Just get out of town and follow any path you come across and you will meet hill tribe people busy with their business, whether it is collecting firewood, transporting their vegetables to market or children just playing you will be greeted wherever you go and will have some good photo opportunities. A day's hiking and you will really be rewarded in this beautiful picturesque area, not only with the hill tribes but the mountains too!
The centre promotes sustainable tourism development in and around Sapa.
Beside seeking information, you can book guides and arrange community based treks to the nearby H'mong village of Sin Chai. Overnight stay in the village to learn about their textiles, music and dance can be arranged too.
There is also a branch of Craft Link not-for-profit handicrafts.
Sapa market is the centre piece of Sapa town and not to be missed when you are there. The best time to visit in on a Saturday morning where you will see many colourful ethnic minority women here (it can be very crowded and overwhelming). The bottom floor of the market are for vegetables, meat etc and the top floor are for clothings, embroderies, souvenirs etc. Be careful and watch your belongings, and also learn how to handle the ethnic minority women approaching you to buy sounvenirs (some of them are rather aggressive, especially the Hmong people). More photos are at the travelogue section of this VT page.
Montagnards from surrounding villages don their best clothes and go to the market on most days. Saturday is the busiest day and the town is choking with tourists as the market is a big magnet for organised tour groups from Hanoi. If you want to enjoy Sapa at a more sedate pace, avoid the Saturday market.
The Sapa Church is a famous landmark at Sapa and is located near to the Sapa market. It is hard to imagine a church at this town and I think it is probably built by the French during the colonial times in Vietnam. During the evening on Saturdays, the men and women of the various ethnic minority tribes will gather here for courtship and looking for marriage. This event is supposed to be an attraction but the weather was simply too cold at the Saturday night when my wife and I were there, and we finally decided to take in our room and relax in the warmth instead :)
Cat Cat Village is the nearest ethnic minority village to Sapa and the people staying here are the Black Hmong people. It is a leisurely walk (about 20-30 minutes) down a sloped road and the scenery is very beautiful. Once you are at the village, you can visit the houses of the locals as well as buy souvenirs and handicrafts from them (remember to bargain). There are also a few scenic points for photo taking here with the beautiful landscape and rice terraces. After this village, you will reach the Cat Cat waterfalls (see my "waterfalls" tip).
Water buffalos play an important role in Sapa because they help to plough the rice fields as there are no modern machinery to do this type of work at Sapa. During your trek to the villages, you will have a chance to see water buffalos at work or grazing leisurely on the rice terraces.
The ethnic minority people of Sapa are self sufficient and they have their own vegetable farms. In fact, there are many of such farms just below the line of hotels at Sapa and you can see them at your room. During the trekking trip, you may pass by them or you could just explore them on your own.
Usually the trekking trips in Sapa will include one or more village house visit (some trips even allow you to stay overnight and mingle with the ethnic minority people). You will notice that the houses in the village are very simple and made mainly of wood. Most of them do not have electricity and the whole family lives in the small house. Food is also stored here and there are no doors seperating the kitchen. It is very basic and not very hygienic as the locals are still very poor. Besides the above, I also managed to see how the house owner (Hmong people) dye her clothes in a big bucket of indigo dye obtained from the Indigo plant (see photo).
There are several impressive waterfalls in the Sapa region, the best is the Silver Waterfall. However, it is rather far from Sapa and transportation is required to reach there. A much nearer waterfall (about 1 hour easy walk from Sapa) would be the Cat Cat Waterfall just after the Cat Cat village located near to Sapa. Very nice waterfall but rather touristy because of its close proximity to Sapa. The people of Sapa have use the waterfalls to generate electricity and you can see hydroelectric station next to the waterfall.
Mount Fansipan is the highest mountain in Vietnam at about 3100m above sea level, and it is also the highest mountain in the Indochina region. This mountain can be seen from Sapa on a clear day (see photos) and there are 5-6 days guide trips for the more adventurous people to climb this mountain. My trekking guide has climbed it many times and told me that it is not easy especially the final part to the summit. Also, the weather up there is unpredictable and sometimes the trips are cancelled because of the weather.
Besides the Hmong and Red Dzao who are the predominant ethnic minority groups at Sapa and surroundings, there are others such as the Tai people who are not so commonly spotted. I think this photo which I took shows a Tai woman.
The Red Dzao people are recognised by their beautiful and elaborate head dress, shaven head and eyebrows. They are less populated compared to the Hmong people and tend to me more shy. The best time to see the Red Dzao people is on a Saturday morning at the Sapa market. You will be many of them in big groups, as well as buying stuff from the market.
The Hmong people are the most populated of the ethnic minority groups at Sapa and surroundings. These people are the same as the Miao people in China, and they are mainly divided into the Black Hmong and Colour Hmong. You will see lots of Black Hmong people at Sapa and they are very skilled at selling souvenirs (in fact some of them speak good English). You will also get to visit their villages during trekking (Cat Cat Village near to Sapa belongs to the Black Hmong). For the Colour Hmong (which wears very colourful costumes), you will need to visit the markets of other villages such as Bac Ha (2-3 hours drive away). The Black Hmongs used the indigo dyes obtained from the indigo plants growing in the hills to dye their clothes, and use the hemp fibres to make various handicrafts.
One of the main attractions of Sapa are the beautiful rice terraces along the slopes of the hills and mountains. The rice harvesting usually happens around September and therefore the best months to visit would be in the middle of the year (it is also warmer but be prepared for many tourists). The best way to enjoy this is to do some trekking (see my tips under "Transportation Tip" section) but it will not be as easy as your think. Besides growing rice, the local people also grow vegetables and farm poulteries. It is generally self sufficient in Sapa and the surrounding areas.