Discovered by the French in the early decades of the 20th century, Sapa is a typical and lovely town in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains of northwestern Viet Nam. Hill tribes, such as the Dao, H'mong, Tay and Giay make up much of the town’s local population. Sapa’s naturally gifted beauty lies in shadows of mountain tops, casts of dense forest to great terraces and deep-green valleys. It is a perfect place from which to trek and explore the stunning mountainous scenes, with Fansipan, known as the ‘Roof of Indochina' not far away. That’s why Sapa is now firmly on the tourist map for European and North American trekking fans.
Views of this epic scenery are often overwhelmed by thick mist rolling across the peaks, but even if it’s foggy, the old French town is still charming, especially when local hill-tribe people illumine the town with colors and also well-equipped trekkers carrying lightweight walking sticks and wearing technical all-weather gear creates common scenery around town. French styled villas fell into disrepair during wars with the French, Americans and Chinese, but subsequently the rise of tourism, Sapa has experienced a renaissance. Adding more charm to the old town, the unique customs of the local residents bring tourists spectacular views of local life in highlands. Local markets create a typical cultural element, which is always crowded and joyful. The people here are very friendly and most of the young people are quite good at spoken English, French and a handful of other languages.
WHAT TO SEE
Silver Waterfall called Thac Bac in Vietnamese lies beside National Highway No 4D, about 12km from Sa Pa Town’s centre. The waterfall is very convenience to visit and majestic as its name. The falls are stunning in all weather condition and scenic for photography. Freshwater is flowing down from the Lo Sui Tong mountain peak in a torrent, looks like a river stream. From there you can see the stunning view of the surrounding mountains and the last forests belonging to Hoang Lien National Park.
Make sure you do not miss adventurous but lovely Rattan Bridge. Situated about 17km southeast of Sapa centre, the bridge over Muong Hoa river made from rattan is a pleasant and magnificent place. If you visit the bridge on misty days, you will feel like you are floating on clouds. The way that the bridge was made is very special. The Xo Dang and Gie Trieng Rattan ethnic minority peoples used rattan – an abundant material in the mountainous areas in Viet Nam – to create an environment-friendly sway bridge to connect the river banks. Each end of the bridge is skillfully tied between trees on either bank. The main frame of a rattan suspension bridge is made from two big rattans while smaller rattans are weaved into something like a hammock. Nowadays, it is rare to see a suspension rattan bridge. Only a few bridges like this still exist on the Annamite Range (so-called Truong Son in Vietnamese) and on the Northern Central Highlands. These days, simple suspension bridges though gradually disappearing, remain valuable to many in remote areas. They are still popular gathering places for villagers to enjoy the shade of the trees and socialize. Joining a trekking tour to Rattan Bridge, you will have chance to contemplate the stunning view of Muong Hoa valleys as well as have an insight understanding about the life of tribal peoples and pass by local houses of Red Dao.
Let’s take the trail uphill and pass through picturesque terraced rice paddies before heading to a lush green bamboo forest and a stunning silver waterfall. It takes half an hour to hike to delightful Giang Ta Chai. Giang Ta Chai is a Red Dao people’s village situated on the top of the hill that overlooks peaceful Muong Hoa River. When crossing another suspension bridge and walk uphill, you will reach charming Hau Thao Village. You encounter many H’mong and Dao women gathering here for trading and exchanging handicrafts. Seize your opportunities to feel the local life and culture that is impossible to experience in luxury resorts.
At the height of 3,143 meters, Fansipan is the highest mountain in Viet Nam and the entire Indochina. It is located in the Northeast region of Viet Nam, in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range and about 9 km southwest of Sapa town. Conquest of Indochina Roof is an interesting challenge for professional climbers as well as adventurous travelers. Fansipan is accessible all year round but the best time to climb Fansipan is from mid-October to mid-December as it is the driest time of a year. Besides, March is also a good time for the jaunt as wildflowers on the mountain are in full bloom. The terrain to the Fansipan peak is rugged and the weather is changeable. Do not attempt climbing up Fansipan in bad weather as the trail will be slippery and the visibility is limited. Professional hikers can conquer Fansipan in two days but normally, it takes three days to reach the peak.
