Photos by Michelle Rae Uy
There’s a certain kind of tranquility that only mountain towns can inspire, and the market town of Sapa in Northern Vietnam is no exception. In this highland escape five hours (nine by train) from Hanoi, the landscape is greener, the air is cleaner, the rolling fog is thicker, and the stillness is quite palpable.
Cradled in the breathtaking Hoang Lien Son range amongst some of the country’s most dramatic rice terrace fields, Sapa in the province of Lao Cai is home to a number of ethnic groups, including the Black Hmong people. Over the years, it has also become a popular destination for tourists in search of culture and locals seeking a chilly respite from the blistering heat of the lowlands, as well as an ideal base for the occasional trekkers looking to reach Vietnam’s highest peak.
Here’s a quick guide to this mountain destination to start you off.
Where to Stay: Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa
There are twenty or more hotels in town, but leading that long list is Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa. This retreat within a retreat is perched atop a hill just right off Sapa’s busiest streets, which places guests ideally close to the town center’s attractions, including its bustling nighttime street food spot, the Holy Rosary Church, shops and local spa joints offering the cheapest massages, while still enjoying that quiet atmosphere Sapa is famous for.
The four-star, 77-room property flaunts idyllic French chalet style architecture; lovely views of the town and Sapa Lake; soothing gardens; and of course, upscale guestrooms each flourished with dark wood furniture, a private balcony, deluxe amenities and an exquisite bathroom. With rates starting at $127 a night, Victoria Sapa has four room categories—superior, deluxe, family studio and suite—and offers guests complimentary Wi-Fi, parking and a breakfast buffet.
What to Do:
Cat Cat Village
Cat Cat Village may come across as a tourist trap to the more experienced travelers; and in some ways, it is—most of the shops there, located along the trail, sell the same products, some of which are not handmade or even made locally. However, this mountainside attraction is still worthy of a stop if only to witness firsthand how the Black Hmong people craft their weavings and embroideries as well as relish the scenic hike through the countryside to see some of the rice terraces and meet domesticated water buffalos along the way.
It’s a moderately easy and leisurely hike to and through the village from Sapa, with a couple of steep yet short climbs coming back. While not necessary, a tour guide can offer valuable information about the ways and customs of the villagers as well as translate any questions visitors might have for them.
A sublime way to immerse in nature and unwind while in Sapa is to visit one (or all) of the three waterfalls nearby. Thac Bac Waterfalls (also Silver Falls, entrance fee at 20k Vietnamese dong), easily a short bike ride from Sapa, is perhaps the most famous with its beautiful cascades usually veiled in thin fog and the steps that lead visitors up to its midsection. Love Waterfall (admission at 70k Vietnamese dong), albeit smaller, is the crowd favorite thanks to its romantic setting, the stunning scenery its trail offers and the fact that visitors can swim in the pool at its base. Not enough time? Take the Cat Cat Village trail that loops past a smaller set of cascades. Here, visitors can take a break and sip on Vietnamese iced coffee while watching a cultural dance before heading back up to the village.
Lots of water, comfortable walking shoes, plenty of sunscreen and a big hat is necessary when hiking through Tavan Village, another must see sight during a Sapa visit. This is a longer and more demanding hike to be sure, but it’s one peppered with charming country views of rice terraces, a flowing river and the occasional farm animals underneath blue skies trimmed with puffy white clouds. Breathe in the sweeping landscape and the fresh air while rubbing elbows with the locals. During the trek, a quick stop at a small, local grocery store or a proper sit down for a cup of Café Sua will prove to be a nice, needed break whilst experiencing first hand the life in rural Vietnam.
As with Cat Cat Village, having a tour guide might be a great idea to learn more about the village and its inhabitants.
Back in Sapa, it’s hard to miss all those spa places offering massages. Not when there are so many of them and practically every single spot has girls touting their services to passers-by. While visitors won’t get that luxurious treatment many spas are known for, they can get a relaxing massage, a foot soak or a mani/pedi for a fraction of a price. Patrons can get a full body for $10 and even haggle a cheaper rate for additional services.
Prefer a more elegant experience? Victoria Sapa Resort and Spa offers such services in a more luxurious setting but at slightly higher rates.
Shopping opportunities abound in Sapa, from the town center where many shops and a number of Black Hmong women sell ethnic wares to nearby villages like Cat Cat. Still, Sapa Market is worth a visit, even if it’s a bit out of the way. Located on the outskirts of town just off of QL4D, this is the biggest market in town and draws as many locals as it does tourists. The market carries everything from fresh produce and meats to the handicrafts this area is famous for.
Bargaining may not be as welcome in other places, but it’s expected at this market as long as it’s done in a friendly way and with a smile. Saturday is its busiest, but the market is open every day.
Where to Eat: Lotus Restaurant
Don’t let its long and diverse menu turn you away from Lotus Restaurant. It only takes a sample of their egg rolls to know that this spot concocts amazing locally inspired dishes. The egg rolls and the pumpkin soup are fantastic starters, while the fried fish smothered in wine sauce; the grilled duck; and the beef steak with mushroom sauce are great to share with the group.