Was a bit surprised when a Vietnamese from Hanoi at a hotel up in Sapa was "badmouthing" the local Hmongs. Apparently there is an element of mistrust between the groups. It was said that the many of the hill tribes had sided with the French against the Vietnamese. But that was history.
Out of the over Vietnam's 70 million population, 6-7 millions are from over 54 ethnic groups.
Ethnic minority groups with members numbering upwards of 500,000 include the Tay (Tho), Tai (Thai), Hmong (Meo or Miao), Muong (Mol) and Nung.
If your schedule is possible, try to visit Sapa on weekdays when there are fewer tourists. On weekends, you will run into tourists who may outnumber the locals.
I went on a weekday and got all the attention of the local trying to sell me something.
It is nice to share the mountain air with less people.
Favorite thing: Most of the villages around Sapa is primarily villages of Black Hmong. You can go by guided tours to further villages of Red Hmong, Dao and other tribes. As security permission are required to be applied by the tour agents, try to arrange as soon upon arrival in Sapa or while in Hanoi. If you are travelling alone or in a small group, getting other fellow travellers to join will make it financially more viable for these longer trips to be arranged. An overnight stay in a traditional home may be a wonderful option.
I bought my Sapa train+van+hotel+tour package in Hanoi. I was shown pictures of a nice new hotel overlooking the valley. When I arrived at my hotel in Sapa, the only room left was a windowless room. I decided to protest and finally upgraded my room by paying more and got a fantastic large room with a balcony and wonderful valley view.
So be sure that when you pay for your package to specify that you want room with a balcony and a valley view. It is worth it.
If you want to take photographs of green lush rice fields, it is important you come at the right season. I was there in August, it was green and wonderful. Another friend went on a different time of the year and saw brown empty fields after harvest instead.
So check on the rice planting season if you have a choice of which month to go to Sapa.
Booking your trekking or market tours is much cheaper when you do it in Sapa itself rather than arrange it through a travel agent. You also have the luxury of comparing the various packages from the different operators. We did our day trek with the Mountain View hotel and we would highly recommend it - good value and excellent english-speaking guides.
You'll also have the advantage to look at the weather before deciding what package to take up.
Favorite thing: The train station in Lao Cai is quite small. As such, it gets very crowded just before the train departs, especially if there is more than one train departing. We were scheduled to depart on the 9:15pm train, and there was another one departing 15 minutes earlier. As such, there was a massive crowd and long queue of people jostling to get through the gate. If you are on the later train and have reserved seats, you can afford to wait and let the crowd clear first before making your way to the train station.
Favorite thing: We checked out from our hotel early in the morning to visit the Sunday market of Bac Ha. The tour ended in Lao Cai around 3-4 pm (there was no point in making the 45 minute journey up to Sapa as we were departing on the night train). With 6 hours to kill & grubby from the day out, our guide was kind enough to ask around on the rates at the various guesthouses near the train station. We were told that all the guesthouses had similar rooms, so we settled on the cheapest one - 50,000 dong (US$3) to stay till our train departed. Can't remember the name of the guesthouse, but it was one of those around the square, just opposite the train station. We were a lot more comfortable for the long train journey ahead after washing up and resting.