You have to make sure you are healthy enough to endure the harsh mountain condition. No ropes or technical climbing skills are needed, but you must be sensibly equipped with walking boots, maps, compasses and warm clothing. During the adventure, you will have a chance to discover a marvelous world of the most diversified ecotourism spot of Viet Nam with 2,024 floral varieties and 327 faunal species. In addition, the exciting feeling when standing at “The roof of Indochina” and contemplating breathtaking landscapes from the mountain peak will be an incredible experience that you will never forget.
Ta Phin Village
A picturesque 30-minute drive from Sapa town brings you to the lively Ta Phin Village, nestled in a beautiful and pristine valley, around 15 kilometers in the northeast of Sapa. This is home to the Red Dao and Black Hmong people who are famous for their red headscarves and their handicraft skills. Set among lush rice paddies, the village is dotted with 20 small home communes. Along the mountainside nearby are some smaller communes hidden among plots of green vegetables and fields of corn.
Ta Phin Village is an ideal spot for trekking. Whether you wish to stay overnight in the village or just stop for a day, the local people will be happy to guide you around the village and surrounding countryside. Let’s set off on a trekking trip and explore the hill tribes’ fascinating culture and lifestyle. A common sight in the village is groups of Red Dao’s woman and the girls gathering together, gossiping and laughing, and focusing on their unfinished piece of embroidered cloth. The handmade brocades of the village are eye-catching with bright colors and patterns, ranging from bag, scarf, purse, to headband and skirts. Motifs on brocade are distinctively and sophistically decorated with various images of plants, birds, flowers, trees, etc which are familiar things with their daily life. The best time to visit Ta Phin is in the late afternoon so you will enjoy an unparalleled view of the sunset over the village and the whole surrounding areas.
Ta Van Village
Located about 10 kilometers from Sapa town, Ta Van Village is nested in the poetic Muong Hoa valley. It is home to the H’Mong ethnic, Giay, and Red Dao… with approximately 1000 people. The main road to Ta Van village is small and narrow. Along two sides of the road are lush rice terraces adorned with the fields of ripe corn. Visitors have a chance to explore the long-established and unique history, culture and lifestyle of the Giay minority. Traditionally the Giay were fisher people. They used to fish with bamboo sticks, cook fishes inside the bamboo and still build their villages near streams. Ta Van village is also a popular stop for those who would like to experience an overnight homestay with a family of Giay people here, share dinner with them and understand more about the simple but happy and amiable life of ethnic people.
Cat Cat Village
A 45-minute walk brings you to Cat Cat Village, lying in the Muong Hoa Valley, about 3 km from Sapa town, home to the H’Mong hill tribe. You have a glimpse into the daily life of the H’Mong people, especially Black H’Mong, as well as participate in traditional activities such as weaving fabric. H’mong women sit in front of the loom and make colorful pieces of brocade, while children play around with pets or even livestock. Traditional costumes are made from wild silk with superb quality and embroidered with beautiful patterns of flowers and animals. The colors are also created by natural pigments such as tea leaves, turmeric, indigo…. In addition, many residents in Cat Cat are skillful at making gold and silver jewelry.
Ban Ho Village
Located at the end of the motorway about 25 km from Sapa town, Ban Ho Village is home to the Tay ethnic minority. The Tay people possess highly-developed rice farming techniques and live their sedentary lifestyle. Their villages are very large with hundred households. They built their houses on stilts, which form superb dwellings. It is an ideal spot for experiencing homestay. You have a chance to go swimming in hot water pool or cold water stream, do some sightseeing or learn how to make traditional handmade woven fabric and participate in community activities. Since the climate in Ban Ho is warmer than Sapa (the average temperature is between 18-250C), in the afternoon, you can enjoy yourself in the stream Lave and Da Nhay waterfall. The Muong Hoa River winds its way around the village, making this place so romantic. Locals are friendly and the atmosphere is cozy and lively.
