The town of Sapa, a hill station of the French colonial times, although touristy, forms the perfect base in Vietnam to trek in and enjoy the spectacular views of the valleys, rice terraces and mighty mountains, including Mt. Fansipan, the highest peak of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). For a large part of the year, the town seems to be in a misty cloud of white, but when the sun shines and it clears up, it becomes clear that the wait is worth it. I have been in Sapa for almost two weeks now, to volunteer with a wonderful organization called Sapa O’Chau, a trekking and homestay company which also runs a hostel for Black Hmong young adults and takes a keen interest in their education, development and ability to speak English. I had been waiting long enough (months!) to get here and after one very comfortable overnight train journey, I arrived in Lao Cai from Hanoi, to take the forty five minute minibus ride to Sapa.
Sapa is a small town with a serene lake, a tiny park where women of the Black Hmong hilltribe hang around pursuing tourists to buy trinkets, a church that overlooks a small stadium where locals and tourists are often seeing playing football when the town is not enveloped by fog. There is also a central square and the Sapa market where you can buy clothes, food, fruits, vegetables, some unbelievable backpacking gear(!) and souvenirs and handicrafts made locally by the Hmong and Dzao tribes that live in and around Sapa. In the daytime, the vibrant mix of colors from the traditional dresses of the Hmong and Dzao women and their handcrafted goods forms a pretty picture.
For a town of its size, Sapa has way too many hotels to suit any kind of budget really. You can have your own room with an electric blanket (a necessity in winter), hot shower and breakfast for as low as 6$. There are also many restaurants serving everything from Vietnamese food to pizza and pasta. It doesn’t matter if you’re vegetarian or if you don’t like local food, there are options aplenty for every taste and budget. Life pretty much slows down after dark and tourists and some expats head to bars such as The Hmong Sisters (quite popular with the expats) or The Mountain Bar.
Around Sapa are many villages such as Cat Cat and Lao Chai which are excellent for treks. Further away are villages such as Ta Phin and Lai Chau to which you can motorbike on beautiful winding roads and have your mind blown away by the surreal mountain views. You can see many other trekkers of all levels of expertise and there is no lack of hiking trails around Sapa, all you need is a clear day. There are many trekking companies that offer organized tours or you could rent a motorbike for as low as 4$ a day and set off on your own with a map. On popular trails, you will most likely be followed by local Hmong women who speak good English, offering to be your guides for a few thousand Dong. You can choose to trek on your own or enjoy their company as they offer you a sneak peek into the local culture and customs of the villages.
If you’re in Vietnam, I urge you to plan your trip so you can spend a few days in and around Sapa, trekking and experiencing a homestay in one of the local villages, or volunteering with one of the local organizations such as Sapa O’Chau or the Hoa Sua School which works to educate local disadvantaged youth. Sapa is perfect in so many ways, with easy access to Western world comforts because of all the tourism, but at the same time the stunning landscape highlights the distinct character of the place. Coming from a big city like Dubai, I simply adore the simplicity and slower pace of life here in Sapa. It will soon be time for me to say goodbye to this lovely town and its wonderful people and that is something I am not looking forward to.
Love from Sapa,