Sapa seems to be on everyone’s “to visit” list when planning a trip to Vietnam. Ironically, it wasn’t initially on mine. I was afraid it’d be too touristy, too commercialized, too inauthentic. And while, yes, it is the most popular destination for backpackers in Northern Vietnam, it’s for good reason. It wasn’t until my original plans to explore more of Ha Giang fell through that I found myself needing to rearrange my itinerary, so I decided to check out Sapa nonetheless. After all, touristy places are usually touristy for a reason.
Upon arriving, I realized that it wasn’t as touristy as I had imagined. Yes, there are some backpackers and some pushy H'mong women trying to sell you their crafts, but once you veer from the main strip, you wouldn’t know that Sapa was one of the most popular places in the north. I highly recommend staying at one of the hotels up the hill, a few minutes from the town center; there, you’ll find genuine locals, tasty food at extremely reasonable prices, and a quietness that you won’t find in the center.
If you only have a handful of days in Sapa, there are 8 things that I recommend you do…
1. Go for a Trek
This is the #1 thing to do in Sapa. Its surroundings are characterized by vibrant, rolling rice terraces that one could gaze at for days. While I did a two-day trek, you can arrange everything from half day hikes to multi-day treks. I’d recommend joining a guided trek led by the local H’mong people. At first I was quite hesitant about this, as I’m a comfortable hiker and didn’t feel the need to be guided, but it turns out that the trails aren’t well-marked and the locals make it a far more immersive experience. I spent half a day on a guided trek, and the other day and a half exploring on my own. Your hotel will be able to help you with your booking, and provide you with maps of your own as well.
2. Grab a Bike and Ride the Tram Ton Pass
At nearly 2,000m, the Tram Tron Pass is the highest pass in all of Vietnam. This is the incredibly windy, beautiful mountain pass between Sapa and Lai Chau. It’s colder than anywhere else in Vietnam, so be sure to bundle up (seriously, I’m talking jacket, hat, and gloves)!
3. Stand in Awe at the Cong Troi Lookout
This was one of my favorite viewpoints in all of Vietnam, if not my absolute favorite viewpoint. Recommended to me by a friend, this area has many viewing platforms overlooking the Tram Ton Pass, Mt. Fansipan, and the valley below. Be sure to plan it so that you arrive before sunset and can watch the sky change beautiful colors before your eyes. This is often referred to as Heaven’s Gate (different from the Heaven’s Gate in Ha Giang), as its landscapes are so stunning that it “resembles the gate to Heaven” according to locals.
4. Check out the Muong Hoa Valley
The Muong Hoa Valley simply left me speechless. Every turn will greet you with beautiful views of the valley, and if you go deep enough into the Muong Hoa Valley, you’ll even find stone paintings dating back over 3,000 years.
5. Walk around Sapa Lake
Located in the heart of town, this lake offers lovely views of the mountains surrounding Sapa. Spend some time walking around it, or rent a pedal boat and get out into the lake itself.
6. Look up at the (touristy) Silver Falls
Thac Bac Waterfall, commonly known as Silver Falls, is one of the biggest attractions for those visiting Sapa. This 200m waterfall takes about 30 minutes to reach from Sapa town. Many are impressed by this waterfall, but quite frankly, I enjoyed the views surrounding it more than the waterfall itself.
7. Wander the Vuon Hoa H’Mong Flower Gardens
The Vuon Hoa H’Mong Flower Gardens were a lovely surprise while driving around. Spend some time wandering through the picturesque gardens before continuing on…
8. Hike to the Top of Ham Rong Mountain
If you find yourself in Sapa around sunset, make your way up Ham Rong Mountain for a great view over the town. There are a lot of steps up to the viewing platform on the top, but you can take ample breaks at the various stalls and gardens on your way.
9. Visit the Cat Cat Village
If you don’t feel like trekking, but still want to see some rice fields and take in mountain views, you can walk to the Cat Cat Village, 3km from Sapa. It takes about 20-30 minutes to walk there, and then factor in 1-2 hours to explore the ethnic village itself. It’s a good look into what life is like for the local ethnic communities, albeit very touristy. This can most definitely be done on your own, so there is no need to hire a guide.
10. Sleep in a Capsule
Whether you spent the day riding around the mountain passes or trekking through the rice terraces, I personally love knowing that at the end of the day I’m headed back to comfortable accommodations. I found just that at the Sapa Capsule Hotel. As soon as I saw the name online, I knew it was the place for me; I’d always wanted to sleep in a capsule hotel in Japan, but it’s difficult to find a capsule hotel that allows women.
The Sapa Capsule Hotel is located up a hill surrounding the city, so it’s not only peaceful, but also surrounded by great local eateries, and offers sweeping views of Sapa below. The Capsule itself is totally awesome and offers complete privacy. Each Capsule has air conditioning, a mini safe, and plenty of outlets, as well a mirror and LED control board. I highly recommend the “Superior Capsule Room with Mountain View” because it has an epic terrace as well as double beds within the Capsule. On top of the incredibly comfortable Capsules, the staff was fantastic — as nice, welcoming, friendly, and helpful as could be. I shared a few meals with them and they were simply wonderful! Truly enhanced my experience.
Despite the touristy vibes associated with Sapa, I couldn’t recommend visiting more! It’s an absolutely stunning region with landscapes that are bound to blow you away.