Sin Chai Village
Located at the foot of Fansipan Mountain, about 30 kilometers trekking from Sapa town, Sin Chai village is home to the Red Dao ethnic people. The Red Dao women are expert embroiderers and this talent is passed down from mother to daughter, from a very young age. They wear traditional costumes beautifully embroidered with distinctive silver pieces of jewelry and a big red turban. The men typically wear a short shirt with long trousers, and a head-scarf. All of them are busy all day with the work in the paddy fields, the daily household chores and the making of their costumes. Let’s take a short trek to Sin Chai and experience the true culture of the Red Dao. Although locals have a hard life, they are very friendly and always willing to teach you about textile weaving and dying. You have a chance to participate in community events, such as traditional sports activities and tree planting.
Lao Chai Village
Located about 6 km from Sapa town, Lao Chai village is home to the black H’mong people. Just follow the main road for about 8 km, and then you’ll see a path down the valley to the right which will lead you to Lao Chai Village. The village is backed by high mountain ranges and situated near Muong Hoa river. Here you will enjoy the best panoramic view of rice terraces and streams and explore three large villages with over 100 families of the Black H’mong ethnic. Ethnic people in Viet Nam are very hospitable and friendly. Going around any village, you will easily make friends and have the chance to learn about local culture and customs.
The Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range
The Hoang Lien Son Mountain Range is home to a wide variety of habitat types: plants, birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects, many only found in northwestern Viet Nam. For this reason, the Hoang Lien National Park was established since 2006. It contains temperate and sub-temperate forests which cover the Hoang Lien mountain range. The lowest point is 380 m but most of the park is situated above 1,000 m. The flanks of the Hoang Lien mountain range are very steep and it is difficult to get access to most of the park by foot. Situated between Fansipan Mountain and Sapa town, Muong Hoa valley is one of the most beautiful landmarks and the largest farmland in Sapa, where the land exploitation and rice cultivation has been maintained from generation to generation over hundreds of years. Along the path, the stunning views over steep valleys dotted with village homesteads and the immense terraced fields on the nearly vertical hills provide photographic opportunities.
Muong Hum Market
Located about 45 km from north-western Lao Cai Town, passing over the complex of Muong Vi caves and grottoes and Xeo village, the Muong Hum market still remains intact. The market meets on every Sunday. Visitors are warmly welcomed and invited to have a meal and a cup of wine. On Tet holidays and other traditional festivals, all families in Muong Hum village often gather together and enjoy a typical meal with salted vegetable, duck, pork or dry buffalo meat and beef with cabbage. The town is packed with the noise of humans and horses and colored by spectacular traditional costumes dressed by local people.. Much more can speak about Muong Hum market. The bustling town of Muong Hum features its own unique cultural presentation of this ancient tradition.
Muong Hoa Valley
Hoa stream flows along the Muong Hoa valley, extends throughout the Lao Chai, Ta Van, Hau Thao,… Along the mountains are strange carved stones, spreading over 4 kilometers length, 2 kilometers width with at least 159 stones. This place was researched by scientists of Viet Nam, Russia, France, Australia, etc. Both populations of ancient stones with beautiful carving are located in Ban Pho. The big stones have many different sculptures on the surface. Especially, there have various postures and 11 motifs strange shape. Most scientists evaluated that this area is a great heritage of mankind. They found out many similarities with the Dong Son culture, which has dated back to 2300 - 3000 years. The mysterious graphics of the Sapa’s ancient stones could be the works of many ethnic groups living in different ages. They draw a primitive picture or sophisticated picture to express many different believes and cultures. They can be either Dao or Mong. On the main road leading to Muong Hoa valley, tourist will have opportunities to take photos and behold Sapa’s views. This valley also has the most beautiful terraced fields of Sapa. Crossing the suspension bridge, you will be able to visit the village of weaving and dyeing cloth of the Hmong and exploring Muong Hoa valley. Exploring the magnificent Muong Hoa valley to enjoy its breathtaking landscapes, you will also paying a visit to small and isolated hamlets and villages meet the Black H’mong, Zay and Red Zao at home and at work.
