Scaling new heights on colorful highland adventure
By Pete Wong
“YOU buy from me?” the little girl asked, tugging at my shirt while showing me a little trinket.
“No money,” I teased.
“No money, why come Sapa?” came the reply.
In these playful battles of wit, it’s the kids who often win. Tourists to Sapa in the northwest mountainous region of Vietnam bordering China are simply no match for children as young as five, schooled in the art of peddling from the day they learn to walk.
Sapa is a popular tourist destination, famous for its spectacular vistas of rice terraces and mist-covered mountains. But its real charm is its ethnic minorities, such as the Hmong, Dao and Tay hill tribes, who give this place its special local flavor.
Sapa is rife with romantic undertones. Moon, my Hmong guide told me, “If a girl follows you everywhere, it can mean one of two things. She either wants you to buy something or she likes you.”
There is even a tradition in one village where a man collaborates with friends to “abduct” a girl and confine her for three days. If the girl ends up liking him after that time, a marriage is arranged. Otherwise, she is released and free to be “abducted” again.
The French first arrived in Sapa in 1909, introducing modern amenities like buildings, roads and even a church. But it was only in 1993 that Sapa and the surrounding area were promoted as a highland retreat for tourists.
Saturday is the busiest day of the week in Sapa. That’s when the ethnic minorities from nearby village congregate at the market, dressed in their finest attire, to trade, shop and mingle with friends or search for mates. It’s also the day when city folks arrive from Hanoi on a weekend getaway.
The main strip in town is Cau May Street where most of the hotels, Western-style cafes and restaurants are located. If you want to avoid the familiar, try the local food vendors across the field opposite the church. There is also a stretch directly behind the church that turns into a night bazaar with stalls selling everything from warm clothing and souvenirs to local snacks and cheap gadgets from China.
A visit to Sapa would not be complete without exploring one of the villages of the ethnic minorities. The nearest one, Cat Cat, located about 5 kilometers outside town, is a sanitized village with nice walking paths for tourists. To see a real village, you would have to go slightly further — to Ta Van, Lao Chai, Ta Phin, Ta Van or Ban Ho. Generally, the tougher, longer and muddier the trek, the more rustic the village. There are many local tour operators in town who can arrange to take you to the villages, where you can spend the night at one of the designated homestays.
If you are physically fit, you may want to take the trek up to Fansipan. At 3,143 meters, it is the highest mountain in the region. Check with the local tour operators to arrange hikes.
Lao Cai is the largest town in the province and is famous as a thriving trading post. Locals crisscross the Friendship Bridge daily to get to the Chinese town of Hekou on the opposite side of the river. On your way back from Sapa and before you take the train or bus back to Hanoi, it might be worthwhile to spend a night in Lao Cai to do some shopping, savor the local food or perhaps hop across to China.
Bac Ha is famous for its weekly Sunday market, where hill tribes from around the area gather to trade, stock up on farm supplies or to catch up with friends. Locals travel long distances in overloaded buses or by foot to reach the market. The atmosphere is very different from Sapa because it is less touristy here and definitely more colorful, with the Flower Hmong tribe’s preference for bright red and orange clothing. Almost anything can be bought here — from chicken, pigs and horses to farming tools, household utensils and ethnic clothes. Handmade brocade and embroidered clothes are a bargain. You can take a minibus from Sapa to Bac Ha (2 hours), but the journey is shorter from Lao Cai. Be sure to get there early in the morning because the bustle starts to thin by afternoon as locals take the long treks back to their villages.
• Where to stay
There are plenty of hotels in Sapa to suit different budgets. Around town, you can try the new Hill Station Hotel (www.thehillstation.com; US$80) which is located above a deli by the same name; or Stunning View (stunningviewhotel.com; from US$14). If you like the idea of staying in a big villa with a beautiful garden, try Sapa Garden (www.sapahotel.com), which is located 2.5 kilometers outside the town center.
More upscale lodgings include the Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa (www.victoriahotels-asia.com) that has its own Victoria Express train bringing guests in from Hanoi.
If you prefer to escape to the mountains, you might like Topas Ecolodge (www.topasecolodge.com), which is located 18 kilometers outside town. Topas offers 25 rustic bungalows with tourist amenities but no TV or evening entertainment, except for the occasional buffalo sighting. However, they have recently added a new bar and a spa that offers traditional herbal baths with a mountain view.
In Lao Cai, the Lao Cai Star (www.laocaistarhotel.com) caters to tourists expecting modern amenities. There are also many budget hotels just across the road from the railway station.
• How to get there
Buses like the Sapa Express (sapaexpress.com; from US$14) depart from Hanoi at 7am and arrive in Sapa at 1pm daily, using the Noi Bai — Lao Cai highway that opened in September 2014. Before the highway was built, a road trip to Sapa would entail a 10-hour journey on 370 kilometers of rutted road promising near-death experiences.
Another popular way to get to Sapa is by train, which departs nightly at about 9pm, arriving in Lao Cai at 5:30am the next morning. You can buy tickets (from US$36) at the Hanoi train station, from a travel agency or at most hotel front desks. When you disembark at Lao Cai, you can take the public bus (US$1.3) outside the station to Sapa. If you are good at haggling, you may also try the mini-buses or better still, get your hotel in Sapa to arrange for pick-up.
An alternative route would be from Kunming, Yunnan’s capital, by bus (150 yuan) to Hekou and then cross over to Lao Cai by taxi. In Lao Cai, you can catch the mini-bus (US$2.30) to Sapa at the main road.
• Tour guides
Unfortunately, there are far too many stories of tour operators in Hanoi ripping off unsuspecting tourists. You might do better to find a tour operator based in Sapa as they would know the local conditions better. Two of the recommended ones are: Ethos (www.ethosspirit.com) which positions itself as an “ethical social enterprise that strive to offer more than just tours” and Sapa Sisters (sapasisters.com) which is managed entirely by local Hmong women.
• When to go
The warmest months are between July and August with heavy rainfall, and the coldest months are December and January with occasional snow falls. At 1,600 meters above sea level, the average temperature in Sapa is between 15 degrees and 18 degrees Celsius, and one can sometimes experience four seasons in a day. For photographers, the best time to visit is during the rice-harvesting season around September.