Destinations

Sapa, Vietnam: Land of Spectacular Beauty and Fascinating Cultures

January 25, 2016
Sapa Valley, Vietnam

The astounding landscape of the Sapa region. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Vietnam’s Sapa region is a place of spectacular vistas and captivating cultures. Its lush valleys of cascading rice terraces and mountain peaks wrapped in clouds are stunning to behold. The area is populated by hill tribes, whose distinctive garb and customs offer a glimpse into their age-old cultures. With its natural beauty and intriguing communities, Sapa is a remarkable place to explore.

Visit Sapa

Sapa is 313 km northwest of Hanoi, near the border of China. Most visitors travel to Sapa from the capital via direct bus (5-7 hours, day and overnight service) or the popular sleeper train. If you’re visiting on a weekend or holiday, be sure to buy your tickets well in advance. Trains arrive in the city of Lao Cai, which is 38 km from Sapa. As you exit the train station, expect to be accosted by aggressive touts offering transfers to Sapa. They are “brokers,” who will quote a price exorbitantly higher than the going rate, escort you to a shuttle van, pay the driver the actual fare, and then pocket the rest (as I found out the hard way). The appropriate rate is 60,000 VND. You can avoid this hassle by taking the public bus, which runs every 30 minutes: 28,000 VND.

Sapa, Vietnam

Local kids in the Sapa Valley. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Trekking the Sapa Region

My time in the region was quite limited, so I was excited to explore it on Buffalo Tours’ Mountains and Rice Terraces in Sapa trek.

My adventure began early in the morning when my tour guide met me at my hotel. A local, he filled me in on the history and customs of the region as we began our trek. For centuries this fertile valley has been home to six ethic groups, including the Vietnamese, Hmong, Doa, Dzay and Xapho tribes. In the early 20th century the French established a colonial outpost, which was neglected through successive wars. But in the 1990s a new invader arrived – tourists. Now Sapa town is a bustling tourist hub, catering to hikers and Vietnamese weekenders. And the tourism boom may soon explode: an expensive cable car is being built to whisk visitors to the top of Fansipan, the nearby peak that is Vietnam’s highest. So hurry to Sapa before it is developed beyond recognition.

We hiked down the steep road from Sapa to the village of Cat Cat (nothing to do with felines – it is the Hmong dialect for “Cascade,” the French name for the site’s waterfall). Because it is a relatively easy trek from town, the village is tourist-focused, with vendors hawking handicrafts along the paths. There is a nominal fee to enter Cat Cat (40,000 VND/$1.80), which was included in my tour. Opposite the picturesque waterfall there is a small theater presenting Hmong music and folk dances. I was particularly fascinated by the dance enacting the local “Love Market.” Basically, after some initial flirtation a girl is kidnapped and taken to her suitor’s family home. After three days captivity she may leave (hopefully as his fiancé). Performances are offered on weekends, midday and evening, and are free – but be sure to leave a tip for the dancers and musicians.

Tonkinese Alps, Sapa, Vietnam

The “Tonkinese Alps” Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Leaving Cat Cat village (and the tourists), we trekked through a valley of rice paddies and fields. The undulating hills and curtain of cloud-shrouded mountains made for a stunning panorama. Along the way we encountered local kids returning from school. It was a treat to greet them (with linguistic coaching from my guide, who spoke fluent Hmong). He explained that some of these children journey 6 km to and from school daily – unless they’re needed on the family farm. I asked if tourism or technology was luring young people away from the villages. He explained that some folks travel to nearby Lao Cai for work, but most prefer to remain in their family homes. Given this spectacular setting and the amiable people, it seems a natural choice.

With this dazzling valley all to ourselves (except for a few locals), we continued on dirt trails through meadows, rice paddies and farms. Eventually our path led through a forested ravine (thankfully my guide pointed out the perilous drop to the gorge below) offering magnificent views of the “Tonkinese Alps.” After a brief rest along a riverbank, we continued to the village of Lao Chai.

It was now midday and I was relieved to stop for lunch, which was included in the tour. As we entered a rustic shack and climbed into its loft, I was uncertain about the meal. But we were served a feast of local specialties, freshly prepared and delicious. We devoured the delectable buffet while gazing at the scene of curvaceous hills and mountain peaks.

After a bit more trekking, we stopped for a hands-on lesson in the traditional Hmong art of Batik. I was welcomed into a home/workshop where my jovial teacher (with a bit of help from her toddler grandson) demonstrated the method of stamping fabric with decorative wax designs. The wax imprints create patterns and pictures when the fabric is later dyed. Her patience with my limited aptitude, warmth and big smile (I think I amused her…not intentionally) made for a fun lesson. As I left I was presented with my handiwork (?) as a souvenir. It was great to experience Hmong culture first-hand, and gratifying to know our visit supports local women and ensures the art form will continue.

Hmong Batik, Sapa, Vietnam

A fun lesson in the Hmong art of Batik. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Next came a truly magical encounter: I was taken into the home of the local shaman. Amongst her altars, images and spiritual objects, this 90-something year-old mystic provides the community with guidance, cures and protection from malignant spirits. It was thrilling to be in her powerful presence.

Shaman, Sapa, Vietnam

The mystical shaman of Lao Chai. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

As daylight began to wane, we continued the trek to our final destination, the village of Ta Van. This village, relatively large and developed, is the location of several homestay accommodations and had more tourist activity. Unlike the Hmong communities we’d visited, Ta Van is home to the Dzay tribe, who were dressed in brilliantly colored attire and headgear. My guide explained that the Dzay are particularly adept at commerce, which was evident by the many handicraft stands and tourism infrastructure.

After traipsing through Ta Van we rendezvoused with Buffalo Tour’s van and were driven back to Sapa. I was exhausted but exhilarated, having enjoyed a thrilling travel adventure.

Practical Advice for Hiking the Sapa Valley

Anyone planning to hike beyond the villages of Cat Cat or Ta Van should wear proper shoes – trails can be muddy with rocky and slippery surfaces. Hiking boots are best, but at least shoes that are comfortable for walking long distances, waterproof and have good traction.

You won’t be able to purchase drinking water along the trails, so be sure to carry plenty as well as sunscreen and a hat.

While it is possible to hike the Sapa region independently (simple maps can be obtained from the Sapa Tourism office), it can be challenging. The trails don’t have signposts or rocks with painted markings to direct you. Mobile phone service is unlikely, so GPS and online maps are not accessible.

Rice terraces, Sapa, Vietnam

The curvaceous rice terraces of the Sapa Valley. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

Among the reasons I loved my Mountains and Rice Terraces in Sapa tour is that I didn’t have to worry about directions or stressing over a wrong turn – I simply followed and took in the magnificent scenery. It was also great not to worry about expenses – entrance fees, lunch, the Batik lesson and bottled water were all included in the tour. Best of all, it was a treat to spend the day with an expert guide who knew the region intimately and who helped me connect with the fascinating locals.

In you are visiting Sapa on a weekend, I recommend joining Buffalo Tour’s Sunday tour to Bac Ha Market. They also offers a Sapa Remote Village Trek with Homestay for an intimate experience of the local cultures.

Buffalo Tours is a team of experts who customize journeys in 11 countries across Asia. They create multi-day and multi-country journeys, including an array of Vietnam tours. Their goal is “to connect people and cultures through extraordinary journeys.” This was certainly achieved during my fantastic day in Sapa.

While my tour was complimentary, all opinions are my own.

Sapa landscape, Vietnam

A mist settles on the Sapa Valley. Photo: Jeff Dobbins

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