So many people told us about the natural beauty that fills the rolling green hills of Sapa in Vietnam. So much so that it became our first stop once we had crossed the border from Laos. The frontier town is best known as a base for homestays with indigenous families and trekking tours to Fansipan Peak.
We very much enjoyed our time here, so much so that “a few days” quickly became a week. There are, however, a few things that we wished all those story spinning travellers had told us about before we got there. Hard learned lessons if you will. So we decided to pass them on to you.
So without further ado here are our six simple suggestions for a successful stay in Sapa. Try saying that three times fast.
Touty Tourist Town:
The very first thing you should know about Sapa town is that the main reason anyone goes there is as a jumping off point for Trekking in the surrounding countryside. This, unfortunately, means that it is very tourist oriented and full of touts all trying to get you to sign up to their trekking tours or homestays. Everyone here is selling something.
Even more so than the rest of the country, the touts here are relentless. If you make eye contact they will follow you down the street and hound you. A polite smile and nod will not be enough to dissuade these haggling head melts; you will need to be firm but polite and just say NO. Particularly with the indigenous women who sell souvenirs and knickknacks.
Try to avoid the Irish mistake of saying “maybe later”, unless you want to walk out of your guesthouse hours later to find you have entered into an awkward verbal contract with one of these stubborn salespeople and they’re standing outside waiting for you to pay up. (We’ve actually heard stories of this happening!!).
The Journey of a Thousand Steps:
Actually getting from Sapa to the surrounding countryside is a bit of a nightmare. We were distraught to find there’s no public transport or DIY route.
You could rent a moped and drive up just bear in mind that the road is bad, I mean REALLY bad. Like its more pothole than road, we definitely don’t recommend this unless you are an experienced rider with little luggage. Whatever way you go you’ll be expected to pay a toll (more on this next) when you leave Sapa and head out into the trekking areas.
You can book a taxi/car for 250,000 – 300,000 VND (€9.50 – €11.40), but if you book through a guesthouse in Sapa town (They ALL have someone that can take you) you can negotiate a fixed rate and make sure the tolls are included.
(Not) Paying The Piper:
If you are opting for the DIY route of any kind, you will be expected to pay a 75,000 VND (€3) toll per person just for the privilege of leaving Sapa town and heading into the mountains to trek. Although this is slated to be an “official government tax”, it seems you don’t have to pay it.
I mean, we negotiated with a taxi driver and got him down to 300,000 VND for the trip up to our homestay and when we double checked that this included the toll he said “oh I’ll just take the local road… there’s no toll”. So make sure that the price you’re given is both 1: for the journey and NOT per person, and 2: The total price including any tolls etc.
The mountains are remote. Remote and residential. So don’t expect to be spoiled for choice when it comes to eating.
In fact, you will be dependent on your homestay for food. If your trekking package doesn’t include meals we would highly recommend getting yourself a homestay with a kitchen and bringing some food with you.
Some of the homestays on booking.com include breakfast and have restaurant facility, although the food will be more expensive (as there’s no competition).
We stayed at the Hmong Stilt House and offered to chuck them a few quid for the gas and they let us use the kitchen and we brought some rice and veggies (and LOADS of snacks) with us. Although we totally suggest you sit in on a big family dinner if you get the chance, we paid 80,000 VND (€3) each and I cannot remember the last time I saw that much food in one place!!
Guide, What Guide?:
You don’t need a guide. Plain and simple. If you’re paying for one of the 3 day 2 night treks to the Fansipan peak, then yes we can see the point in getting a local guide who knows the terrain and the conditions to take you up, but if you plan on doing some of the local trails through the paddies and up into the local villages all you need is water and maps.me.
We trekked for I don’t know how many hours solo in the mountains and yes we got lost, but a friendly local soon put us back on the right track. They are all super nice and most speak great English because of all the gringos!
Timing Is Everything:
As a rule of thumb, the best times to visit Sapa are March to May, when you will find glorious warm dry weather, perfect for trekking, or September to early December when the cool dry weather is ideal for trekking also.
What we will say is if you love to take photos, or are chasing that typical lush green rice terrace panorama, which we highly suggest you do, then you should go in September. This is prime rice terrace time, you’ll find beautiful green hills dashed with a hint of gold as the rice reaches the maturest point just before its harvested and this will increase the wow factor of any views (or photos).
So there you have it. We hope these tips are as helpful to you as they would have been to us. Other than that, all we can say is if you’re thinking of going, just do it. Don’t be a Sapa!!
As always if there’s anything we missed or you don’t agree with or your bored and want to chat please feel free to comment or send a mail, text, carrier pigeon, smoke signals, anything. Just let us know you’re ok. Until then…
Happy travels TUG x
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