Sapa (or Sa Pa) is a mountain town in northwestern Vietnam. It’s very close to China, and you can sense the similarity in the culture of the region. We were surprised to learn a whole bit about the town itself when we arrived. Here’s how long you should spend in Sapa and what you should know first.
What is the town of Sapa like?
Sapa itself is rather picturesque when it’s nice out, but if it’s foggy and you can’t see the mountains in the distance, it kind of all looks the same. Sapa is a destination that grew from a small hill post to a must-see tourist destination in less than 15 years.
According to TripAdvisor, there are approximately 500 accommodation listings in the region, and that’s crazy!
When you get to Sapa, you can tell that most of it was developed within the last decade, both catering to Western and Asian tourists. The new-ish development takes away slightly from the charm, but you can still have views of the mountains from most parts of the town on a nice day.
As for sights that are authentically Vietnamese, there is the town market (the “Cho”), the town square and the more “local-style” eateries that have short stools, fluorescent lighting and menus of solely Vietnamese food in a few varieties.
Spending a half-day in Sapa before or after your trek
You can see all of Sapa’s town proper in about half a day. Among the sights to see are the city market, called the “Cho,” the small lake, the small central park, the plaza, the small Christian church and Sun Station, where you can catch the funicular to Fansipan (we didn’t do this).
All these places are walk-able within less than twenty minutes of each other. Our favorite thing we found to do in Sapa was to walk down the hill out of town toward Pao’s Sapa, a new four-star hotel, where you can get some sunset views of the nearby rice terraces visible from the road.
Keep in mind that the mountains are so tall to the west that the sun will dip behind them an hour before actual sunset time. Don’t miss it!
Sample itinerary for trekking in Sapa
In order to not rush our time too much and to avoid starting our trek after sleeping (or having trouble sleeping) on an overnight bus, we booked daytime buses. Our four-day trip went like this:
- 7 am departure from Hanoi to Sapa on Friday
- 1:30 pm arrival in Sapa on Friday
- rested in hotel, found dinner, and went to bed early before trek
- 9 am trek start with Sapa Tribal Trekking
- overnight in Hmong village homestay with our guide
- 9 am trek start for day two after sleeping in Hmong village homestay
- 3 pm trek finish and arrival back in Sapa
- 4 pm checked into our second hotel
- 9 pm fell asleep from being so exhausted from the sun and heat!
- 9 am breakfast and walking around town during the morning
- 1 pm arrival to Sapa Express bus office for boarding
- 1:30 pm departure on Sapa Express from Sapa to Hanoi
- 7 pm arrival back in Hanoi
How to get to Sapa from Hanoi
There are several bus companies that run buses to Sapa from Hanoi, the most common departure point. We were referred to four bus companies by the staff at Sapa Tribal Trekking, and chose Sapa Express, as it’s the highest-rated and provided the best ease of booking.
After an afternoon of researching all the companies, we found that the other three didn’t have clear ways of booking online and paying by credit, and some didn’t have sites in English. Sapa Express was the clear winner. The company runs “luxury” and VIP bus departures around three times a day from Hanoi.
If you want to try out the train from Hanoi to Sapa, keep in mind that a) it is more expensive, b) it takes longer and c) it does not go directly to Sapa. It goes to Lao Cai, a town that borders the China border crossing. To get to Sapa after arriving by train, you must take a one-hour minibus or car.
The train provides a more comfortable overnight experience, if this is what you’re looking for in order to save time and avoid traveling during precious travel days. for us, however, bus was the clear answer.
Plan your Sapa trip around how long you think you will go trekking
You can base your time in Sapa dependent on if you wish to trek for one, two or three days. If you want to rent a motorbike, you can also speed up how you see things, or alternatively, spend even longer doing a motorbike route. We haven’t done this, but we did see motorbikes for rent everywhere in Sapa’s town!
If you think you want to stretch your time in Sapa with a homestay in Ta Van village, the most popular village for Hmong homestays, this is also something you can do. Keep in mind that homestay life is simple, and the village is small and basic, but it seems clear that travelers like to stick around to enjoy the scenery and explore on motos.
We’re very happy with the amount of time we chose to spend in Sapa. We didn’t feel rushed, and we were able to get a great night of sleep before our trek, and after. This was crucial toward not getting exhausted on either end!
There are so many types of accommodations in Sapa’s town that you can stay in a hostel or a four-star hotel, depending on your taste. We stayed in two hotels that we found on Booking.com, and both had full breakfast included!
Sapa is a great part of any Vietnam trip if you have time to go north from Hanoi and then come back down. Many travelers opt for a quintessential Ha Long Bay cruise from Hanoi and skip Sapa, and having done both, we feel that a trip to Sapa and a Sapa trekking trip provides Vietnamese minority culture with an entirely new and unique context.
Last updated on June 14th, 2021