Every year on Dragon’s first lunar month, in Ta Van commune of Sapa district, there is a festival to welcome a new year and a bumper harvest. The Giay, H’mong, Dao ethnic… and a large number of tourists come here, which makes Muong Hoa valley becomes more vibrant and colorful. Previously, Ta Van Giay was called Roong Pooc festival. Although it was originaly the traditional festival of Ta Van ethnic, now it has become the festival of the whole valley of Muong Hoa.
WHAT TO EAT
After long hours of trekking in Sapa, the first thing you worry about could be a place to grab lunch or dinner. Do not worry because meals can be served at local families with fresh ingredients or you can find many delicious Western and Vietnamese traditional food at restaurants along Cau May St. and Fanxipan St. The majority of the food is from the local farms.You can enjoy a healthy meal with sweet potato, rice, corn, beans and other types of vegetables. There are many different ethnic groups in Sapa, and each of them has its own cuisine. You should try roasted pig meat, roasted freshwater fishes caught in local streams like Muong Hoa and Muong Tien, Sapa salmon of Finland and Russian origin raised locally.
Pigs are raised by local minorities. The pig is free to find its own foods. So, the maximum weight it can reach is 10 kg. However, its meat is lean and tasty. The local pork is really delicious and has its own flavors of Sapa. Place to eat: Muong Hum, Sin Cheng, Bac Ha market.
Sapa salmon hotpot
The Sapa salmons are less cholesterol and lean. Hotpot is a popular way of cooking salmon in cold weather.
Place to eat: Lotus Sapa – 34 Cau May/Hoa Dao – 48 Le Van Tam
Sweet and tasty are two adjectives using to describe this food. The fertile land of Sapa is suitable for growing all kinds of vegetables and mushrooms. Therefore, travelers may add more green to their meal by enjoying the very fresh specialty of Sapa. Place to eat: Red Dao restaurant – 4B Thac Bac
Nutritious and delicious. Silkie chicken is raised exactly the same way to the pig. Therefore, it contains less cholesterol. It is also said that your trip would not be perfect without trying this food. Place to eat: Sapa Cuisine – 17 Xuan Vien
WHAT TO BUY
Are you finding something to remind of Sapa – a wildly beautiful area where you gain great trekking experience while discovering the rich culture of ethnic minorities groups or you just try to find something special for your beloved ones? Read suggestions below and you will totally find it useful.
Carefully made by the local minority people in a long period of time with unique material and gorgeous embroidery patterns, there is a wide range of brocade goods for you to choose: brocade clothes, bowler hats, scarves, shoulder bags, purses or bracelets with colorful motifs… Besides, necklaces, earrings, rings, chain which all ethnic women wear are also a good choice if you want to give your friends a unique gift from this beautiful northern area.
With the favorable climate, Sapa has been well known for its special local fruits that can only be found in the temperate zone such as peach. Peach is organically grown not only in the garden of the locals but also on mountainsides and forests. Covered by a thin layer of white powder, with a sour, sweet and a little bit acrid taste, peach is totally the best choice if you plan to bring Sapa taste back home.
Wild Orchid Shop
You can find a wide range of handicrafts in this small shop with colorful and interesting paintings about the daily life of minority people hanging on the wall. One special thing about Wild Orchid is that its owner is the designer of all styles of minority people’s costumes, specializing in Hmong and Dzao people. Location: 29 Cau May Street.
Run by Tanh - a local Hmong minority and her Japanese expat husband, Indigo offers simple, modern takes on traditional ethnic clothing. Clothes are dyed by natural vegetable dyes (which ensure colors won’t fade when thrown in the washing machine) & sewed, embroidered by local disadvantaged workers. Location: 9 Muong Hoa Street, or you can buy Indigo things in Victoria Sapa Hotel gift shop.
Specialized in handcrafted silver jewelry, Sapa Silver offers a special opportunity that you can actually watch the silversmith named Duc Khanh at work making the glittering pieces of splendid silver jewelry. You can choose your things from a good selection of silver jewelry: earrings, necklaces, bracelets and everything of that kind with highly competitive prices. Location: 19 Muong Hoa Street.