Sapa is a town in the mountains of North Vietnam, originally a hill station for the French in 1922, now a base for trekking in the surrounding countryside through cascading rice terraces and small hill-tribe villages.
There are a few options to get there from Hanoi. Most hotels will try to sell you a package tour which includes transport, treks and accommodation. If you have time and want to be more flexible you can book transport and accommodation yourself then arrange a trek when you get there, which is what we did. Most people take the overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai and then a one hour bus to Sapa. There is also the option of an overnight bus.
We took the Sapa Express morning bus, direct from Hanoi to Sapa in 6 hours for $14. This is a fairly new service since the introduction of the new highway, but we like travelling in the day time rather than overnight and the bus was pure luxury compared to the regular buses.
Sapa is very touristy and you do get hassled a lot in the street by ladies selling their crafts, but they are just trying to make a living. We really liked the town and ended up staying a week there, the weather was a nice cool break from the heat and humidity of Hanoi.
There are several trekking options and hundreds of tour companies to choose from. It’s worth checking to see if the money goes to the indigenous guides directly. We opted for a 1 day trek to Lao Chai and Ta Van, with a girl from the Black Hmong tribe as our guide. The walk was fairly easy and took us through beautiful rice terraces and small villages. We were there just after the rice had been harvested but in the right season these terraces can look even more lush green and fabulous.
While in Sapa we took the opportunity to visit the Sunday market in Bac Ha. We booked transport through our hotel and it was a long journey – around 3 hours each way. We were also late arriving as we had an incident on leaving Sapa. Our driver hit a child in the street and completely crushed his foot. We loaded him into the van and drove him to a hospital. It was a pretty horrible thing to witness and the driver was visibly shaken, we just hope the poor kid was alright.
The Bac Ha market is fascinating and is where the local minority tribes bring their livestock, goods and rice wine to sell each week. The colourful dresses of the Flower Hmong Tribe, along with other minorities make it a vibrant, energetic event.
Next time we would probably stay overnight on the Saturday and get to the market early, to see it in full swing before the crowds of other tourists arrive.