit the website for the two- or three-day discount packages for a real deal. Hotel guests can travel between Hanoi and Lao Cai in the resort's Victoria Express (luxurious train carriages a la the Orient Express attached to the regular night train). Return berths start from US$95 without meals during the week to US$280 with all meals at weekends.
Eating
Most of the busier hotels have reasonably priced cafcs, which get more popular as the weather worsens. There's a string of popular restaurants worth checking out below the market on D Tue Tinh as you head in the direction of Cat Cat village. Ourpick Baguette & Chocolat (Đ Thac Bac; cakes 6000-15,000d;breakfast, lunch & dinner) 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 for around 40,000d, Or indulge in comfort food from home, with pizzas, salads and baguettes. Takeaway picnics are a smart option for trekkers.
Nature Bar & Grill (Pho Cau May; meals 15,000-50.000d; breakfast, lunch & dinner) It's easy to sink into the comfy furnishings and while away an afternoon or evening. The extensive menu includes authentic Vietnamese cuisine and a few Western exiles for good measure. Speaking of measures, they also shake up a good cocktail. Vtet Emotion (tell: 872 559; 25 Pho Cau May; mains 20,000-40,000d; ^' breakfast, lunch & dinner) A smart new cafe-restaurant on the main drag, this place has an original menu of specials, including goose. If that sounds too exotic, there arc good shakes and more familiar food. Gerbera Restaurant (tell: 871064; Pho Cau May; mains from 20,000d; breakfast, lunch & dinner) 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. Ly Ly Restaurant (36 Pho Cau May; mains US$1-5; breakfast, lunch & dinner) It may not be obvious from the name, but this little eatery has morphed into the town's first and only Indian restaurant. Curries, dhal, nan and lassis, it's possible to indulge in a Mumbai masterclass here. Gecko (tell: 871 504; Đ Ham Rong; mains around USSS,lunch & dinner) 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 at just US$6 for something simple or US$10 for a banquet of Vietnamese cuisine. The b.ir is a possible retreat on a cold night. Delta Restaurant (tell: 871799; Pho Cau May; mains US$5; lunch & dinner) The taste of Italy in Sapa, Delta turns out the most authentic pizzas in town. Pastas and home-cooking complete ihe picture. Tavan Restaurant ( tell: 871522; US$4-12; lunch & dinner) The restaurant at the Victoria Sapa Hotel is one of the best in town, with a full complement of fine European food and the best in Asian fusion. Open to nonresidents, you can finish off with a local liqueur at the bar.
Drinking & Entertainment
Considering the number of travellers to Sapa, organised entertainment is relatively scarce and the bar scene slow. For most, an evening out is the guesthouse balcony, particularly when the fog rolls in. Red Dragon Pub (tell: 872 085; 23 Đ Muong Hoa) Don't let yourselves be put off by the quaint tearoom downstairs, as upstairs is a little drinking den of a Brit-style pub that flits up most evenings. Befitting a respectable pub, there is a serious range of beers and some good pub grub. The tearoom downstairs is a good stop for bangers and mash or herbal teas during the day. Tau Bar (tell: 871322; 42 Pho Cau May) As the night warms up, the only place to be is Tau Bar. Claiming to be 'slightly lounge', Tau brings a different kind of cool to the mountains of the north. There is a DIY jukebox on the computer, the cocktails are mixed by a pro and there is a pool table that always pulls a crowd. Bamboo Sapa ( Pho Cau May) This popular hotel hosts a free traditional hill-tribe music-and-dance show from 8.30pm Friday and Saturday.
Shopping
Sapa is emerging as the top shopping destination in the mountainous north. Most of the items are clothing, accessories and jewellery produced by the multitude of minority peoples in the area. More recently some Vietnamese designers have also been getting in on the act, producing clothes and household furnishings inspired by tribal motifs and patterns. Check out some of the stores on Pho Cau May for the best selection of designer gear. Lots of the minority women and young girls have gone into the souvenir business; the older women in particular are known for their strong-armed selling tactics. One frequent Sapa sight is a frenzy of elderly H'mong women clamouring around a hapless traveller to hawk their goods, which range from colourful ethnic garb to little pouches of opium stashed away in matchboxes. When negotiating prices, you do need to hold your ground, but go easy when it comes to bargaining. They may be persistent, but are not nearly as ra pacious as Vietnamese vendors. A word of warning on the clothes: as beautiful and cheap as they are, the dyes used are natural and not set. Much of the stuff sold has the potential to turn anything it touche (including your skin) an unusual blue/green colour - check out the hands and arms of the H'mong for an idea. Wash the fabric separately in cold salt water as it helps to stop the dye from running. Wrap anything you buy in plastic bags before stuffing it in your luggage.
Getting There & Away
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 (tor minibuses in this case) is in the north of town. Minibuses make the trip from Lao Cai regularly between 8am and 5pm (25,000d,11/2 hours). In Sapa, minibuses wast 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.
TRAIN
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 the station. There is an official Railway Booking Office (tell: 871480;7.30-11am&1.30-4Mpm) on Pho Cau May in Sapa which charges a 7000d service fee for seats, 10.000d for a sleeper. Ticket prices start at 79,000d for a hard seat (bad choice!) to 223,000d for an air-conditioned soft sleeper, and rise by about 10% at weekends. There arc also several companies operating special private carriages with comfortable sleepers, including the affordable ET Pumpkin 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.
Getting Around
The best way to get around Sapa is to walk, and almost everywhere it's steep! Anyone training for the Tour de France can rent a bicycle for the day, but you might spend half the time pushing it up steep, steep hills. For excursions further afield you can hire a self-drive motorbike from about US$6 a day, or take one with a driver for about US$10. Cars, 4WDs and minibuses are also available for hire through hotels, guesthouses and travel agents. Rates vary widely depending on the destination and the distance.
PROCLAIMING INDEPENDENCE
When it comes to budget hotels in Hanoi, everyone seems to be trying to sell a tour. While this can be a cheap and convenient way to see Halong Bay, it is really not necessary for Sapa and the surrounding villages. Sapa is easily accessible by a combination of train and bus, finding a good hotel is very straightforward and it's an adventure to hike or bike around the valleys on your own. If you get pressured into a tour, then you have no choice over what you see and do in and around Sapa. Perhaps you want to stay a day longer, perhaps you want a smarter room, perhaps you want a homestay in a Dzao village or perhaps you want to drop off the top of the Tram Ton Pass on a mountain bike? Too late, you've signed on the line. There are lots of good tour operators (some affiliated to the popular hotels) based in Sapa who specialise in the area. Our recommendation would be to travel here independently and make arrangements as you go. This brings choice and flexibility - what travelling independently is meant to be about. If you are sun set on taking a tour, check out the list of recommended agents in the Hanoi chapter.